It’s just as well Cork didn’t win this one — for Conor Counihan would have been at a loss to justify it.
He didn’t have to, their late rally in front of the 12,821 Páirc Uí Chaoimh home crowd coming up short and finishing with Noel O’Leary’s desperate shot at goal ending up closer to the corner flag than Brendan Kealy’s net.
Even if a dubious Barry John Keane point in the second half was among Kerry’s total, they were good for their victory and rarely looked troubled after building up a six-point lead at the break (0-8 to 0-2).
Cork had cut the gap to three points with six minutes to go. By that stage, a previously sterile game of football had come to life with substitute O’Leary renewing sparring acquaintances with Paul Galvin.
But Kerry were hardly rattled, substitute Tomás Ó Sé bringing additional composure to a backline in mean form, especially Aidan O’Mahony and Marc Ó Sé. Up front, it was Declan O’Sullivan who gave Kerry the cutting edge, his weaving doing enough to set up Bryan Sheehan for their 68th-minute insurance point.
Injury-time scores from Donncha O’Connor from a free and Eoin Cotter whose shot rose just above Kealy’s crossbar kept the crowd interested but there was no killer punch.
Graham Canty came closest to beating Kealy with a goal chance in both halves, his first in the 30th minute narrowly going wide while his second attempt five minutes from the end of normal time was snuffed out by the goalkeeper.
Had either found the net, Cork would be waving their get out of jail card. Instead, Counihan was left to rue a disenchanting first 35 minutes.
“Crazy, crazy, absolutely crazy first half,” Counihan said. “You wouldn’t deserve to win a game playing the way we played in the first half.”
But what was crazy? “It just wasn’t good enough, the lads know that themselves. There was a bit of a response in the second half, but you have to play for 70 minutes at this level or you don’t get a result. It was good to have the second-half performance but disappointing in the sense of knowing that if we could have done that in the first half, we would have given ourselves a good chance of getting a result.”
Counihan put the defeat down to simple, basic errors with players “maybe not taking on responsibility”. His forwards certainly struggled to retain possession and it was only in the 34th minute that Cork scored their first from play via Aidan Walsh.
After a third win on the trot, Kerry are sitting pretty at the top of the table with a semi-final all but certain, with the remaining two games at home.
Yesterday might have lacked a lot of cut and thrust but Jack O’Connor wasn’t too upset.
“Neither team was at championship pace. It’s only the month of March so we’re not going at full pelt. We also have four games in a row which is hard going. It’s tough on the bodies so overall I thought it was a good game. To try and qualify for the semi-finals was the aim because we’re trying out a share of new lads — we want them to sample as many games as possible at this level. We’re delighted to get through the game — it was a great experience for us.”
O’Connor also took heart from the performance of Kieran Donaghy in trying circumstances following the death of his father Oliver in Omagh on Friday.
“We left it up to himself,” said O’Connor about the player’s decision to line out. “He’s playing well at the moment. He took a personal decision and we wouldn’t stand in his way if he wanted to play the game.”
Donaghy’s 14th minute point to put Kerry 0-4 to 0-1 up turned out to be their third of six scores without reply as they started almost as convincingly as they did last summer’s Munster final against Cork.
And just like in Killarney eight months ago, Declan O’Sullivan was the star, giving the returning Michael Shields a difficult time of it.
Kerry’s conversion rate of eight from 12 was impressive and while they rarely troubled Ken O’Halloran for a goal it was no real slight on their attack. Cork, on the other hand, posted eight wides before half-time, Walsh’s point drawing ironic cheers from the crowd. They came to life when O’Leary’s introduction was followed by a get-to-you-know-you with Galvin and three Cork scores on the spin. But that stage, it was all too late. Kerry’s stall was set and impenetrable.
Scorers for Cork: D O’Connor 0-5 (frees); A Walsh 0-2, G Canty, D Collins, F Goold, E Cotter 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kerry: Declan O’Sullivan (2 frees), B Sheehan (3 frees) 0-4 each; A Maher, K Donaghy, Darran O’Sullivan, BJ Keane, P Galvin 0-1 each.
Subs for Cork: P Kerrigan for Kelly (blood 23-29); Kerrigan for C O’Neill (49); N O’Leary for P O’Neill (52); L Shorten for Collins (62); B O’Driscoll for Kelly (66).
Subs for Kerry: T Ó Se for Crowley (45); K O’Leary for Curtin (56); D O’Callaghan for Keane (inj 65).
Referee: Maurice Deegan (Laois).
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