TONY LEEN: A dog day afternoon with more bark than bite

LIFE, said one sage, can be neatly categorised into dogs and lamp posts.

You determine which you want to be.

In Fitzgerald Stadium yesterday, Kerry and Cork couldn’t decide which they wanted to be. The Kingdom collected their 75th Munster football title, but they hardly dressed it in ribbons. There’s no sense yet they’re tramlining their way to September.

Cork played like lamposts for 35 minutes — they were truly abject — but had enough bark about them down the stretch to suggest they may still have some sort of bite in them.

To do that, they must put their best 15 players on the pitch for as long as possible, a task proving more elusive than one might think for Conor Counihan and his Cork management.

This isn’t the first time this Cork team has been changed with underwhelming results. Gaelic football has got complicated, but there’s surely still a virtue to putting square pegs in square holes? Afterwards there were suggestions of bugs andinjuries in the lead up that may or may not have changed Cork’s strategy, such as it was. Counihan made reference to some “indecisiveness” regarding their defensive set-up, but they were shambolic enough in defence and midfield in the first 35 minutes to warrant serious interrogation of the game plan.

Whether the tactical malfunction was in themessage to the players, or its interpretation, only those inside the tent know. Whatever anyone thought of the defensive shield Cork brought to Tralee in March for a National League game, at least it had a basic structure to it.

“We had a particular plan and it didn’t work that well,” deadpanned Counihan.

Working from the back out, Eoin Cadogan looked completely at sea which is odd, because whatever else the Douglas man may or may not be, he isn’t indecisive. Ditto Damien Cahalane who seemed to wander without effect between wing back, a covering half-back and midfield. In the end he was none of the above and was called ashore moments before half-time. Why Cork couldn’t wait until half-time to do it is another matter. He caught my eye in the 29th minute, north of Cork’s midfield, just as Kerry were engineering a yawning space for Colm Cooper to pour in the lead goal.

It didn’t stop there. Noel O’Leary now seems to be reserved for Paul Galvin occasions at a stage of the latter’s career when a younger, more offensively-minded wing-back might send the Kerry man reversing in a direction he doesn’t want to go. Graham Canty commands huge respect and remains a totemic figure in the Cork dressing-room, but Munster finals are not played in dressing-rooms. Kerry’s young and powerful centrefield mowed down Canty and Aidan Walsh in a first-half slaughterfest.

Cork’s six first-half points were scores they didn’t work particularly hard for, which frustratingly suggests that if the likes of Brian Hurley and Daniel Goulding had any sort of service, they might have exposed Kerry’s brittle underbelly.

Both managers lauded the fluidity of Kerry’s first-half movement that created space for man of the match, James O’Donoghue and his sniper friends, Declan and Darran O’Sullivan. But Counihan and Fitzmaurice were mostly just being nice. If the Kerry coach aired his true feelings afterwards, it would have been along the lines of ‘Please let every defence be like this’. They won’t be, Eamonn.

Even then, Kerry were really sloppy in their finishing. That profligacy would later border on arrogance when they thought they were out of sight and players started throwing up Hail Mary efforts.

Before that though O’Donoghue missed a simple goal chance, Declan O’Sullivan missed twice, as did Colm Cooper, Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin.

THE hosts reached the interval 1-10 to 0-6 in front but they left another half dozen scores out there.

“Some of the lads missed shots into a goal they’d be very comfortable kicking in to. Every night at training, that’s the first place they go to when kicking scores,” noted Fitzmaurice.

Just as Counihan deserves to be panned for the first half selection and tactics, one needs to record the positive effect the changes had for Cork. The difficulty is in knowing whether they were acts of intuition or desperation. Alan O’Connor came on at midfield, as did Pearse O’Neill. They matched the energy of a now tiring Buckley and Maher.

The consequence of that was releasing Aidan Walsh to centre-forward where he gave Killian Young a very uncomfortable second period. Kerry still have no centre back and they need to find one.

Ciarán Sheehan came in and immediately made the Kerry full-back line look as unsure as many thought it would be. And in Cork’s own defence, Tomás Clancy was brought in to give the visitors a bit of go-forward momentum, which he achieved.

Eleven minutes into the second half a Marc Ó Sé point put Kerry 1-14 to 0-8 in front, but 16 minutes and six straight Cork points later, the Cork terraces began to shake.

Now who was the lamp post? Kerry’s attacks began to look dishevelled, with either poor shot selection or turnovers frustrating their bid to quell Cork’s uprising. Fitzmaurice said a lot when he admitted afterwards that Kerry would be “disappointed we didn’t stand up to that rally a small bit better.”

He should be. Too many Kerry teams over the last dozen years have shown themselves to be first-half teams that don’t stand up well to proper gut checks. That usually means a dearth of leaders and where once there was Seamus Moynihan, Darragh Ó Sé or Fitzmaurice himself, now there is a squad with a question mark in its own head. To that end, the absence of Aidan O’Mahony yesterday was instructive.

Colm Cooper was fitful yesterday — though one steal while back-tracking was harshly penalised by the frustrating Marty Duffy, and Declan O’Sullivan is too high up the pitch to take a game by the scruff of the neck.

So enter James O’Donoghue. The Legion youngster is a Championship freshman but he was ever-available in a fading Kerry attack in the second half. Three points is a modest reflection of his overall contribution, achieved despite a niggling hamstring problem.

“It’s fantastic from our point of view to see one of the younger brigade standing up, that’s what we want,” said Fitzmaurice. “James is a serious player. We knew that earlier on the year when things weren’t going great from him in the league but he’s come good and had a fantastic Munster championship.”

A hat-tip too to Fionn Fitzgerald, the Dr Crokes defender bending his manager’s ear with a very impressive late cameo. If there is comfort in the second half for Kerry, it’s that each of the changes gradually began to halt Cork’s momentum. Bryan Sheehan hit a monster free from 55m with five minutes remaining, but two replies from Loughrey and Brian Hurley left it 1-15 to 0-16 and the Castlehaven full-forward still had enough sight of goal in injury time to force a save from Brendan Kealy.

Counihan called it “throwing off the shackles” in the second half, and perhaps that is the game plan that actually works for the players at his disposal. On yesterday’s evidence Cork are eschewing that stultifying blanket operation they employed in the League, and if they can hammer out a suitable alternative, their season doesn’t have to finish in August.

“I don’t think many teams will fancy meeting them,” suggested Fitzmaurice, though which incarnation of Cork turns up for the fourth round of the qualifiers is anyone’s guess.


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