An old rivalry and an old debate — but it’s still about the middle ground

UP FOR IT: Cork duo Fintan Goold and Aidan Walsh and Kerry's Anthony Maher fight it out in last year's Munster SFC final. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Unless Kerry midfielders Maher and Buckley show us something we haven’t seen in a while, the superior pairing of Walsh and Goold will bring Cork a Munster final victory tomorrow

MUNSTER SFC FINAL:

Cork v Kerry

Nothing is more easily forgotten than what we think we know and there are times when the familiar gospel becomes a novelty again.

— St John Vianney, the Curé d’Ars

SO which type of Munster final will tomorrow be? Will it be the Killarney version where Kerry, infuriated by being ignored and written out of the big equations, start like a giddy calf, build up a huge lead only to have it whittled down to near nothing at the end and see the game out, hanging on by the skin of their teeth?

Or will it be one of those Páirc Uí Chaoimh specials, where things are even enough up until half-time and slowly but surely, Cork pull away after the opening exchanges of the second half and end up winning by five or six points, with people wondering afterwards why it wasn’t eight, nine or 10?

The last encounter between Kerry and Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh two years ago, saw Kerry struggle with their free-taking and Cork ease to a five-point win. It was eight points three years previously on a year that saw Kerry win an All Ireland, and before that again Cork won by five points in 2008 and six points in 2006. Kerry just don’t do well on days like this and what’s worse, they’ve now almost stopped expecting to do well in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

The only time the self-fulfilling prophecy was turned on its head in recent times was Kerry’s one-point win after extra-time over four years ago on a day of seismic intensity that may have cost Kerry their crown in the long term.

Given the week that’s in it, the Páirc Uí Chaoimh factor may be decisive, but it’s more likely to be irrelevant. If tomorrow’s game were on in Killarney, would your viewpoint be different? Unless it ends in a draw, Cork will head west at some stage in next year’s championship hoping to bridge a 20-year gap since they beat the Green and Gold in Fitzgerald Stadium. Not one of the Cork team or panel tomorrow has beaten Kerry in Killarney. Has to be something there you say, but what is it? Is it myth or bad timing? Or has it anything to do with the freakishly high number of draws these teams have had in Killarney? There have been some really good Cork teams these past 20 years and even the one that lost that game against the head to Kerry in 2010, went on to win the All-Ireland. So what is it? Does the venue mean anything at all when trying to figure things out between Cork and Kerry? Everything we know is wrong when it comes to predicting Munster finals between these two. Or more precisely, as a wise ex-Kerry player said to me, quoting Ecclesiastes, ahead of another Munster final a few years ago — “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong”.

This much we do know. We know both teams had their eyes well and truly opened two weeks ago. Tipp knew that Cork wouldn’t fancy it compact at the back and flooded the area around and behind midfield, denying Brian Hurley the pockets of oxygen he needs for scores.

We also know Kerry blew off the cobwebs with a hard-earned win in Clare on a day where, similar to Cork, they couldn’t play on their terms around the midfield area.

Apart from the pleasing performances of the newcomers in Ennis, one of the few consolations from a testing day at the office for Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his crew was that it was the first championship game in a year in which Kerry won the second half.

Sometimes it can be all too easy to cherry-pick statistics and use them to prop up a particular narrative, but the lessons of Kerry’s championship second halves is there for all to see. In last year’s Munster final against Cork they lost 0-11 to 0-6. In the quarter-final against Cavan, they lost the second half 0-7 to 0-4. And most tellingly of all, the second half of the epic semi-final clash against Dublin was lost 2-9 to 0-6.

Even in their recent league clash in Tralee (on a day when Kerry took their biggest hiding from Cork since 1990), the Kingdom were outscored 1-11 to 0-5 in the second half.

While they may have arrested the trend of the second-half malaise against Clare two weeks ago, the reasons for these malfunctions merit closer inspection.

Kerry have yet to master the art of limiting the damage when under the cosh. Fitzmaurice is on record as saying as much. In last year’s Munster final, Kerry had a good few chances in the second half to keep the scoreboard moving and to kill the ball at the scoreboard end and yet failed to do so. The flip side of that is when you’re the team on the comeback trail and closing the gap, you’ve got to be watertight at the back. The concession of needless frees at this stage of the game can have a particularly demoralising effect. When Cork had the heavy lifting done in the second half last year, with Alan O’Connor and Ciarán Sheehan rampant, it was a Bryan Sheehan free from 55 yards that saw Kerry clear down the home stretch.

In the breathless second half of the semi-final, Dublin didn’t cough up those free kicks and thus Kerry had soul-destroying barren spells that distorted our perception of the game, just as much as Kevin McManamon and Eoghan O’Gara’s late goals distorted the scoreboard. The Kingdom went 12 minutes scoreless from the 44th minute and endured a further barren 10 minutes at the end. Those kind of yields throw up the surprising fact that in what we remember as a tight game, Kerry only scored three points in a period when rampant Dublin amassed 2-8.

In examining how these malfunctions happen, it becomes obvious why coaches place so much emphasis on winning the battle for scraps around the middle. We saw in the league game at the end of April how pointless it is having potent forwards like James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney on the inside line if their colleagues simply can’t get hands on the leather out the field.

Cork know this only too well after their match against Tipperary. On that day a ferocious hunger and a few huge men around the middle (Colin O’Riordan, Peter Acheson and Ian Fahey) complemented the ball-winning ability of Steven O’Brien and George Hannigan to ensure Cork couldn’t get enough of the ball to feed their inside line. It was interesting, too, that Tipp manager, Peter Creedon, felt that they could run through Cork’s half-back line two weeks ago. By replacing two thirds of that line for tomorrow’s game, Brian Cuthbert might feel that he has remedied the situation but we won’t know for sure until we see who’s winning the dirty ball around the middle.

Much has been made of the public apathy towards tomorrow’s fixture. I have no doubt there are followers in both counties who feel that the Munster Final lost some of its life-or-death romance when the knock-out days of old were abandoned.

But for me, and for many more, tomorrow is a time when the familiar gospel becomes novelty again. The focus in Cork is on whether they can show any signs they are finally ready to translate their dominance at U21 level to consistent success at senior level. Cuthbert, in carrying some lads who served him so well at underage level (Clancy, Cahalane, O’Rourke and Hurley) is making a firm statement about the future of Cork football. Throwing the likes of Jack Sherwood in at the deep end last year and handing five championship novices their debut a fortnight ago, tells us much of what we need to know about Fitzmaurice’s approach. In selecting former playing colleagues, Aidan O’Mahony at full back and Declan O’Sullivan at the other end of the field, he is, however, making an equally telling statement about the faith he has in his old dogs of war.

This Munster final is not going to be won and lost at either end of the field but right out the middle. Unless Anthony Maher and Johnny Buckley show us something we haven’t seen in a while, I take the superior pairing of Aidan Walsh and Fintan Goold to bring Cork a final victory in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.


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