Before a ball was kicked this season the main reason I felt that Kerry would be driven men is that they would use the deep hurt from last year to motivate and drive themselves.
Modern sports psychology would prefer a more positive mindset than that, as apparently that promotes greater performance under pressure, develops resilience, and an ability to cope better when faced with setbacks. Never underestimate the power of that hurt though, as with it comes an unbending determination. It certainly fuelled me at various times in my career both as a player and as a manager. Proving someone wrong or disproving a perception while being successful is extremely satisfying.
The beauty of it is there is no need to try and justify yourself as the silverware and the performances speak for themselves. Michael Jordan was the king at using slights, real or imagined to drive himself, as detailed on more than one occasion in.
Former teammate BJ Armstrong, by then playing for the Charlotte Hornets was taking on Jordan and the Bulls. He scored 10 points in a Game 2, including a decisive jump shot late to level the series. After hitting the shot, Armstrong screamed at the Bulls bench. Big mistake. “I felt like BJ should know better,” Jordan says in the documentary.
“If you’re going to high-five, talk trash, now I had a bone to pick with you. I’m supposed to kill this guy. I’m supposed to dominate this guy and from that point on, I did.”
Jordan went on to score 27, 31, and 33 points in the final three games of the series.
I think an important addendum to last year’s defeat in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was the giant full stop it signified for everyone.
Season over. Normally when a team is knocked out of the championship at inter-county level they are back at their clubs and among their own within a week. They get to enjoy their club football and rehabilitate themselves at the same time. They have a solid pathway to move on from their disappointment.
They may have the occasional regret over the winter months but it’s not the same.
I found when I became manager the disappointment at the end of an unsuccessful season was far worse and much more acute than as a player, possibly because I wasn’t going back to my club, as I had finished up playing at that stage. I would isolate myself and go to ground for a few days and, other than school and home, there wasn’t much else going on. I would process the defeat, review it, and then start planning and looking forward.
As the years went on, the few days became a week and sometimes longer. 2017 was the worst. We lost to Mayo in a replayed All-Ireland semi-final. We were a point up in the drawn game with time almost up, we had the ball and just needed to manage the game out, something we had often rehearsed in training but we turned it over needlessly. Mayo equalised in the next phase of play. Even still, we had a free to win it but missed.
We were poor in the replay and lost well to a better Mayo team. It was as bad a defeat as I had experienced up to that point. We had beaten Dublin in the league final the previous April in Croke Park and felt we had a plan to go toe to toe with them. We never got to find out whether it would have worked on the biggest day though. It took me a few weeks to get over it. I remember ringing ‘Botty’ O’Callaghan, our kit man and troubleshooter, as the fog started to lift. He roared down the phone at me: “Jesus Éamonn the Germans didn’t have bunkers that deep during World War 2!”
The players would have had a similar experience this time round. There was no back to the clubs only existing in a dissatisfied and disgruntled county. A lot of the time, players don’t bear the brunt of a defeat. An individual or two may be singled out but usually, it is the manager and by extension the management, that get it in the neck.
Last year everyone was getting it. That hardens the resolve and fellas quickly realise who they can rely on and who they can’t. It builds that precious collective spirit and determination.
I was interested to see Ronan McCarthy this week highlighting that Kerry don’t have the monopoly on hurt as they were also crestfallen after losing the Munster final last year having failed to build on the Kerry win. It’s a fair point but what people outside of Kerry often don’t and can’t understand is how the mood of an entire county and its vast diaspora is affected by the fate of the senior football team. Kerry will be like men possessed on Sunday. If Cork are to stand any chance, they will have to match that madness early and stay in the game.
Since last year’s game Kerry have improved significantly while Cork’s graph has flatlined or raised slightly. That doesn’t mean they can’t win but the teams appear to be on different trajectories.
Kerry haven’t lost a match since and Cork needed to win a relegation play-off game to stay in Division 2. That does come with the caveat that they missed out on the promotion play-off on scoring difference, but still. They conceded big scores in the last two games of the league against Clare and Westmeath and it could have been more against the Leinster men. They did enough against Limerick but weren’t convincing. They will still travel with confidence though, as highlighted by Seán Powter this week, but they will need to be at their best and hope Kerry malfunction again to win.
Kerry have legs all over the field, are working hard without the ball, and can attack from everywhere. They are scoring goals and have depth and experience throughout the squad. Cork are also athletic, will defend in numbers, and have forwards that can really hurt when on form.
They can borrow aspects of their successful plan from November but will also need to bring something new, either tactically or personnel wise.
Could someone like Conor Corbett from the U20 team be sprung a la Mark Keane last year? I was hugely impressed with Corbett in the U20 game and he looks ready for senior football, certainly in terms of impacting off the bench. Much of their success last year was built on outstanding work rate, as they worked ferociously hard for each other — 1-8 of their 1-12 came from turnovers. They were impressive in how disciplined they were in their defensive shape and how they frustrated Kerry. Their forwards were willing to man mark the Kerry backs when they attacked. Prior to that game, that had been a big weapon for Kerry and Mark Collins, Ruairí Deane, and John O’Rourke were outstanding at tracking runners and limiting their effect. All of this and more will be needed again in Killarney, and it will be much harder to sustain these efforts for 80 minutes in a summer championship.
A further enthralling feature to keep an eye on will be the Seán O’Shea v Seán Powter duel, should it materialise. The Douglas man got the better of the battle last year and mentioned this week in this paper how he knows Seán’s game well from UCC and will hope to send him up to the other side of the pitch. I will be interested to see Seánie’s reaction to that on the pitch.
Last November, when Luke Connolly launched that shot skyward, I was sitting at home watching it. Prior to Keane gathering and burying it, I had felt that while Kerry underperformed they would prevail. I thought both players and management would learn a huge amount going forward and it would stand to them, that it could be the making of them for the championship.
However, Keane had other ideas and when the net bulged and the final whistle went, I was stuck to the chair for 10 minutes. I was gobsmacked and couldn’t move or think straight. I can only imagine what it was like for the players and management involved.
With the current trajectory of both groups, I will be similarly surprised if Kerry don’t prevail on Sunday.
However, if last year taught us anything about Kerry and Cork tussles, it is to expect the unexpected.