That feeling will be tempered by the fact that they’re unlikely to be subjected to the type of examination against Clare next month that would steel them for the real business in August.
Nevertheless, there is an awful lot for Conor Counihan’s charges to be positive about. They got some valuable game time into the likes of Daniel Goulding, Ciarán Sheehan and Nicholas Murphy. The confidence gained from a really solid defensive display will reassure and nourish them in the weeks of downtime ahead and they emerged from the scrap without issues of injury or indiscipline to bother them. They looked composed and purposeful anytime Kerry came near them.
Kerry are in an altogether different place. The optimists amongst their support on Leeside yesterday were suggesting a course similar to 2009 and 2006 can be navigated but the warning signs we saw in late spring and just two weeks ago against Tipperary are now too compelling to ignore.
Cork won the first four breaking balls, always a good indicator of hunger and desire. By the 20th minute Kerry had managed to get their noses in front for the first and only time in the match. Marc Ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony were gobbling up everything Cork could offer in terms of a supply to Colm O’Neill and Nicholas Murphy and Declan O’Sullivan had his best period of winning ball under the foliage at midfield.
Then things started to go pear-shaped. Kerry went 17 minutes without a score, missed two clear goal chances and crucially, Colm O’Neill put an earlier missed free behind him to kick two frees and one from play.
The two frees came about as a result of two further examples of Kerry sloppiness as Seamus Scanlon got caught in possession and Aidan O’Mahony was left exposed out on the wing with Nicholas Murphy.
The value of a freetaker team was rarely as pronounced as it was for Kerry yesterday. They went to the dressing rooms at half time three points down, 0-7 to 0-4, and had Brendan Kealy or Colm Cooper nailed relatively scoreable chances they would have been level. The groans that greeted these misses on the terrace told of a yearning for the composure of the absent Bryan Sheehan.
The Cork half back-line of Paudie Kissane, the deep-lying Graham Canty and Noel O’Leary dictated matters and this was one area where Kerry would have expected a better yield from some of their match-ups beforehand. Darran O’Sullivan tormented Kissane last year in Killarney but the tables were turned this year. His point five minutes from time excepted, O’Sullivan was peripheral to all attacks in the second half whereas a Kissane point on 44 minutes was symptomatic of all that was good about Cork yesterday. They held possession patiently, never panicked when forced into corners and when the ball eventually came to Kissane 50 yards out in the centre, he wasn’t afraid to have a cut. He who dares wins.
That point put Cork 0-10 to 0-7 up early in the second half and although Kerry pegged it back to a one point game within five minutes (thanks mainly to the lively promptings of James O’Donoghue) Cork’s response was impressive with Paul Kerrigan and Daniel Goulding knocking over important scores.
Kerry’s lack of imagination with their attacks was surprising and while many might query the substitutions of Paul Galvin and Kieran Donaghy, both looked listless and distracted all day.
The contrast between Kerry’s lack of desire and Cork’s ecstatic fanaticism in defence was all the more stark in the final ten minutes when the body language of some of the Kerry forwards was surprising to say the least. Great players stay great even when in a slump by doing the simple things well. Stuff like tackling and chasing and not leaving younger colleagues isolated. The challenge of rejuvenation and regeneration facing Jack O’Connor is one that will come between him and a few nights sleep over the coming weeks down south.
When the time came to kick for home, Cork had the juice in the tank and the personnel on the sideline to inject further urgency to the effort. Donncha O’Connor, Daniel Goulding and Colm O’Neill will continue to torment full back lines, Ciarán Sheehan will only improve with further sharpening, Pearse O’Neill and Fintan Goold would walk onto most teams in Ireland and the options of Nicholas Murphy and Aidan Walsh, who was superb yesterday, as target men gives Cork further encouragement.
The soul searching, blood letting and introspection ahead in Kerry won’t be pretty. It may make it easier that they’ve navigated the course before and arguments relating to tired legs and old age don’t bear up under scrutiny as old stagers Tomás Ó Sé and Aidan O’Mahony were some of the few to take the fight to the 73rd minute. James O’Donoghue’s form offers hope and Brendan Kealy’s kickouts were up to their usual high standard.
The next few weeks will reveal much but some new ways of attacking and new ways of winning the scrap around midfield need to be found. The safety net has been removed and it’s now time to walk the walk.