BEYOND the team and their families, Cork will savour last night’s Munster U21 football final success for about as long as it takes someone to look up from their coffee this morning to ask: How does this change anything?
Perhaps more than one might think. Change comes in small increments. Maybe, this was the first nudge.
But we’ve been here before. And then some. Cork have now won six of the last eight provincial titles at the grade, so emerging from the province at Kerry’s expense is nothing new.
Mick O’Dwyer would tell you that Under-21 grade success is fundamental in building a competitive senior outfit. If that’s the case, Cork has been shooting itself in the foot since 2008, and Kerry have been performing miracles in the same period. The Kingdom hasn’t even got out of Munster in eight years at U21 level, a startling statistic.
But this was to be the year with a squad build on the back of successive All-Ireland minor titles and the sideline nous of Jack O’Connor to guide them. Two competitive fixtures against Limerick and Tipperary, then a home final against the old enemy.
That combination of favourable circumstances begins to frame what Cork pulled off last night at Austin Stack Park. From the get-go, their movement with the ball was better, their shape without it impressive too. Kerry’s kick passing was typically flawless, but it needed to be to secure any momentum up front. In the 19th minute, Cork again scythed through the heart of the Kerry ranks, with 18-year-old Seanie Powter applying a ruthless finish to bag Cork’s second goal. It was a telling statement, if not as beautifully embroidered as their opener, Michael Hurley teeing up Brian Coakley for the poised finish.
The pair of goals gave Cork a six-point cushion, and it was more reflective of their superiority than the 2-4 to 0-7 half time scoreline.
Kerry will rue goal chances that went a-begging in both halves, but they had hit the front by the 38th minute with a Mark O’Connor goal — the platform was there to kick on. Another notable element of Cork’s success thus, the maturity to halt Kerry’s surge by reasserting themselves on proceedings.
It was no coincidence that those with senior experience were to the forefront in doing that — namely captain Stephen Cronin, and full forward Peter Kelleher. Neither was prominent in the first period when the likes of Ryan Harkin, Powter, Sean White, and Coakley stood out. But Kelleher became the problem Kerry expected him to be in the crucial last quarter — and Cronin stationed himself further up the field, with telling impact.
The small things, like his delicate pop pass to the in-rushing White for Cork’s third goal, are the difference on such occasions.
White, of Clonakilty, was U21 as well last year, and he proved a more energetic force at midfield than he was at No 6 last year. Behind him, Kevin Flahive and Kieran Histon played on the front foot all night. Powter was forced off injured at half-time, but his nascent talent was there for all to see in a ground that has seen its fair share of football talent.
This hardly spells disaster for the future of Kerry football, and there is more senior material from this group than there has been for a few campaigns.
Kerry will make lemonade out of lemons, they always do. The intriguing narrative in Tralee last night was the possibilities for this Cork group under Sean Hayes. Football supporters have been burned too often in Cork to offer their trust and support on the basis of one Under 21 title. But this was a proper way to win a Munster title, and they’re worth keeping an eye on.
Clipping a fancied Kerry in Tralee earns them that much at least.
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