Kerry forwards light up the old grey bowl one last time

Golfers like to remind themselves that nothing’s won on Saturdays, but it’s the day plenty of tour pros write themselves out of contention.

How much damage yesterday’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh humiliation does to Cork’s September roadmap is a moot point, but their momentum has been properly holed beneath the waterline. In his rookie year as a senior manager, Brian Cuthbert was handed the most valuable 70 minutes of frontline training he will ever experience in this, his maiden Munster final. Now he must discover whether his players and fellow selectors learnt as much from a 0-24 to 0-12 hammering.

Cork had a game plan — albeit one which seemed to take very little cognisance of Kerry’s attacking fluency — but its pillars appeared to be old-style midfield dominance and man-on-man supremacy. Mike Tyson used to say everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face. Once Kerry found their rhythm and range — around three minutes into the game — it was time to see Cork’s counter-punch. To unwrap Plan B.

Except they kept going backwards. And then backwards some more. Kerry brought their artillery on a day Cork brought a butter knife. Cuthbert admitted afterwards he would have hated to be a Cork corner-back in such a rearguard action, which begs the question — what did Cork management do to curb the radar passing and surgical precision of Kerry’s offence? As Kerry turned a one-point lead into a 0-13 to 0-3 chasm, was there a case for dropping Paddy Kelly and John O’Rourke deep to shut down the green grass in front of the inside duo of James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney? Or redirecting Ken O’Halloran’s kick-outs to interrupt a lopsided Kerry midfield dominance? It was hard to discern whether Kerry’s snaffling of breaking ball was to their credit or Cork’s stupor.

“We’re hugely disappointed to leave a huge amount of people down, especially ourselves,” a shell-shocked Cuthbert said. “We looked a yard off and they turned us over quite easily and we found it very difficult to turn them over, so, certainly, they looked sharper than us.”

The Cork manager saw no correlation with the unconvincing win over Tipperary, nor the second half League semi-final collapse against Dublin but clearly Cork’s early season joie de vivre has evaporated. They’re struggling through quicksand again.

Kerry will skip and stride into Croke Park on August Bank Holiday weekend, the only problem being they’ll have a giant Red X on their back. If you listen really closely, you’ll hear the sound of whirring laptops in the east, west and north of the country, forensically studying Kingdom’s exhibition yesterday. You really think James O’Donoghue is going to see so much space again this season?

That’s the trouble with second chance championships — nothing gets taken on its merits anymore. If it was, gaelic football lovers would be hailing this display in front of just over 21,000 watchers, for what it was — something close to footballing perfection. Kerry’s passing accuracy was staggering, the lateral movement in attack — accommodated as it was by Cork’s lax defending — turning water into wine. But it was soon apparent this Munster final had been won when the respective generals sat down to formulate their game plans.

How many Kerry followers took a sharp intake of breath when Shane Enright was deputed to mark Cork’s powerball, Brian Hurley? And yet the Castlehaven man scored but once from play, and that a late point when everything was tagged and bagged.

Johnny Buckley was sited at wing-forward, shutting down Damien Cahalane’s offensive intentions while helping himself to four points. The siting of Declan O’Sullivan as a deep lying quarterback has been in the oven for some time, hatched and road-tested on the Kingdom’s training camp in Portugal. It was the springboard for the green and gold rampage yesterday but everything and everyone in front of O’Sullivan was fine-tuned by Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s eye for detail.

From rookie Stephen O’Brien to the revitalised Bryan Sheehan to the straw that stirs Kerry’s attack, Donnchadh Walsh, Kerry were razor sharp. Their turnover capacity has multiplied — hat-tip to trainer Cian O’Neill there — and the cherries on top are Paul Geaney and 10-point James O’Donoghue, who strode through the pre-match parade like a lad heading to McSorley’s in Killarney for a brew. If you’re from Kerry it’s easy to fantasise what a cocktail O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper could cook up, but maybe the Legion man is thriving with the added responsibility of being the chief gunslinger.

Michael Shields and Eoin Cadogan were hapless and helpless in trying to shut down Kerry’s scoremeisters, but the protection they received from their colleagues bordered on negligence.

Kerry led by eight at the break, their greatest concern being whether they could suppress the inevitable Cork surge of pride. Recent evidence suggested Kerry would wilt in the second period, and that haunting habit got an early airing in the visiting dressing room at half-time.

“We mentioned it, of course we did,” Fitzmaurice admitted. “As we were going into the tunnel, I was saying it to the selectors about last year. Diarmuid [Murphy] actually mentioned to me about 2008 here in Páirc Ui Chaoimh. I think we were up by eight points at half-time that day too, Michael Cussen came on at full-forward in the second-half and Cork beat us. So we were conscious we had to keep doing what we were doing and in fairness to the lads they stuck at it. Even though Cork came out and got three points in-a-row and were coming at us, the boys settled again and we got a couple of scores. After that the game was ours to lose.”

Not that the Kerry manager would admit his glee in public. As Jack O’Connor used say, there’s no All-Ireland handed out in July.

“I’m sure when we look back at it there are things we can improve on. There is a long way to go yet in the season and the serious stuff starts now in terms of knockout. We’re going to Croke Park, where we want to be, in four weeks’ time. It’s a long enough gap again to get over. The Munster championship appealed to me from the point of view of two games in two weeks. Now the players have county championship next weekend, which is a distraction. Hopefully fellas will come through it injury-free, because the last couple of rounds of the county championship haven’t been too good for us that way.”

Cork’s early second-half tempo, with the aid of the breeze, didn’t last long. A three-point salvo was met with the same by Kerry before Stephen O’Brien smashed the Cork crossbar. Darran O’Sullivan would later blaze another goal chance wide. If Fitzmaurice is looking to pick holes...

By the threequarter point, a defeat had become a rout, the biggest Páirc Uí Chaoimh Munster final margin since 1980. Even Kerry keeper Brian Kelly rounded off the circle of excellence with a stunning piece of handling from a high ball into the Kerry square on 52 minutes. When no-one in red reacted to a quick Kerry free between Declan O’Sullivan and Johnny Buckley, you could stick a fork in this one. It was done.

Fitzmaurice, in his second year as head coach, had a ropey stretch in his first league campaign but nothing as chastening as this for his Cork counterpart. But the empathy on such days ensured the words of consolation weren’t counterfeit.

“Brian is going to be questioning things now but at the same time, Cork are going to be in the qualifiers,” Fitzmaurice reasoned. “They’ve got a game in three weeks. I’m sure they’ll come out fighting. Today wasn’t their day. Today we played very well. If we come across Cork again later on the summer, we know they’ll be a seriously dangerous animal.”

The first thing Cork and Cuthbert need to do now is convince themselves of that.


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