It is of course Brian McIver’s prerogative to select who he wishes to give game time to for the final round and, if I were in his shoes, I would be doing the same thing in giving a decent run out to fringe players and finding out exactly what they’re made of before they face a league semi and, more importantly, a rejuvenated Donegal in championship in seven weeks time.
Mayo’s likely win in Castlebar means only the Tyrone v Dublin game in Omagh is of any meaningful value in terms of qualification for the league semis but it would be a mistake to view the Kerry’s clash with Cork in Tralee as a dead rubber. Even though, having qualified last weekend, he had the same option of experimentation available to him as Brian McIver had, Cork manager Brian Cuthbert has selected a team still just about capable of beating Kerry tomorrow.
The placing of James Loughrey, Patrick Kelly and Damien Cahalane in the half back line is the most noteworthy aspect of the Cork selection. It is a decent mix of grunt and guile and all three are comfortable ball players who appear to reinforce the belief Cuthbert and his management group are looking for not just players in key positions who can pass the ball but players who can actually see the pass too.
For all their obvious qualities, great Cork servants in half back lines of the recent past such as Noel O’Leary and Paudie Kissane, weren’t always the best players to unlock a defence with a good foot pass. In deference to both, the game as played until recently didn’t require those qualities but, now with the dawn of the black card, getting the ball into the danger area is more of a priority.
Although the obvious trade off is that teams will turn the ball over that bit more, Cork, under Cuthbert, appear to have embraced the notion you have to speculate to accumulate these days.
Having clever ball players at numbers 5-7 lessens the speculation and given Cork have accumulated 9-97 in their six games thus far, it’s a ploy they are likely to stick with. Whether or not Patrick Kelly becomes a viable long term option in the central position will hardly depend on the outcome of his tussle with Dáithí Casey tomorrow but at least he’ll be coming up against a player with a point to prove having being on and off and on again for Kerry during this spring campaign.
The other curiosity on the Cork team sheet tomorrow is of course numbers 23-26 on the match programme. If this were a do or die game for Cork, I’ve no doubt Daniel Goulding, Paul Kerrigan, Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill would be starting and notwithstanding Alan Cadogan’s form with the U21’s, the preferred full-forward line for Cork’s championship season is likely to be Goulding, Hurley and O’Neill.
Due to a number of factors Cork supporters have been denied the chance of seeing these three wreaking havoc together on big days, but,barring mishaps and loss of form, those same supporters must be giddy with anticipation as summer approaches and the sod hardens.
Monaghan’s Dick Clerkin spoke on the radio during the week about how their recent regeneration was piloted not by the veterans on the panel such as Clerkin himself, Vincent Corey, Paul Finlay or Stephen Gollogly, but rather by the core group of players in their early to mid-20s such as Colin Walshe, Drew Wylie and the Hughes brothers. If Cork’s recent patch proves more than another false dawn it will be the likes of Hurley and O’Neill, along with Cahalane, Cadogan, Collins and Walsh who will become the core personalities fulfilling supporter expectations.
Kerry, too, are a work in progress although they’ve recovered impressively from their, by now, customary poor start. It must be remembered their three wins in a row came against a woefully inept Tyrone and doomed Kildare and Westmeath teams. Tomorrow’s game represents their last chance before June 22 to road test a few moves against decent opposition.
At this time of year the sod in Austin Stack Park tends to be deceiving. Coming towards the end of spring and given a couple of dry days it will look impressive but my recollection of playing on it at this time of year was of a pitch that played a lot more slowly than most other league grounds and of being constantly warned not to bounce the ball. Hardly ideal conditions for Kerry’s form players James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney but a welcome test of nerve and staying power for both nonetheless.
Since Colm Cooper’s unfortunate injury, O’Donoghue has caught fire like few could have anticipated. Rather than eing burdened by it, he has flourished under the added responsibility and apart from Derry’s Mark Lynch, O’Donoghue has been the standout player in the country since early February. The final attribute he needs to add to his game is a relish for tackling as opposed to the reluctance he can sometimes show.
That too will come as fitness levels increase.
Because of a nagging back injury Geaney’s progress to the senior ranks has been hindered and only now are followers of the game beginning to see what those in West Kerry have known for some time. Geaney is a forward who has that essential instinct for scores that some players numbered 10-15 can lack. He doesn’t get discouraged by quiet periods of down time during a game and has the patience and self belief to bide his time before doing what he does more naturally than any forward in Kerry — scoring goals.
There are certain forwards that believe that every day they go out, they can hit the net and because he keeps himself dangerous at all times and doesn’t carry baggage, Geaney is one of those. Like many of the starting 12 forwards on both sides tomorrow, Geaney is far from assured of his place on the team and given the mathematics and unfavourable permutations, that is probably what will bring the Kerry supporters to Tralee in good numbers. I expect Kerry to win tomorrow and all of us who were present a year and a fortnight ago for the corresponding slugfest in Tralee can expect a better game too. It won’t be enough though and Kerry will have good cause to rue not just Brian McIver’s selection for Castlebar tomorrow but his team’s performance in Killarney in Round 2 when Derry beat Kerry for the first time in 21 years at home. Such are the vagaries of the league!