Talking points: Would Cork have been better off without that Mark Keane goal against Kerry?

Tony Leen picks out four big questions for Cork football
Talking points: Would Cork have been better off without that Mark Keane goal against Kerry?

A dejected Mark Collins after Cork's Munster Football final loss to Tipperary at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

Cork post-mortems: They’re off and running

Go the losers’ dressing room. That’s where the stories are. Despite his own advice, the famed New York columnist Jimmy Breslin might have doubled back to the emotional winning reaction at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday for the best Monday copy.

But he’s right. Tipp stories are all upside. Most of the intriguing Tuesday follow-ups surround Cork football and the ramifications of their alarming Munster final demise.

A colleague posed the (almost serious) question Sunday night: Would Cork have been better off without that Mark Keane goal against Kerry? Clearly not – it’s been way too long since Cork defeated any top six county - but it would have spared the inevitable ‘told ya so’ narrative that repeats Cork football is a venture you just can’t trust.

“That is unfair to this group of players,” Ronan McCarthy said when I broached the elephant in the room Sunday. “I think people have to acknowledge that it is so difficult to raise yourself (again). They invested so much in the game against Kerry, mentally, physically, and every other way. It is hard to raise yourself (again) and it wasn't that they didn't try to do it. They worked well over the last couple of weeks, but it is hard.” 

Hard, certainly, for such a young group. Inconsistency is a by-product of nascent talent and both in terms of age and big-game experience, Cork’s defensive set on Sunday was callow, part by choice, part for the fact that Seanie Powter, Tomas Clancy, James Loughrey, Liam O’Donovan, Nathan Walsh, and Kevin Crowley were unavailable. 

What’s not good enough, however, is the time and room Tipp duo Conor Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan had. Not only that. They didn’t need to work hard, as in make multiple runs, for clear separation. Their virtues were well advertised, and Cork got that part of their plan badly wrong. 

With all that, Cork should have been leaning on their more experienced attack last Sunday but six points from play in 80 minutes tells its own story.

So is the ‘fear’ of winning still there?

To lose Luke Connolly to an unspecified injury at the interval was unfortunate. But it was neither cause nor effect when addressing Cork’s attacking malfunction. Tipp’s energy without the ball was admirable but it was hardly mass defence at the same time – and Páirc Uí Chaoimh is a big pitch, remember. 

The intelligent, economic use of possession Cork displayed against Kerry was conspicuously absent this time around, as were the angled strike runs that turn Ruairí Deane’s sorties into scores – those runs that ‘break the line’. 

Tipp deserve every plaudit they get, but when a side plays as laterally as Cork, when a side make as many poor selections with passes and shot selection (last quarter in particular), when a side in continually looking to the same source (Ian Maguire, Ruairí Deane) to make something happen, then that side is more fearful of losing than intent on winning.

There’s little solace in the fact that Sean Powter offers all of the above. He’s good but he’s not that good! Interesting sidebar on medicine student Powter, who has left UCC and is now studying at UL, as is David Clifford of Kerry. Not a bad Sigerson Cup duo to have.

Back to Square One so for Cork?

Easy on. This is a setback, a real one, but it doesn’t ctrl+alt+delete the progress of the last 18 months. Apart from the obvious lost opportunity of a Munster title, the big miss is not being able to road test the work and the youngsters against Mayo in an All-Ireland semi-final, a game Cork is far better wired for than Tipperary in a provincial final (it’s one of those ‘Trust Me’ ones…). 

Part of the challenge for Ronan McCarthy these past three years has been changing the culture of the Cork football person in terms of expectation. Listening to him Sunday, that was a bigger setback than the silverware: 

“Cork have won six Munster titles in 24 years. There is a bigger question here: are we happy to be winning one Munster championship every four or five years? Whether we won (Sunday), that question is still there. We have got to be better than one every five or six years with a last-minute goal. Surely, we are more ambitious than that here.” 

Mr Hindsight remains the best selector 

The wisest counsel always comes the morning after the night before. Why was Kevin Flahive dropped? Why wasn’t Paul Kerrigan brought on? Surely Aidan Browne would have been better on Conor Sweeney when defensive changes were made? All valid if the prosecution is at Cork training every night – but that isn’t the case. 

Moving swiftly onto 2021 won’t be easy but there is the prospect of Division 2 and opposition that includes Mayo, Kildare, and Meath. The question is whether Ronan McCarthy and his management team will be on board. 

Cork are probably better placed to replace McCarthy than neighbours Kerry are to replace Peter Keane (John Cleary, Keith Ricken, etc), but the current Cork manager has built a no-bullshit culture around Cork football and reintroduced some respect and autonomy into the inter-county structure. Half-hearted interest is not welcome. 

He has added two excellent coaches in Cian O’Neill and Kevin Smith and retains the savvy Sean Hayes and Gary O’Halloran. He spent two years settling things down, this year was progress, 2021 should be about achievement. Whether ‘the chat’ with McCarthy falls to the current GAA chair Tracey Kennedy or her successor Marc Sheehan remains to be seen. The first soundings McCarthy will take is from the group of players he has been working with.

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