Tony Leen: Barrs strike an important blow for Cork football

There is significance in the result from Thurles beyond the destination of silverware
Tony Leen: Barrs strike an important blow for Cork football

St. Finbarrs' Cillian Myers Murray celebrates with the trophy after the game

IT took all of seventeen seconds for the game-breaking element to present itself in Sunday’s Munster Club SFC victory for Cork’s St Finbarr’s.

Paul O’Keeffe and his management team employed a dog-eared tactical gambit of an immediate floater into an appointed target man to test opposition pulses. If there is a team in the land pre-conditioned to such opportunism, it’s one featuring Kieran Donaghy, but Austin Stacks were on their heels as Brian Hayes’ touch found Cillian Myers Murray in splendid isolation to goal.

The Barrs brought a well-advertised blue-collar ethic and next-ball mentality to Semple Stadium, delivering a first provincial football title in 35 years. That devastating early punch in the nose left the Kerry champions hopelessly fumbling around for their gumshields. Both on the scoreboard and psychologically, they never recovered.

There is significance in the result from Thurles beyond the destination of silverware. It has been long held that Cork sides start a psychological point or two down when the opposition is from across the county bounds, but Stacks were the spooked ones on this occasion. None of their prep had them a goal down inside twenty seconds because their default setting is a solid structure that gives up few chances. As the Barrs settled seamlessly into their routine, their favoured opponents were kicking ball out over the Semple Stadium sideline and passing to invisible team-mates.

Well rattled is the technical term.

The Togher side don’t have a rapier’s edge to their attacking arsenal but from Sam Ryan all the way up to Stephen Sherlock, they get the very most out of themselves. Colin Lyons galloped forward for a point in an MVP performance and Billy Hennessy reminded many that he was a hard, fast, solid defender before hitching himself to Cork hurling.

“They keep on giving,” manager O’Keeffe beamed afterwards on TG4. “We had that cushion of the goal for the whole game and forced Stacks to chase it. We put Brian Hayes in specifically for that early ball and he got the touch to Cillian. But after fantastic football in the first half, we had the usual brain failure in the third quarter.”

There’s the hint of something interesting about the inside threat of Sherlock, McCrickard and Myers-Murray even if it didn’t spark consistently on this occasion. Ian Maguire remains the fulcrum but a fortnight will improve Brian Hayes’ mobility in the middle third – given his lack of prep time, three points is a hugely impressive day’s work.

It’s unlikely the Tralee side has looked as dishevelled as they did in a dismal first period, which the Barrs put a lock on with the last three points to swap ends six in front, 1-7 to 0-4.

In the context of two evenly-matched outfits, that represented a chasm. The Barrs waved away the proposal of a venue toss on the basis that home advantage was enough to tip the scales one way or the other. They weren’t wrong. There was more from Stacks after half-time in terms of cohesion and a threat but their reputation as a moderate scoring threat isn’t unreasonable. They don’t tend to stray beyond twelve or thirteen scores.

Sean Quilter was their best forward on Sunday but he’s young and was far from error-free in his decision-making. The first sign of the goal they needed to even the ledger for the early gaffe came after 51 minutes when John Kerins did splendidly from close range to deny the corner-forward. Kerins is making a welcome habit of big-game saves at key junctures.

Barrs manager Paul O’Keeffe surmised that a Stacks goal at that moment might have been the knockout blow – “that was game over” - and he’s right to be concerned by his players’ inexplicable third quarter fade-outs. However, there was never the sense that Stacks had done enough to seize control of the final.

It took the Barrs 20 minutes to register a second half score, that coming from Hayes just before Kerins’ save at the other end. Starting the dual talent, despite significant hamstromng trouble, was one of a number of good selection decisions by Barrs management. Their changes made an impact, and in the case of Michael Shields, provided the poise that settles these fraught, frenetic affairs. It was his carry and pass to another replacement, Enda Dennehy, that fashioned the second goal on 58 minutes which re-established a five-point lead.

It will only deepen Stacks frustration that their desperation delivered 1-1 in the remaining few minutes and might have yielded a final foray only for a dubious free award against them which Sherlock converted to seal the deal.

Stacks manager Wayne Quillinan won’t turn to the loss of Brendan O’Sullivan in the first half and Joe O’Connor in the second for solace or excuses, though both are key to the Rock. Plus, in the matter of Kieran Donaghy and his poor showing at Semple Stadium, they are worthy of mention.

Even at 39, the Tralee talisman retains an outsized influence on proceedings. It’s also double-edged, and his struggles provided impetus to the men in blue and their travelling support. At times, there was that uncomfortable sense of a great champion in one fight too many as Donaghy’s 39-year-old legs failed to carry him to areas of the field he needed to be. However, the injuries to O’Sullivan and O’Connor forced Stacks’ hand and changed Donaghy’s role from timely inspiration to midfield perspiration. He found himself chasing a losing cause towards his own goal as Hayes punched that crucial 50th minute point for the Togher men.

Nor could Donaghy achieve any aerial dominance over the Barrs’ Sam Ryan, my player of the match, a feather in the cap of the Blues’ management team who deputed a small man to a giant task. And still, Stacks reverted to the same ploy time and again convinced that their talisman would rescue them once more.

The Barrs struggled to stem the flow towards their goal in the second period as Stacks stitched five points together to reduce the deficit to a point, 1-7 to 0-9. To the forefront in this resurgence was Greg Horan. Though it was Joe O’Connor who won that free for Quilter to convert, he was hobbling badly at that stage and had to be replaced.

The Barrs sideline might have been fearing the dam burst, but finally Maguire and Hayes lifted the siege.

“We seem to take a break mentally,” O’Keeffe reflected after. “When we are good, we are really intense, but then there is this lull and we let the opposition back into it. I can’t put my finger on it.”

If his players can avoid those damaging time-outs, there’s an interesting challenge ahead for Ulster champions and All-Ireland favourites Kilcoo in a fortnight.

As Kerry’s standard-bearers discovered in Thurles, the boys in blue don’t tend to stand on ceremony and curtsy to convention..

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