COLM COOPER: Ennis test ticks all the boxes for Éamonn Fitzmaurice

Éamonn Fitzmaurice couldn’t have written away for a script as perfect as yesterday’s Ennis test of mettle for Kerry.

Down to 14 men early? Tick. Two points behind and against a strong second-half wind? Tick. Would his players dig in and emerge the other side? Absolutely. Are there plenty of areas to improve on? Without doubt.

There’s more in Paul Geaney and one other bonus for the Kerry management - the impact of Stephen O’Brien off the bench. 

The Kenmare man hasn’t managed to cement a starting place in the set-up this season, but he was the one who put his hand up yesterday for the Munster final three weeks’ time.

Not alone did he finish with 1-2, the goal finally killing off Clare, but his appetite for work, tracking back and turning over possession is something that is never lost on a manager. 

By the close of business, James O’Donoghue had finished with nine points but, almost as importantly, showed real leadership when it was needed. The same must be said of Peter Crowley, who was very strong defensively.

Clare played into the first- half wind with an extra man behind midfield, but they were the ones on the front foot early. Kerry can make the point about no game in 10 weeks, but neither had Clare. 

David Tubridy led a Banner front line and offered the cohesion Kerry were sorely lacking. There was no sense of control to Kerry’s play in the first quarter, and Clare’s defensive unit had the measure of anything Kerry threw at them.

The early penalty clearly gave Clare an impetus and Kerry were further destabilised by the sending off of Donnchadh Walsh. He picked up the first of two yellows in the penalty incident and was silly in picking up the second. Kerry supporters may view it as harsh, but Walsh gave the referee a decision to make when there was no need.

That wasn’t all. Kerry had four players on yellows in the first-half alone, which put them under pressure for the remainder of the game. At half-time, the Cusack Park crowd gave their team a rapturous ovation. 

Level with Kerry, a man up and the wind to come. The smell of a shock was in the air but like Tipperary on Saturday evening, Clare ran out of gas as the final quarter loomed. 

It’s another of the differences between Division 1 and 2 football. Colm Collins has some serious players at his disposal, but if he could somehow get them into League Division 1, it would elevate Clare onto a completely new level.

Before O’Brien’s decisive goal, Clare hit the crossbar through Jamie Malone. It was a crucial moment because Kerry were still struggling on both kick-outs without the injured David Moran. In such situations, the chemistry between goalkeeper and midfielders can be the difference between winning and losing close matches.

Leaving Pairc Ui Rinn on Saturday night, Cork people were scratching their heads every bit as much as they were going into the ground. They can and surely will lift their game now for the Munster final, but back to that Division 1 question and the level Kerry are at? Unlikely. 

There are two kinds of pressure. Not many will expect Cork to win, but there’s also pressure to show Cork football is not a spent force. Few left Páirc Ui Rinn Saturday with a sense any corner has been turned.

The opening 40-odd minutes of the game should have carried a healthy warning for viewers. Who knows what an early goal from Colm O’Neill or Paul Kerrigan might have done for Cork’s self-belief, but that’s ifs and maybes. 

When was the last time we saw a Cork team turn over as much ball, make as many bad decisions in possession? Even physically, they were second to everything and thrown out over the sideline a couple of times. If you are playing with zero confidence and no direction, everything looks like it’s an effort. Even running. 

Cork played for 40 minutes with lead in their boots. If Tipp had been a bit more ruthless - even after losing Quinlivan - they’d hardly have blown the chance to put Cork to the sword in their own back yard. I am sure Liam Kearns was fuming too that one of his players didn’t take a cynical foul to stop Cork going straight down the field after Conor Sweeney’s goal.

At full-time, Michael Shields was punching the air, Luke Connolly and Paul Kerrigan the same. We could see what it meant to the Cork players. They needed and were willing to take any sort of win because of the intense pressure on them. 

I was expecting Cork to come out of the traps, hitting everything that moved, and setting the tone in terms of energy around the field. That was not the case at all.

How much has changed since Saturday at 5pm? Mark Collins is surely good enough to be on the team when you consider Cork played Brian O’Driscoll at wing forward. No one can say Brian, with all respect to him, is as good a half forward as Collins. 

It puzzled me. I don’t know how many Cork places are locked down for the Munster final, but it can’t be more than half a team. Michael Hurley took off at one stage near the end, and I thought he was on a motor bike. 

Pace frightens defenders. Football frightens defenders. I understand you must pick a balanced team but you pick a team to win a game, and not to avoid losing.

The forwards look rudderless at times. Paul Kerrigan did a bit of damage in the second half, Luke Connolly got the goal, but missed plenty too. The rest were anonymous. Because Connolly can score, they need him starting.

They’re unlikely to go back to Peter Kelleher as a starter for the Munster final. He is a good option to change things up but, without revisiting Saturday’s column, Cork aren’t set up to use him right from the start. Besides, I would expect Cork to play only five forwards against Kerry - the sixth likely to be an extra defender.

Tipperary worked hard and clever for long periods of the game on Saturday. Robbie Kiely, Josh Keane and Brian Fox carried the fight but their colleagues were also guilty of really bad wides and leaving shots short. If you smell blood coming in as an underdog, you’ve got to make it count. 

Conor Sweeney was excellent and the way Cork went for it after half-time, he was isolated one-on-one with Jamie O’Sullivan. He was going to profit from anything half decent into him. One thing’s for sure - Paul Geaney orJames O’Donoghue won’t have such space on July 2nd.


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