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 The Cork substitutes running on to the pitch in celebration after their victory over Kerry in the Eirgrid Munster U20 football final at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Denis Minihane
The Cork substitutes running on to the pitch in celebration after their victory over Kerry in the Eirgrid Munster U20 football final at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Denis Minihane
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The Christy O'Connor column: Now is the time for the Rebels to kick on

IN the 13th minute of the recent Munster U20 final, Cathal O’Mahony rifled a brilliant score from the right wing to push Cork ahead by six points.

When Kerry replied with the next three scores, Josh O’Keeffe got off a short kick-out before Cork stitched six passes together and Mark Cronin got on the end of the move to land another excellent point.

By that stage, the notion that Kerry would just kick into gear and stage a comeback was starting to dissolve. Because Cork were already on a different level.

Cork continued to prove as much. When Kerry had the deficit back to four points just after the break, Cork effectively ended the contest when a long O’Keeffe kick-out was won by Colm O’Callaghan before Blake Murphy nailed one of the best goals scored at any level this year. Immediately afterwards, Cork won the Kerry kick-out and O’Mahony landed another exquisite score.

Cork’s confidence clearly grew as the match progressed but the most impressive part of the win was the brilliance of Cork’s deconstruction of Kerry.

As well as surpassing them in all the key statistical areas, Cork won with a style and panache rarely seen from a Cork underage team.

The performance was so impressive that it was as good as anything produced by a Kerry underage team in recent years.

That’s a high compliment considering the swashbuckling excellence of Kerry’s five-in-a-row All-Ireland minor winning crusade since 2014, and that the Kerry side was managed by Jack O’Connor, one of the best football managers of the modern era.

Most of the surprise outside from the province stemmed from the belief that Kerry – even without David Clifford and Diarmuid O’Connor - couldn’t be beaten.

Anyone who was making comparisons with the Cork and Tipperary U20 hurlers this year from their minor days two years ago wouldn’t have been surprised by how tight Tuesday evening’s final was.

Yet any similar analytical comparison between the Cork and Kerry U20s from the same teams at minor level in 2017 would have suggested nothing but another Kerry win.

That Cork minor squad and management put in a huge effort that season but they were hammered by a Clifford inspired Kerry, who cut Cork apart with 2-5 from play.

Cork didn’t perform. Kerry will always take advantage of a team in that situation but it’s even more unfair to judge a team on one particular performance when its an underage side.

Not having Clifford on board this season was bound to be a huge shift in the balance of power, while Cork had shown serious form in the John Kerins U20 league earlier in the season. Cork had been impressive in a highly competitive tournament but their best result was drawing with Kerry in Clonakilty. Cork emerged from that game with huge confidence and belief, and with the realisation that they were at least at Kerry’s level.

The Cork minors haven’t had the same level of success as the U20s – yet – but, while they lost the Munster final to Kerry, they also know that they’re on a similar level to their great rivals.

They proved that up along against Kerry at the younger underage tournaments. Kerry may have continued to dominate the minor grade but, apart from that 2017 side, Cork have consistently been able to compete with Kerry at minor level over the last five seasons.

The biggest drawback with consistently losing to Kerry was that those defeats came so early in the season that it denied so many young Cork players the opportunity to gain more experience on the national stage.

Especially where there was a couple of times during the last five seasons when Cork would have been good enough to come back and reach All-Ireland minor finals against Kerry.

At least Cork are finally back on the minor national stage again on Sunday.

They may or may not be good enough to beat Monaghan but the biggest plus is that they can now push on and develop in that arena.

With the recent impressive displays of the seniors, wins for the minors and U20s tomorrow would raise the profile, excitement and anticipation levels of Cork football on to a whole new footing again. Yet whatever happens, at least Cork football is performing to the level they consistently should be, across all the grades right up to senior.

That has to be a baseline requirement given the sheer scale and number of clubs within the county.

The huge spread of clubs represented on the minor team has been matched by the U20 side, with 19 clubs represented from the 20 players which featured against Kerry last week.

Despite all the minor success Kerry have had, Cork still had the same number of survivors as Kerry – 11 – from the minor teams of two years ago on this year’s U20 sides.

Cork will always be able to find players because of the sheer volume, and because of the increasing standard across the club grades.

Michael O’Mahony, corner-back on the U20 side, is not guaranteed to get a starting jersey with Knocknagree.

The side which won the All-Ireland Junior title two years ago has been suffused with a talented batch of young players, which has increased competition and turned them into an emerging force at intermediate level.

Cill na Matra won the Cork Intermediate title (the third grade in the county) last year and are now in the Division 1 league final against St Finbarr’s.

There will – and always should – be enough talented players in Cork for the county to be a force in football. And whatever happens for Cork football over the coming seven days, Cork know now that there are no more excuses for not consistently matching, and surpassing, the levels Cork teams have consistently reached to date this season.