Those awkward steps, the 10-yard transition from Páirc Ui Chaoimh’s old dressing room across the no-man’s land of a teeming tunnel to the relative sanctuary of the pitch was one of those thrillingly visceral experience you remember easiest when playing days are over.
You were never accosted physically, but stony-faced reminders that this was Cork, that you better mind your step, were never far beneath the surface. Con Houlihan once wrote how you should never comment on a crocodile’s crooked teeth until you’ve crossed the river. He might have been looking down the tunnel at a Munster final in Cork when he penned it.
Intriguing subplots are in abundance at the redeveloped Páirc this evening but the key one in many respects is the ambition of Cork and those supporters.
What will the crowd be? Will Cork fans keep their money in their pockets for what they perceive as the better bet in the hurling final on Sunday week? Are they waiting for the players to lure them back; do the players need vocal support to get them through this awkward phase of their regeneration?
Conventional wisdom indicates that Kerry are going to win and that Cork will be game, mainly because they have a free shot and nothing to lose in their own stadium. Even the most demanding supporter recognises they are still in the initial phase of a substantial rebuild under Ronan McCarthy. So what does all that do to the respective mindsets of the Cork and Kerry squads?
Cork are 7/2 with the bookies but I wouldn’t back them. I was never involved with Kerry in a Munster final in Páirc Ui Chaoimh where Cork were that friendless in the market. The message is clear: Being competitive and getting within two or three points of Kerry represents progress for McCarthy and Cork. Victory is not realistic.
The danger in that for Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s players is obvious. If someone is coming at you without the dead weight of expectation, they can soar or sink. And there were signs in Thurles against Tipp that Cork have a surge in them again. Cork supporters aren’t sure of many things at the moment, but they’re fairly certain things couldn’t get much worse for the footballers. And while they don’t know for sure what they’re getting tonight, they recognise Ronan McCarthy needs time. So, there’s a bit of a free pass for the players.
Initial evidence suggests McCarthy is methodical but uncomplicated in his approach. The expectation is that, like Thurles, he will set Cork up to defend aggressively and with discipline and break at speed via the likes of Sean White, Tomas Clancy, Ian Maguire, and Ruairi Deane. It’s all very logical, of course, but I agree with Paddy Kelly in Friday’s Examiner: If that means they concede short possession off Kerry kickouts this evening, Cork are writing their own funeral speech.
Let’s tease this out: Cork shouldn’t, and won’t, mark Kerry’s six forwards straight up. The match-ups don’t stack for McCarthy defensively: they are going in with a pair of rookie defenders in Sam Ryan and Kevin Flahive, and Kevin Crowley, talented as he is, is still a championship novice. They will make up for inexperience with volume. Sean White will drop in behind midfield, John O’Rourke could also offer protection and close off space. But I’d be going after Kerry’s kickouts if Ronan McCarthy wants to have enough ball to be properly competitive tonight. If you are giving Kerry 60% of possession, they are going to beat you, and they might give you a trimming in the process.
Cork might concede short to Shane Murphy’s kickouts and organise themselves in their own half, but that’s the mistake. They will look to be ultra-efficient on the break and hang in, keeping it tight down to the last 10 or 12 minutes. But that underplays the obvious edge Cork has over Kerry, which is their power, size, and athleticism in the middle third, provided by Deane, Walsh, and Maguire.
Kerry could be vulnerable to full kickouts in the middle third match-ups with Paul Murphy, Gavin White, Stephen O’Brien, and Michael Burns in the wider channels. They will all feel more comfortable chasing the Cork kick-outs, as they did so effectively against Clare in the semi-final. For those who weren’t in Killarney, Kerry pushed up 12 of their 14 outfield players in a roll-the-dice type of high-press strategy. It was something they will use in different matches at different stages of the summer because it is not something you can drop into an All-Ireland semi-final not having road-tested it along the way.
Video analysis has already advertised it all to any county who didn’t have someone in Killarney, but Fitzmaurice was happy to give it a live examination and have it in the bank. The aim is to squeeze the life out of the opposition, force that keeper to drive it long. If Kerry have to push four players up into that full-forward line to make sure the opposition don’t go short, they seem happy to do so. But against Cork, the risk is self-evident. Remember the Michael Quinlivan goal for Tipp in Armagh that sealed promotion from Division 3 a year ago? One long kickout got a flick and took out what was left of a porous Armagh defence. Goal, game over, promotion denied for Armagh.
Clare won some long kickouts in Killarney, but didn’t have the know how or skillset to put it in quickly, to transition ball to areas where Kerry were vulnerable and left one defender against one forward. Cork’s trump card is across the middle third. They can cause problems and are capable of winning primary possession off their kick-outs.
Kerry’s attack was nice and buzzy against Clare, and what was encouraging was the cohesion — one of the hangovers to be addressed from the nightmare of last year’s semi-final exit. Burns, Sean O’Shea, and Clifford all worked off the same page, the initial chemistry was good and they worked the ball really intelligently. ‘I could have a pop here, but actually he’s in a better position, let’s make sure we score by giving him the ball’. That sort of thing. They created little by way of goal chances, but they never looked to penetrate. If the point was on, Kerry kicked it over the bar. It’s not a concern. Geaney will sniff a goal, James O’Donoghue has that mentality as well.
I watched the game from the terrace with the Crokes lads and we were all impressed with Clare corner-back Gordon Kelly, who did well on David Clifford. The Kerry corner forward found it difficult to find space his power would have afforded him as a minor. But the management, which includes Mikey Sheehy and Maurice Fitzgerald remember, will be quietly happy with such a low key debut.
Brian O Beaglaoich starts tonight. The Kerry full back line has worried me for some time, I’ve said that here and elsewhere. Ultimately you are relying on two rookie defenders and an anchor in Peter Crowley who had never played a championship game at full back until Clare. There are people in Kerry, blinkered people, who suggest the backline has settled itself down. I completely disagree with that. That reminds me of the lad I met buying my paper the morning after the Clare win. ‘We’ll win it out, Gooch’. Delusional stuff. In Kerry, it’s all duck or no dinner.
Kerry is one of a number of counties which no longer do the edge-of-the-square full back. Few do, in fact. The days of a Darren Fay are well gone. Successive managers have always gone the horses for courses road, whether it be Mike McCarthy, Tom O’Sullivan or Marc O Se. They knew what job they were getting for the day. And if you go that road, then you have to have the personnel to go man v man. My concern is the man-marker options are not really there for Kerry and their strength in depth in the full back line is questionable.
No-one, least of all Ronan McCarthy, has forgot either the problems Kerry had last season and in the league this year when teams ran hard at them. Clare offered nothing to scrutinise the remedial work done in that area, but if you recall last year’s Munster final in Killarney, though Kerry won pulling up, there were a couple of instances — Ian Maguire being one — where Cork players with pace and intent, knifed through the heart of Kerry’s defence. Only that the Barrs man stubbed his shot, it could have been the early Cork goal to provide them with a foothold and some belief. Cork may also look to stress-test David Moran’s ability to work backwards in the wide spaces of Páirc Ui Chaoimh.
Will Kerry’s defensive vulnerability be a defining issue tonight? Unlikely. Cork doesn’t have enough of an offensive artillery to consistently challenge Kerry there but they may just highlight the issue again. The decisive battles will be waged in the Cork half of the field but there may be wins for both teams tonight. Kerry should win but may be exposed in some areas. Cork could emerge with a better sense of themselves and their self-belief enhanced — even in defeat.