THE problem for the Cork footballers and those burdened with making the repayments on Páirc Uí Chaoimh was not the sight of thousands streaming out before the end of Saturday’s lopsided Munster final. It was the percentage of them who won’t be back.
Few who populate the GAA’s terraces have been as scarred in recent years as the Cork football supporter, but there is a hardcore who’ll fill the car with food and fuel and venture defiantly to wherever the final round of pre-Super 8 qualifiers takes them.
The pity is they formed one of the smaller percentage of fan types at Páirc Ui Chaoimh, who stayed to the bitter, bitter end.
It wasn’t just tedium that piqued interest in the attendance for the first provincial final since the old ground was restored to its magnificent present and future.
Those whom the urban dictionaries refer to as walk-ups boosted the crowd Saturday to the verge of 28,000 (27,674), of which at least 5,000 would be categorised as The Curious: Cork supporters prepared to give the footballers another chance on the basis of what they heard — few actually saw – from the provincial semi-final win over Tipperary at Semple Stadium.
When it’s compared to the 34,607 for a rollicking Saturday night Munster SHC meeting of Cork and Limerick a few weeks back, it represented a relatively healthy number of folk ready to reinvest in the ground-up retool of the footballers.
When you’ve an €80m stadium to pay for, that’s the kind of footfall one needs to cultivate.
However, watching a depressing re-run unfold before them on Saturday would have only cemented the conviction not to put themselves, nor their young care, through such torment again. Certainly, the notion of heading off, with trepidation, to a neutral qualifier no man’s land in a fortnight’s time will get short shrift from the Cork curious.
And while that’s not good, it may just suit Ronan McCarthy and his players just fine. The old Con Houlihan line ‘House Private, No Flowers’ was mentioned Saturday, but the odd fact is this new and brittle Cork group needs to do their triage in private, which is to say without frustrated and impatient Cork supporters boring their eyes into everything they try to do.
Getting away from the Marina and out of the county for a do-or-die qualifier is precisely what this nascent group requires.
As Brian Cuthbert and Peadar Healy can attest, Cork footballers don’t expect rallying support when times are bad, as there’s scarcely a quorum to generate it.
A Cork dual player once summed up the difference for me between the mood music in the football camp and the hurling camp: “You could lose nearly every game in the National league as a hurler, and the fella you meet on the street is saying ‘Keep it going, yer nearly there, you can see the potential’. Meet the same fella when the Cork footballers are losing League games, and he crosses the street to avoid you.”
The canyon between surging hope and the dull sense of the inevitable was seldom more starkly presented than in the opening minutes of both halves Saturday night.
The optimist’s sense that Cork would at least make Kerry sweat was impregnated by two early goals, again exposing the Kingdom’s achilles heel when opposition runs hard and straight at their back line.
Luke Connolly added a touch of swaz with another Cork point off the outside of his left boot in the 10th minute, but there was nothing then until the 45th minute. Kerry, meanwhile, had accumulated 2-12.
The excruciating part of all this was watching Cork players, purposeful and poised a month ago, crawl back into their shell as Kerry twisted the knife.
The unforgiving reality of attempting to synchronise Division 2 rhythms with the pace of movement and speed of thought the top-flight elite operate at was painfully evident, but McCarthy’s Cork are not as hapless this suggested.
In the end, they even eschewed the crumb of posting some points by resorting to a mindless series of high punts into the Kerry full-back line with the presumed target, Peter Kelleher, out around the midfield area.
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, management tried to set Cork up, as many expected, to populate their own half in an attempt to frustrate Kerry’s pacey young talents. Their primary outlet for such a strategy, Ruairi Deane, was incorrectly black-carded three minutes before the break, but before that Cork were already taking on water as Kerry pressed high and often.
With their half forward line going backwards and their one true finisher isolated and largely anonymous, the water was over Cork’s head before the business of the first half was complete.
While the talents of Sean O’Shea, David Clifford and the all-star attacking cast have been signposted, not everyone would have appreciated the wing-back wonders the Kingdom now possesses with the Rolls Royce talents of Paul Murphy augmented by the Ferrari-like young Dr Crokes defender Gavin White.
Once they hit their stride and broke beyond midfield, the Cork resistance collapsed. With David Moran commanding at will, the Cork players did everything but wave a white towel.
In the politest way possible afterwards, Eamonn Fitzmaurice demanded his side be given a bit of the credit for the demolition job, but the scariest part is that Kerry weren’t even ruthless on Saturday.
They were given a dry run around Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Friday night but their performance was pockmarked at stages by sloppy use of the ball and a benign approach close to the Cork goal. Paul Murphy awarded the performance a seven out of 10, about right.
When the margin of defeat is 17 points, the role of the referee should be incidental and while Ciaran Branigan’s three black card decisions shaped the narrative in no particular way, it would be remiss to overlook what is now clearly a difference in interpretation between officials on what constitutes such an offence.
Fitzmaurice wasn’t the only person in the ground who felt a black card for Sam Ryan’s 18th minute foul on David Clifford was excessive, and the Down whistler would have had few seconders for his Deane decision, notwithstanding the partisan audience. The implementation of the sanction remains a source of frustration for GAA audiences.
While Kerry stride onto a mouth-watering open game against Galway at Croke Park in the Super 8 series, Cork must deal with a delicate starting point from which to launch some form of recovery mission this week.
The lack of continuity from regime to regime — there’s been four Cork manager in six years — means every starting point begins with a new broom.
Only six of the players who ran Mayo to extra time in the qualifiers a year ago started on Saturday and if there’s little else to glean from Saturday for Cork it’s that they’ve got to embrace continuity for a while and suck up the short-term consequences.
The upside is they have a manager not given to extremes of emotion or pique and the measured way he addressed the rubble of the Munster final performance on Saturday night indicates he, at least, is up for the fight.
“We have a choice now: To lie down and die, or turn around and get ready for two weeks’ time,” Ronan McCarthy stated.
“People have been on about three-year terms; I’m not interested in a three-year term, I’m interested in getting the max out of this season.”
How many others in the county are as interested — or even bothered — should become clear on the weekend of July 7 and 8.
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