KIERAN SHANNON: Killarney 2015 could be historical watershed for Cork football

Before getting into how both Cork and Kerry will be better for last Sunday, let’s start by acknowledging and appreciating that Cork-Kerry itself has hardly been better than last Sunday.

This column has been going to this fixture since 1980. In that time the counties have faced off on 47 occasions in the championship.

Some have bordered on being outright classics.

We’re thinking 1983 and Tadhg Murphy’s last-minute goal; 1987 and Larry Tompkins in red, Mikey Sheehy somehow squeezing it into the net and Billy Morgan on the floor; 1988 and a teenaged Maurice Fitzgerald announcing himself to the nation but Dinny Allen burying the only goal of the game; 2001 and Crowley and Corkery trading scores on the pitch and Páidí and Larry trading pushes on the line.

All three games in 2008 had something for everyone while the absorbing replay in 2010 was one of Kerry’s finest and most defiant moments under Jack O’Connor.

Last Sunday though was possibly, probably, the best of the lot.

Put it this way: when Colm Cooper came on after 42 minutes, the score was 2-7 to 1-10. That was the final scoreline in the ’87 epic drawn game.

Both teams last Sunday would go on to notch a further 1-5 apiece. There are plenty of ingredients other than scoring that help make up a football classic but the score itself is a pretty decent indicator.

And outside of the 1976 replay classic in which it ended 3-13 to 2-16 before Kerry edged it in extra time, there’s never been a Cork-Kerry game in which a side has scored so much and still not won.

Yet in placing last Sunday’s game in the context of the rivalry itself, it’s also reasonable to claim that it’s too early to contextualise the game itself.

Because we still don’t know what it signified. ’76 proved to be a watershed in Munster football history; likewise ’87 and ’88 shaped a new power dynamic in the rivalry.

What did last Sunday represent? The turning point of Brian Cuthbert’s management or a missed opportunity that will haunt the man and his team for years to come? We won’t have that perspective until the next day or for some time further on again.

Last Sunday did tell us a lot though. Entering this game everything about Cork football had been scrutinised, even mocked – Cuthbert, his players, even the county’s supporters.

But last Sunday offered both a reminder to people within and outside of Cork of just what a serious team and group of men the county had in 2010 and how some of those men could be helping build another heavyweight contender for the near future.

Take the O’Connors, Donncha and Alan, and how they’re complementing and inspiring the likes of the O’Driscolls.

Some commentators have taken Alan O’Connor’s astonishing display after his 20-month absence from inter-county football as reason to question the value of the S&C culture that his teammates and rivals would have been subjected to in the meantime.

If anything O’Connor’s performance was testament to the reservoir of fitness he’d have built up under Conor Counihan and former S&C coach Aidan O’Connell, as well as how the player minded himself during his sabbatical and the work Pat Flanagan would have done with him upon his return.

But then people have long under-appreciated the role and achievement of men like O’Connor. An accepted narrative, spun again at the weekend by Joe Brolly, is that Cork won a soft All Ireland in 2010 to the indifference of their own public.

Wrong. There was nothing soft about how Cork beat Dublin in the 2010 semi-final, a comeback triggered by how supporters and players fed off the other. 50,000 greeted the return of Sam to Leeside. It takes a serious effort and team to win an All Ireland – as well as three consecutive leagues and multiple Munster titles.

There’s a chance that even Brian Cuthbert himself didn’t quite grasp what a strong group, mentally and physically, they were, allowing too many of them shuffle into retirement. To Cuthbert’s credit, he seems to have accepted and addressed that by making the call to O’Connor. For the last couple of years Cork have been dominated around the middle by Kerry, Dublin and Mayo. Now they have presence and guile around there again.

To these eyes it now looks like Cuthbert now has the players with him. That his initial choice of selectors, while curious for their lack of coaching experience, are now getting to the pace of what’s required at this level.

That he himself knows and has what it takes. And that last year’s Munster final, not this year’s, was the once-off: Cork were just as spiky against Mayo in last year’s All Ireland quarter-final as they were last Sunday in Killarney.

True they were off the pace in the league final against Dublin but there has never been a better post-war league team than Jim Gavin’s Dublin – they’ve such cruising speed you nearly need to be at championship speed to beat them in the spring.

Kerry will clearly shake it up the next day. Last Sunday was the fourth classic they’ve been involved in during Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s time and while they’ve only lost one of them, they’ve conceded three goals in all but one of them – they can’t keep getting away with a defence as open as that.

Maybe they were trying to hold some defensive strategy back for Croke Park. They can no longer afford that. Or to start Anthony Maher on the bench.

Kieran Donaghy may be better deployed coming off it (though they will need him there at winning time: notice how he had the awareness to be back in his own square to take Colm O’Neill’s injury-time ’45 and still be orbiting Cork’s when Fionn Fitzgerald floated that ball in his direction, all the way over the bar).

As that replay specialist Mickey Harte once observed: “The secret between a draw and a replay is having something new. You must have a new script. People’s minds tend to stay in the drawn game and capture what went on there but you must make the point to your player that’s it’s a new game.”

In last year’s hurling final replay, Tipp retained the same personnel, as if they were trying to recapture the splendour of the drawn game. Kilkenny came up a new starting lineup, strategy, script. You know Kerry will. If Cuthbert and Cork do while retaining the ‘Ní ghéillifmíd’ mindset as the last day, Killarney 2015 could indeed prove to be the historical watershed.


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