Christy O’Connor: The big question for Cork football is how to rebuild

The biggest fear for Cork now —and their supporters — is the long-term psychological trauma the defeat to Kerry could potentially leave
Christy O’Connor: The big question for Cork football is how to rebuild

HARD TIMES: Cork’s Brian Harnett feels the strain after the Munster SFC final defeat. Cork’s priority for 2022 has to be get back into Division 1, and to be consistently playing at a higher level. Picture: Ryan Byrne

With 15 minutes remaining in the 2018 Munster final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the Cork supporters were pouring out of the ground, disillusioned and disheartened by the fear that such pain and heartbreak from a talented young Kerry side appeared inevitable for the foreseeable future.

Time and context always alter perception but that trepidation of ritual slaughter on Kerry’s altar of domination had at least receded before the sides met again in the following year’s provincial decider.

Cork were improving. The defensive system that management introduced during the 2019 league took time to bed in but performances towards the latter end of the campaign showed that Cork were finding a better balance between defence and attack.

Cork were relegated to Division 3 but there was still real confidence within the camp with how they had finished the league, beating Armagh in Armagh in their last match. The challenge game circuit had gone well, with Cork beating Dublin and Galway.

Nobody still gave Cork a chance in that 2019 final but Cork fronted right up to the challenge. Kerry won but not without a real scare.

That game looked like a turning point in the modern Cork-Kerry rivalry. It certainly appeared to have been when Cork turned Kerry over in last year’s Munster semi-final. Kerry’s form coming into last Sunday was much hotter and much easier to read than before last year’s match, but Cork still firmly believed that they could beat Kerry again. Yet with 15 minutes remaining on Sunday, Cork supporters were streaming out of the ground again.

The hurt from last year’s loss cut so deep in Kerry, especially amongst this group, that they were firmly intent on unleashing the most painful form of payback possible. Once Kerry got ahead in the second quarter, every score was like another lash on Cork’s exposed back. By the end, Cork’s skin was ripped and torn and bleeding badly from the kind of flogging Cork thought they were incapable of suffering again against Kerry, especially under Ronan McCarthy.

A 22-point beating and Cork’s biggest defeat to Kerry in a Munster final will leave a deep cut, but Kerry’s underlying intention was for that wound to leave much more than just a visible scar. The biggest fear for Cork now —and their supporters — is the long-term psychological trauma it could potentially leave.

“The bad news for Cork is that this is a young Kerry team and they’re going to be around for quite a while,” said Kevin McStay on The Sunday Game that night. “Wins like today will give Kerry lots of oxygen and, at the same time, dampen whatever hope and expectation is in Cork. It was shocking in the end because Kerry wanted to hammer home their superiority.” 

Kerry’s attitude to Cork was brimming with malice; they didn’t want to just win — they wanted to set Cork back years. The natural reaction is that Kerry have, that they have returned Cork supporters to that mindset of fear and trepidation any time they meet Kerry again in the near future.

The psychological fallout from Sunday won’t be as damaging as some of those supporters fear it will. It’s only three years since Cork were in a similar position after the 2018 Munster final annihilation, but they turned it around within 12 months.

The dynamics though, may just be different this time around. Kerry did reach the 2019 league final but Mayo’s greater physical power and strength in that game underlined how a young Kerry team was still playing catch up in strength and conditioning. That was a factor in the 2019 Munster final because Cork looked stronger and fitter than had been in 2018.

On Sunday though, Kerry looked on a different level to Cork in terms of S&C. That perception can often be exaggerated when a team gets a run on the opposition, but the young players which Kerry were still developing three years ago are firmly established and getting fitter, stronger, and better now.

Cork have some excellent young players to return from injury next season. Players like Seán Meehan — who deserves an All-Star nomination — will develop further. After winning the 2019 All-Ireland minor and U20 titles, and the 2021 Munster U20 title, Cork have loads of talented young players coming through. But this Kerry team still looks set to take over in Munster, and maybe beyond it.

Cork will always be measured against Kerry but a team cannot be defined by just one other team. Cork historically always have been, but that tradition may change completely if the GAA change the championship format for 2022 and onwards, with the provincial series potentially being played as stand-alone competitions in the spring, with the League becoming a qualifier competition for a two-tier All-Ireland series.

That could see an end to the big summer day out in Killarney or Páirc Uí Chaoimh but that championship model is long outdated anyway. Cork-Kerry will always have a huge historical and traditional context, but it can no longer be the biggest barometer for Cork, similar to how the big counties in Leinster can no longer be so heavily defined by Dublin.

Everything gets catastrophised by a runaway train defeat, but even more so in a knockout championship. Death or ultimate glory in one fell swoop makes defeat seem all the deadlier again when it’s such a hammering and the next season feels further away than ever before.

It will really feel that way in Cork this week but there will need to be some form of a rebuild. Regeneration will come from it but the big question for Cork is how they go about that rebuild?

Cork’s priority for 2022 has to be get back into Division 1, and to be consistently playing at a higher level. One of the sorest points of losing last year’s Munster final to Tipperary extended far beyond silverware —the real loss was the developmental opportunity to play another top four team (Mayo) in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final.

Cork have only played in Croke Park twice in the last six seasons but any team with real All-Ireland ambitions has to be regularly playing there. It’s unfair to make comparisons but one of the reasons Cork were such a force under Conor Counihan was because they were such regular visitors to Croke Park; after winning the Division 2 League title in Croke Park in 2009, Cork won three successive Division 1 titles there between 2010-’12. In those same four seasons, between 2009-2012, Cork played 10 championship matches in Croke Park.

Cork are a long way from winning an All-Ireland again but when they last won Sam Maguire in 2010, that great Cork team had their season ended over the previous five years by Kerry in Croke Park.

Those were harrowing experiences, but it was big wins in Croke Park against Galway (2005), Donegal (2006), Meath (2007), Kildare (2008), and Tyrone (2009) which lined up Cork with Kerry in Croke Park in those seasons, big games which helped mould that Cork side into the All-Ireland champions they eventually became in 2010.

That Cork team were still largely defined by Kerry, but they didn’t allow Kerry to dictate who they were, or where they intended to go. The current Cork team are still light years away from that destination, but they can’t allow Kerry to define them either.

And, more importantly, a revamped championship format can’t allow it either.

  • Kieran Shannon is away

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