Despite the familiarity, the well worn clichés and the jaded inevitability of the umpteenth local derby between the Munster powerhouses, there is still a sense of a great leap in the dark about tomorrow’s latest chapter in the Kerry-Cork rivalry.
One of the many interesting subplots is that there seems to be a sizeable contingent on both teams with little or no experience of Munster final day in Killarney.
Should Ken O’Halloran, Damien Cahalane, James Loughrey, Tomás Clancy, John O’Rourke and Brian Hurley all take the field for Cork and Mark Griffin, Peter Crowley, Johnny Buckley and James O’Donoghue start for Kerry the novelty factor will be as high as it’s been for many a July afternoon.
Cork’s recent track record with team selections suggests their line-up should be taken with a grain of salt and while Kerry have avoided such mind games up to now, their rushed team announcement during the week has all but the denizens of Guantanamo, as one Baile Mhúirne wit renamed Fitzgerald Stadium lately, perplexed.
Not only are we merely speculating upon and second guessing the intentions of those in charge of both teams, now we just don’t know what we don’t know anymore.
This much we do know: Both teams want to win because the snake pit of a Round 4 qualifier is something both could well do without. We know also that a shoot-out is about as likely as an appearance by Boris Johnson in Castlebar in a fortnight’s time. We know Marty Duffy is going to be extra sensitive to technicalities after last weekend in Clones. And we know too we’ll have a far clearer picture by 3:30pm tomorrow as to where either team stands in this pecking order we’ve been obsessing about so much lately.
All else is uncertainty and anticipation.
Will Aidan Walsh, Cork’s best player since their All-Ireland win of three seasons ago start at midfield tomorrow? There are so many rumours about Graham Canty and Pearse O’Neill not starting there that Johnny Buckley and Anthony Maher could be forgiven for feeling like men going on blind dates.
But it is James Loughrey who will have the most important appointment of all if, as anticipated, he picks up Colm Cooper.
I have been curious about Loughrey since he first came to prominence four years ago for Antrim. His clubmate, Joe Brolly, informed us back then that Loughrey held the record for six of the nine standardised specialised tests at SINI (Sports Institute of Northern Ireland) as part of their elite athletes’ scheme. These tests included impact strength, turning speed, vertical jump, endurance running (bleep test) and acceleration. His performances, we were told, were simply astonishing, and it came as no surprise later that year in Tullamore to see Loughrey cause endless concern from wing-back for the Kerry defence.
If he were detailed to pick up Cooper tomorrow, will he be expected to curb his natural instincts or, if given guaranteed protection from the likes of Canty and Walsh, will he have licence to present the new Kerry centre-forward with the first genuine dilemma of his fledgling career on the 40? Does he stay or does he go?
When Cooper was handed the number 11 jersey earlier this year, the doubters suggested it was all well and good having such a creative force pulling the strings but that the plan would become unstuck if he encountered someone like Karl Lacey, a creative force in his own right, a player capable of inflicting maximum damage on the counter attack. We might just get our answer to that conundrum if Loughrey trots over towards the Gooch at 2pm tomorrow.
The sportswriter, David Miller, once described the great Dutch player, Johann Cruyff, as “Pythagoras in boots” because of his uncanny awareness of space and dimension, his ability to disorientate markers and his innate understanding of the geometry of a soccer pitch. In releasing Cooper from the confines of right corner-forward, Kerry feel they will get the most out of a talent that was in danger of becoming suffocated by the modern obsession with closing down space.
Cruyff himself said that “football is simple, but the hardest thing there is, is to play simple football” and perhaps with Cooper finally unshackled, the game will be wrestled away once more from those who believe all good play to be systemic, programmed and programmable. The Dr Crokes man is one of the few players capable of illuminating championship 2013 with those moments of genius that can still make the game something beautiful to behold. That alone should be enough to justify his positioning on the 40.
It is perhaps ironic that the player to benefit most from Cooper’s relocation, Kieran Donaghy, won’t be starting in the biggest game of the year so far for Kerry. Cooper and Donaghy were both architect and executor of the only good score from play between the sides in their last league encounter in March and their understanding seemed to hold genuine promise. We got an indication earlier this year when things were going pear-shaped in the league for Kerry that their backroom team are almost unflappable in the face of public unease and the omission of Donaghy is reflective of the conviction they seem to have in an alternative plan.
There was always a sense with Donaghy at the edge of the square, that Kerry had to play a particular way. Not having the big man as the first option for those in possession out the field makes Kerry harder to second guess in that both O’Sullivans and James O’Donoghue’s runs are more frequent and more explosive. However, it still removes the crutch that the likes of Tomás Ó Sé, Paul Galvin and Darran O’Sullivan in particular fall back on when pressurised outfield.
Much could, of course, depend on whether Cork decide to start their best kicker, Ciarán Sheehan, in place of either O’Rourke or Goold. A shake up in the half-forward line is possible but the likelihood of them radically overhauling their half-back line is low. Loughrey has become invaluable in a very short space of time to the Cork cause, Tomás Clancy has done enough in league and championship to warrant inclusion and Paudie Kissane has some fond memories of his match-up with Donnchadh Walsh in Killarney a few years back.
It is unthinkable that Cork would go short on kickouts after the first-half fiasco of two years ago in Killarney where once they adjusted, they dominated the skies and very nearly went on to win the match on the possession Alan O’Connor and Pearse O’Neill won for them from more orthodox kickouts.
The winning of this game for Kerry is in keeping the Cork half-back line on the back foot. The winning of the game for Cork is the hope they can test a largely unproven full-back line. Kerry’s selection is an indication Eamon Fitzmaurice has decided that being adaptable is the best way to overcome the challenges posed by modern defensive formations. Sticking rigidly to single game plan is not enough and imitation will only get you so far. Cooper has the unique skill set to give Kerry the adaptability they crave. He has the intelligence, vision, range of passing and appreciation of time and space to become Kerry’s ‘Pythagoras in boots’.
It’s up to Cork to try and figure him out. The suspicion here is that Cooper will keep them guessing long enough for Kerry to disappear through the front door.