The circumstances in which they rallied, the manner in which the champions lost ground to such a remarkable degree and now the fact of them being without Darragh Ó Se while Donncha O’Connor earned a reprieve, has created an almost surreal build-up to tomorrow’s replay in Croke Park (2pm).
Notably, between the provincial and All-Ireland series, this will be their 16th championship clash in the current decade. For Cork it’s their first semi-final replay since 1987, while Kerry were taken to two games both in their 2000 semi-final with Armagh and the decider against Galway.
While Pat O’Shea and his selectors have opted for Tommy Griffin as midfield partner to Seamus Scanlon, there is no guarantee that this will be the team formation for the throw-in. And, who knows we might even see Daniel Bohane at full-back, even though he’s not named.
Likewise, with Cork having named their team before O’Connor had his red card rescinded in a successful challenge before the Central Hearings Committee, the likelihood is that he will start instead of Kevin McMahon.
Last Sunday, he was one of Cork’s better forwards, doing well on the right wing against Killian Young who, ironically, had a chance to win the game only to see his kick go wide off the upright. The statistics for the game reveal that Kerry enjoyed 12% more possession and that they kicked 14 wides, compared to Cork’s eight. Whether or not they will dominate to the same extent is one of the many imponderables about the game.
Anticipating the outcome of the midfield battle is another, but it’s unlikely to decide the outcome to any significant degree. Darragh Ó Se’s absence will be felt but it won’t be the difference between winning and losing.
Clearly, the level of improvement which Cork can achieve will be crucial, because they need to be far more consistent if they are to win. And, no one can have any doubt at this stage that they have a much greater chance of advancing.
One particular area where they need to do better is in around the full-forward line, where a lot of Michael Cussen’s good work went to waste because of a lack of support and Kerry’s grater alertness to the breaking ball.
What of Kerry? Players and management will have been concerned by yet another failure to close out a game and stung by the criticism they have been subjected to in the meantime.
However, within the camp they will have been their own biggest critics and it’s obvious that they will approach the game in a very different frame of mind.
In reality, their backs are to the wall and they know they must respond to the challenge confronting them.
They will be buoyed by the belief that they remain the better team and — no matter what the bookmakers may say — it will help that they are not the strong favourites they were going into the first game.
Neither side can legislate for the unexpected — for instance the effect Darragh Ó Se’s dismissal had on Cork — but in a straightforward contest between two full-strength teams I believe Kerry will still have the advantage. Verdict: Kerry