Relegation will hurt more than Kerry’s pride

Paul Kerrigan is the one Cork forward Kerry may struggle with. Picture: INPHO

ALLIANZ FL DIVISION 1: Kerry v Cork
It’s been quite a while since a Cork-Kerry league clash had as much riding on it.

Whether they admit it or not, there isn’t a whole lot that would give Cork diehards as much pleasure this year as sending the Kingdom on their way to Division 2 for 2014.

Kerry, on the other hand, have the strongest panel they’ve had available to them in a while and will be hoping the desperate threat of relegation and the occasion of their last home game in NFL 2013 will inspire a full 70-minute performance.

There is no doubting that Kerry have more to lose but there is an awful lot to be gained too. A win tomorrow gives them the opportunity to blood emerging talent at a higher level in 2014. Kerry’s next opponents in two weeks’ time, Tyrone, found out to their cost these last few seasons that it is much easier for a team to re-constitute itself in Division 1 than in Division 2.

That, in effect, is what’s at stake tomorrow. It’s got little to do with what might happen in this year’s championship.

The experienced players on the Kerry side tomorrow will be able to ratchet up the stakes and put pressure on themselves to deliver a result, but will the younger players? There is an awful lot on the line for those players who have had the experience of winning an All-Ireland medal but may have missed the meaning of the struggle since then.

The sextet of Enright, Young, Maher, Walsh, O’Leary and Darran O’Sullivan are going to be around for a few more years and tomorrow’s game offers them another opportunity to hone their abilities in the art of winning ugly.

There have been some signs of promise for Kerry. Johnny Buckley and Jonathan Lyne have been two of their better players throughout this campaign while Brian McGuire again made his case for permanent promotion against Down. Following his performance last week, Fionn Fitzgerald would be considered unlucky if he were making way for anybody except Tomás Ó Sé.

The selection of Mark Griffin at full-back should draw a few extra curious souls into Austin Stack Park given the fascination with full-back play in Kerry that extends back to Barry O’Shea’s tenancy there about a decade and a half ago.

Despite the fact that Kerry had some of the greatest players of the modern era — Moynihan, McCarthy, Ó Sé and O’Mahony — wearing the No 3 jersey since, some supporters still yearn for a full-back in the traditional mould to drop anchor at the edge of the square.

That might infuriate those who recognise the demands of the position are changing radically but even the modernists will acknowledge that some of the goals Kerry have conceded in recent years could have been prevented with greater authority under the dropping ball.

In the latest incumbent, the green and gold faithful get a natural competitor with good upper body strength who won’t be afraid to support his half-backs when carrying ball out of defence. Cork’s Barry O’Driscoll showed against Donegal that he’s quite capable of taking defenders out of their comfort zones and he will give Griffin the ideal examination if he lines up in direct opposition to him tomorrow.

There has been a lot of focus on the all-star cast absent from Kerry team-sheets so far but, when one looks at the list of players unavailable to Cork this weekend, there is some serious quality among the absentees there too. Alan Quirke, Eoin Cadogan, Ciarán Sheehan, Patrick Kelly, Donncha O’Connor (if unavailable), and most unfortunately of all, Colm O’Neill, are substantial losses and their absence makes Cork’s consistency in the past three weeks all the more impressive.

Looking at the putative match-ups tomorrow it would be a surprise to see Eoin O’Mahony taking up Kieran Donaghy. While O’ Mahony has many fine qualities, he has struggled in the past with direct high ball, particularly against Michael Murphy in last year’s league, and Kerry might see potential in that tussle if it were to materialise.

Talks of breaking up the midfield partnership to drop Canty back and promote Alan O’Connor from the bench to partner Aidan Walsh might be premature as Canty, too, has struggled in the recent past in an orthodox full-back role on Donaghy. Besides, the Walsh-Canty experiment appears to have a lot more going for it than last year’s tactical experiment of placing Walsh at full-forward.

Either way, a team that only conceded two points from play in a forward line containing Murphy and McFadden must be getting an awful lot right given they conceded 4-45 in their first three league outings. The protection being offered behind midfield by Mark Collins and Andrew O’Sullivan last week made Cork harder to break down but there is considerable scope for improvement up front.

The heavy sod will ensure that all scores are hard-earned and given they took only ten of their chances in the first half last weekend, Cork will have to be a lot more economical in the forwards.

It may take Daniel Goulding a while to get to the tempo of the game after such a long lay-off, but he is still the best free-taker in the county and, as is often the case on spring days in Tralee, free kicks could dictate where two valuable league points go.

Paul Kerrigan is the one Cork forward Kerry may struggle with and he is crucial to the Rebel cause at the moment. Cork seem to be trying to change the direction of their attacking game lately and Kerrigan has always been crucial to changing the point of their attacks. Nobody has a better turn of pace and once he got rid of the bad habit of overindulging in long-range shooting, Kerrigan has been a better player. He has started playing to his strengths — which are running at pace and coming off the shoulder of a stalled attack. Nobody does it better.

In recent years Cork and Kerry have become like a dysfunctional couple from a country and western song, sick of the sight of each other but bound together in spite of themselves by fate. Familiarity is breeding so much more than contempt.

This game, however, is about more mundane matters than restoring the old magic of one of Irish sport’s most storied rivalries.

For Kerry it’s simply about survival and two points that would leave them with everything to play for before they board the plane in Farranfore on Holy Thursday for their training camp in preparation for the final league outing against Tyrone.

To set up that encounter as something meaningful, Kerry will have to perform much smarter than they have done to date in the league.

If they manage to salvage something out of the schooling they got in February and early March, Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his staff might start to look awfully clever. But then again, as Einstein himself would have said, it might not be that they’re so smart, it might just be that they stay with problems longer.

Smarter football and greater persistence should get them over the line tomorrow.


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