After a defeat like the one suffered in Fitzgerald Stadium, I always begin by putting myself in the Cork players’ shoes. Waking up this morning after being on the receiving end of a 22-point hammering to arch-rivals Kerry is the stuff of nightmares.
Following All-Ireland or Munster final defeats to Kerry I always craved the sanctuary of my team-mates that evening and the next day. The Monday morning remedy for players was always to find a quiet spot and let the post-mortems be overtaken by a bit of craic and merriment as the day ambled along. The embarrassment and hurt of such defeats is raw. As Éamonn Fitzmaurice said in this paper on Saturday, your defence mechanism after season-ending defeats is to avoid unnecessary encounters and to bury yourself away for days if not weeks. For Cork players, the best tonic now is to get back out with their clubs as quickly as possible.
With all the talk of a change in fortunes for Cork football being spearheaded by All-Ireland success at minor and U21 level in 2019, the reality is that those age grades are worlds apart from senior inter-county football, and even senior club football. Underage football is still beautifully wide open with plenty of one v one situations being allowed and long-contested kickouts.
Senior intercounty football is a different animal now.
If the underage speedster or powerhouse thinks he can slalom or bulldoze his way through defences he will be will quickly receive a lesson in the dark arts and tactical defensive nous at the top level. With all that said, it doesn’t feel as if Cork have any choice but to flood next year’s team with younger players and look for a new identity.
Analysing yesterday’s game feels like a futile exercise. The current Kerry crop are vastly superior to what Cork have to offer. The question has to be asked though; how did Cork go from being 1-6 to 0-4 up after 19 minutes to losing the remainder of the game 4-18 to 0-3. A collapse of record proportions.
A few things stood out to me from the first throw-in. Despite Cork’s impressive opening quarter, I was bemused by their kickout strategy.
They have worked on a short kickout routine and it has worked to good effect against teams of lesser quality and less of an aggressive press. On all Cork’s kickouts, the six defenders made moves for the short ball in all directions inside Cork’s 45.
The issue for Cork was, because of Kerry’s aggressive and well-organised zonal squeeze (often with five players in the full forward line and their keeper Shane Ryan sweeping on their own 45 metre line), Micheál Martin didn’t go short bar one or two quick ones. His long floating kickout gave Kerry the advantage as with superior fetchers and greater numbers coming from their half forward line being outside their men in a zonal press they hoovered up possession which eventually began to pay dividends.
I was shocked that after four or five kickouts, Cork didn’t alter the strategy to ensure the wing backs were at least in position to commit to breaks on Martin’s long deliveries.
To counter that point, Cork made little dent on Kerry’s kickout stats with their six-man zonal press insufficient for such a well-drilled Kerry unit. The importance of the work you do on the training ground on kickouts cannot be overstated.
For example, the crucial score of the game, Brian Ó Beaglaoich’s goal, came from a short kickout from Kerry where Gavin Crowley ran from the half-back line to between full back and corner back to begin the Kerry attack from deep. It is these small percentages that the top teams look to eke out in their quest for honours.
On first viewing my take was that Cork were excellent in the first quarter. On second viewing however, the warning signs of what was to come were evident. Granted, as an attacking threat Cork were electric. With the Hurley brothers and Dan Ó Duinnín buzzing around and pillaging 1-4 between them early on, Cork were causing Kerry real problems. The reality however was that at the other end a combination of good intensity in the tackle from Cork and some uncharacteristically sloppy play from Kerry meant Cork led by four at the first water break. The pattern of the game had emerged with Kerry mixing up the play well with clever football passing and hard running. Composure was the only thing lacking.
They found that composure with Tom O’Sullivan, Paudie Clifford, and Seán O’Shea to the fore with some classy scores. Cork on the other hand lost theirs. Poor shooting, careless passing, and basic handling errors led to them being the architects of their own downfall.
Few positives can be taken by Cork outside of the opening 20 minutes — besides the performance of Seán Meehan. The Kiskeam man gave as good a display in man-marking as any Cork player has in Killarney. To keep a player of the class of David Clifford (who was wasteful and casual in possession) so quiet is a testament to his ability and potential. No doubt he and the injured Daniel O’Mahoney will be at the heart of any rebuilding process over the next few years.
Yesterday’s result and performance feels like a watershed for this group of Cork players and management. The Cork football public will call for a change of direction and an influx of successful underage players. I’m not sure a tactic exists that could have ensured a Cork win.
One can look at individual errors and some tactical flaws but the reality is this was All-Ireland contenders in devastating form on their home patch. The second-half performance was abysmal, as bad as we have seen from a Cork football team, and criticism of the players and management will inevitably follow. For now we have nothing left but to hope our minors and U20s can offer further signs of green shoots. For yesterday’s Cork players, some will call it a day or be politely told their time is up, while others will look to show their abilities at club level before going at it again next year. They say time is a great healer, this defeat will take at least a winter.