Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Kerry in a different class, but Cork will rue lack of ruthlessness

When the Cork players and management eventually get the stomach to review the game they will wonder how they only scored two points in the second and final quarter and none in the third
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Kerry in a different class, but Cork will rue lack of ruthlessness

Injured Kerry footballer Seán O’Leary joins team-mates in celebration after their resounding victory in the final of the Munster Senior Football Championship at Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney yesterday. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

I mentioned in these pages on Saturday that hurt, when properly harnessed, can be a powerful tool. Equally as significant is the importance of learning lessons, individually and as a group.

In the corresponding fixture last year, early in the match Brian Ó Beaglaoich broke through the Cork rearguard and shot for goal. Micheál Martin made a decent save, but Brian would have been annoyed with himself as he hit it at a comfortable height for the goalkeeper. I have seen Brian score plenty of goals for school teams when breaking from defence, and his trademark finish was a low, hard, accurate shot. When he got the chance this time, he showed that he had clearly absorbed the lesson when he finished brilliantly after running half the length of the field.

It was symbolic of where this Kerry team are at currently. The experience (both good and bad) that these Kerry players have accumulated over the last few seasons is becoming a factor in big games. While few would argue with Paudie Clifford’s Man of the Match award, I would have given the accolade to Brian. The goal was important, but in his primary role, he defended brilliantly, dispossessing Cork players on a couple of vital occasions.

We got a real championship match for the first quarter. It was physical and aggressive, with Cork on top. I was impressed with the defending on both sides, but particularly from Cork in the period prior to the first water break. 

Thus far in the championship, there has been an absence of decent old-school defending. Too much shadowing and standing off. Too little contact. Hence we have seen plenty of high-scoring shootouts. Thankfully, yesterday we saw evidence that defending is still alive and well. At times both sets of backs were touch-tight, physical and disciplined. They worked their feet and stood their men up. They made contact. It is still about getting the fundamentals right. 

Cork ran out of steam and were simply overrun as the game went on, but as the championship enters its final stages, hopefully we see more quality defending in addition to the exceptional attacking play that we are being treated to.

When Cork were on top in the first quarter and at stages in the lead-in to half time, they showed a lack of ruthlessness. They gave away the ball too cheaply in the final third, either through poor skill execution, poor decision making, or a mix of the two. 

Luke Connolly in particular was guilty of this. He must be infuriating to play with at times. We all know the ability and skill levels he possesses. That’s not enough at this level, though. He kicked one great point, but he also tried three or four ‘Hollywood’ passes — as Alex Ferguson called them — and none of them came off. He kicked a few wides as well. All of these passes that he tried were low-percentage plays. 

A mercurial player like that has to have the freedom to try things, but he needs to know when to rein himself in as well. Connolly is 29 this year, and he needs to add maturity to his talent if he is to be of assistance to Cork as they try to go to the next level.

When the Cork players and management eventually get the stomach to review the game, they will wonder how they only scored two points in the second and final quarters, and none in the third.

In many ways it was similar to the 2018 final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh where, after a great start, Cork similarly fell away. Was that down to Kerry or was it down to Cork? In truth, it was a mix of both, but it will make for painful viewing for the Cork group.

I was amazed with their kickout strategy, and I imagine this is something they will look at. They would obviously have studied the Kerry press and came with a plan to dismantle it. This plan involved going as long as possible to Ian Maguire, Brian Hartnett, and Ruairí Deane and trying to pick up the crumbs. In the 65th minute — with the game well over — the template worked for them when Maguire got through for a goal chance that he pulled wide, but other than that, it failed spectacularly. 

Kerry won ball in the air through David Moran and they had more bodies around the breaks. This can happen, but what shocked me was the absence of a Plan B. They had no intermediate restart even though there were little pockets of space there. Shane Ryan kicked well in the first half when Cork pressed at times. Kerry showed them how to stretch the press. They got their corner-backs on the sideline and in the corner. This was either going to open up pockets centrally if the Cork corner-forward went too wide or, as happened most often, they gave up the kick to the corner. This got Kerry out and denied Cork the chance to build any momentum after a score. 

Cork persisted with their strategy, even when Mark White came on at half-time, presumably for an injury to Martin. There were clearly times when players could have broken into space to occupy some of the Kerry bodies, but at no stage did they, as they all knew it was going long. Cork lost 11 out of 24 of their own long kickouts and conceded 2-4 directly from this. It is hard to understand how they did not have more variety or how players didn’t problem-solve on the field.

From a Kerry perspective, the players and management will be content. This was a match they would have circled in their calendars, but they will all look to park it up straight away today. The beauty of having three games under the belt is everyone is now championship sharp, with the players match fit and the management having also been tested early against both Tipperary and Cork. That sharpness in the decision-making process can’t be manufactured, and will stand to them for the remainder of the championship.

Paudie Clifford continues to be a difference up front. He is the oil in the engine — working, linking, and scoring. His decision-making is outstanding. Significantly, Paul Geaney, stationed closer to the posts than before, stuck two goals which will be good for his confidence.

Kerry managed the game excellently in the final quarter. They sat back, clogged the central channel making sure that Cork got no easy goal chance, and hit them on the counter with the blistering pace that they have all over the field. They are back in Croke Park, which automatically demands more, and the calibre of opposition the next day out will be of a much higher standard. They have work-ons from yesterday to drive training for the next three weeks, but they are where they want to be.

In the Connacht final, Mayo deserve great credit for their second-half turnaround. They looked lethargic and well off it in the first, as typified by the lack of reaction to Paul Conroy’s shot that came back off the post in the lead-up to the Shane Walsh goal. 

It seemed as if the row in the tunnel got them going, and Galway, as the team in the ascendancy, should have avoided the altercation. Aidan O Shea’s move to the edge of the square and the introduction of Kevin and Eoghan McLoughlin were significant also. 

I feel it possibly took the first half for Mayo to acclimatise to a higher standard of football. They coasted through Division 2 and the Connacht Championship up to that point. But they responded and will know they will need to improve for the semi-final. 

Padraic Joyce has had a tough two years and must be wondering what he got himself into. While it can be a lonely station, he should stick at it, as they are a coming team, and hopefully next year he will have a full Covid-free season to develop them further.

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