CORK ground out a hard-fought win against Limerick in Saturday’s qualifier, edging out the Shannonsiders by a point in a tense, dour game that slipped into confrontation more than once.
A stark battle, with nowhere on the field to hide; the kind of encounter that two hours in Roy Keane’s company would prepare a team for.
The Leesiders had at least one player who seemed to take Keane’s playing example to hand. Jerry O’Connor seemed relatively restrained on Saturday, sweeping in front of his half-backs and leaving midfield partner Tom Kenny to drive forward when in possession.
It’s unclear whether Keane offered John Allen and his backroom staff detailed tactical advice, but the former Ireland captain would certainly have recognised O’Connor’s protective role in front of his defence. It might have compromised his scoring chances early on — it was early in the second half before he got on the scoresheet — but with Limerick starting at full pelt, the Newtownshandrum man’s unselfish work provided a tricky obstacle to progress.
Cork couldn’t carry out the Manchester United man’s blueprint for success exactly to the letter. For instance, with five points between the teams thanks to Tom Kenny’s score in the 31st minute, Cork had the perfect opportunity to get a critical score as the clock wound down to the break, only for John Gardiner and Brian Corcoran to miss the target; Keane’s United side often scored with half-time beckoning; maybe the prospect of facing an angry Alex Ferguson is more intimidating than facing John Allen.
On the plus side, Cork maintained faith in their possession game. Keane’s autobiography is a paean to the virtues of consistency, of keeping the good playing habits intact even when the tide is running against you.
Although there were a couple of hairy moments for the red and white faithful as the ball dawdled on the New Stand side of the ground just before half-time, Cork kept their heads. While Keane was still at Manchester United his side were famously caught out by serial hoaxer Karl Fowler, who makes a habit of ‘appearing’ at high-profile sporting events; Fowler dashed out on to the field to appear in a United line-up before one game, and in a celebrated photograph of the incident Keane is the only United player looking at the intruder standing at the end of the row.
Last Saturday, the extra player popped up before the second half began rather than for the team photograph. Tom Kenny and Jerry O’Connor were no doubt surprised to be joined by a third party, clad in civvies, before the ball was thrown in at midfield.
It’s not clear how the intruder got past security in Semple Stadium; perhaps Karl Fowler was advising him in much the same way Keane was advising the Cork team.
It’s not clear whether Keane made it to Semple Stadium on Saturday. It’s probably as well he didn’t, given what happened 10 minutes into the second half.
Donal Óg Cusack applied the Mayfield man’s famous attention to detail to the net at the Town End goal, pointing out that it was hanging loose behind the crossbar, and he and Diarmuid O’Sullivan had to spend several minutes repairing the facilities.
Given Keane’s explosion in Saipan before the World Cup in 2002 due to the poor training facilities, it’s not pleasant to imagine what his reaction would have been to that kind of oversight. In the course of a long career Keane saw the red card several times, of course, but as his time at Manchester United was coming to an end he was able to rein in his temper and maintain his focus.
For instance, when his great rival Patrick Vieira of Arsenal was sent off at Old Trafford a couple of years ago it was Keane, remarkably enough, who put an arm around his adversary and advised him to depart the field before making the situation worse.
Likewise, Diarmuid O’Sullivan displayed remarkable restraint when Cork were awarded a penalty in the 65th minute. As the Cloyne man — one of Keane’s biggest fans — came upfield to take the penalty several opposition players made a point of engaging him in vigorous discussion at least three times on his journey; one ran after him and appeared to make his point even more forcefully when O’Sullivan arrived at the Limerick 45-metre line, and the Cork player ended up on the floor.
However, O’Sullivan held his head and didn’t react. Though he didn’t take the penalty — it’s questionable whether the Dalai Lama’s focus could have survived his journey up from the Town End — his self-discipline was a huge asset for Cork at a fraught period in the game.
Discipline, tactical focus, attention to detail. Hard to say where Keane began and the Cork hurlers ended.