It is by a distance the most frequent face-off of the new millennium, with 26 championship clashes already since Cork partied like it’s 1999. Kieran Shannon has crunched the numbers from all those games, observed the trends — and how both camps might try to buck them this evening.
1. SHOULD THIS BE THE LAST TIME...
It’s a record that should alarm every Cork fan.
It’s not the overplayed one concerning Killarney — over those 20 years, they’ve snatched five draws down there, while four of their five defeats were narrow ones.
Rather it’s that if you were to identify the last Cork-Kerry championship clash of each summer since the turn of the millennium, the win count stands a staggering 13:1 to Kerry.
The only summer Cork played Kerry in 21st-century championship football and remained unbeaten was 2012. That’s it (the counties didn’t meet at all in 2003). Even in 2010 when Cork won the All Ireland, Kerry still had one up on them, having beaten them earlier in Munster in a replay.
It was once said about the famous Ali-Frazier trilogy that at times they were less fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world as the heavyweight championship of each other. Tonight Cork can win that belt.
Because contrary to how it once was, they probably won’t be meeting in Croke Park...
2. ‘ALRIGHT, NO MORE F****N’ MR NICE GUY’: THIS AIN’T 2009 NO MORE
A few weekends ago, there was a priceless look on Jim McGuinness’s face on the Sky Sports panel when Darragh Ó Sé tried to espouse the idea of Monaghan pulling up short in Ulster to increase their chances of winning an All-Ireland. Dara Ó Cinnéide has similarly suggested Mayo would be just as well off losing in Connacht. It was like what was good for Kerry in 2006 and 2009 was the best route and template for everyone else to win an All-Ireland. Cork themselves would come to that way of thinking. Conor Counihan would privately admit to us at the 2010 All Stars that while Cork still wanted to win in Munster that season, tactically they had been holding something back, for Croker — or more particularly, Kerry in Croker.
That preoccupation with each other would still persist in 2011. In the closing minutes of Kerry’s facile All-Ireland quarter-final curtain raiser win over Limerick, a Kerry player sustained an injury. Orbiting the touchline was a Cork selector, casually enquiring with a Croke Park official if he thought that player would be back for the semi-final. What he did not know right behind him, leaning by the tunnel with his then-not-so-famous baseball cap pulled down, was James Horan. The Cork selector had just provided the new Mayo manager with the finishing touches of his last team talk before they would spoil the Cork-Kerry semi-final everyone had anticipated, even Tomás Ó Sé, as was clear by his post-match interview that day.
Now Ó Sé’s words from that day apply; Kerry will have to improve if they’re to beat Cork. Ó Sé himself has commented that his old teammates may have subliminally fallen into the trap of easing themselves into the summer, thinking they didn’t have to show their full hand in Munster, just like in 2009. That won’t do now. Cork and Kerry are now just as long not playing each other in Croker (2010 onwards) as they were always meeting up there (2004 to 2009). They’re not both going to get through Dublin, Donegal and Mayo as those sides are a whole lot better than they were in 2009.
And while Cork mightn’t be as good yet as they were in 2009, they’re a lot better than Kerry seemed to think they were entering the last game. In their personnel, in how they were set up, Kerry two weeks ago smacked of a team thinking they’d still enough to get by, or that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they didn’t. In making the four personnel changes he has, Eamonn Fitzmaurice dispelled that mindset. They now know Cork are serious, that Dublin are waiting for the loser. Like James Gandolfini’s hitman Virgil warned to Alabama in the movie True Romance, “Alright, no more f****n’ Mr Nice Guy.” Or as Tomás might say...
3. ‘HAMMER THE HAMMER’ – MIDFIELD
If any fixture underlines the traditional line that whoever wins midfield wins the game, it’s Kerry-Cork. For a decade, Jacko ruled the roost. Then in ’87 along came Shay Fahy with Teddy McCarthy. In ’88 Larry Tompkins switch to midfield changed that game. In the mid-90s Kerry had no answer to Honohan and Culloty; then along came Darragh, putting on exhibitions in ’98, 2000, the last quarter in 2001 and all through in Croker in 2002.
Sometimes alright later on, Nicholas Murphy would get the edge in Munster but take it by the way they approached any rematch in Croke Park, he was the foremost hammer that generation of Ó Sé set out to hammer.
A fortnight ago Alan O’Connor dominated a sector of the field that Kerry had won hands down last year. In leaving out Anthony Maher, Fitzmaurice may have been too cute for his own good. In restoring possibly the most consistent midfielder in the country, the message is clear. Bully the bully.
4. ‘DOWCHA, DONNCHA BOY!’ ‘DOWCHA, GOOCH!’
Just before the start of the drawn game, a pitchside Alan Quirke pointed out on The Sunday Game that there were two significant differences from last year’s landslide Munster final. Kerry were now without their talisman that day in Declan O’Sullivan, while Cork now had their talisman back in Donncha O’Connor. Sure enough, O’Connor would have a major influence in the subsequent 70 minutes, scoring 1-4 and setting up Colm O’Neill’s goal. Suddenly with the man now 34, it’s like everyone has finally awoken to what Quirke long ago appreciated. Kerry especially bring out the best in him, probably because he grew up on the border in Ballydesmond. Like Gooch, O’Connor’s debut in this fixture didn’t go the best – both were subbed by the 40 minute mark, scoreless – but he has scored from play in all but three of his subsequent 16 championship games against the old enemy, and like Cooper, has never failed to score in any Old Firm championship game since that debut.
In all, he’s scored 4-54 against Kerry in championship, an average of 3.9 points per game, 2-24 from play [Cooper’s scoring rate against Cork is virtually the same: 5-75, 1-42 from deadballs, over 23 championship games]. Whichever of them, O’Connor or Cooper, has the greater impact today will likely decide the game.
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