THE explosion of emotion after last Sunday told a lot.
2012 is a long time ago and a lot has happened in between to Cork football. Paul Kerrigan spoke honestly of demons and scars which couldn’t be ignored by people like him and Mark Collins, for who even the almost-breakthrough of 2015 still seems another era. For fellas like Brian Hurley and Sean Powter, it must have been little payback for the time lost to injuries, where the long months of recovery felt like they had a purpose after all.
Kerrigan told a funny story after about Colm O’Callaghan not having a notion about Tadghie Murphy, or that Kerrigan’s dad played for Cork as well! Mark Keane wasn’t born the last time Cork knocked Kerry out of championship.
Supporters who haven’t missed a game in years had a generational where-were-you Cork football moment. This has been a while coming.
A look back on the game offers no real secrets, just more details of hunger and intensity. Jackie Tyrell wrote in his column last week about the top teams finding real effort in themselves; Cork had that last Sunday.
Ian Maguire wrestled into David Moran before throw-in to set the tempo as a kind of 'Roy Keane tackle on Overmars' statement moment, though someone may have to explain this to the younger lads, and it didn’t let up from anyone. Mattie Taylor made a tackle at one stage around the halfway line, the Kerry player moved the ball on, went for the return and Taylor was still there running to just get a nudge in to spill the ball and force another turnover. Tiny decisions and moments that all added up.
John O’Rourke sacrificed any real influence on the ball himself to make sure Gavin White couldn’t attack the spaces.
Kevin O’Donovan threw himself on a loose ball at one stage just to get his body in the way knowing he’d get fouled and win possession. Tadgh Corkery made a dodgy ball completely his with cleverness and aggression.
At one point David Clifford passed to Sean O’Shea way over in the far right corner of the pitch and Cork had seven (seven!) players in a small little corner of the field, hunting, harassing, never giving Kerry’s marquee forwards any peace. This was deep into the game when bodies were hurting.
Players combined that work-rate with ability too. Killian O’Hanlon was everywhere but still kicked two massive points into that wind and rain, where every score was vital.
Luke Connolly came on and just made it his business to always be an influence. He missed a shot from play, took on another and scored, landed two really tough frees. Cork’s eight from 10 from placed balls compared to Kerry’s two from six was key.
He chased, forced David Moran to overcarry when he would have had a handy shot otherwise. In the 19th minute of extra-time it was Connolly closest to Moran when he shot and dropped short; one minute later it was Connolly with the shot/assist for the match-winner.
Sean Powter seemed to be on the scene at every ruck, every dropping ball, hunting for turnovers, trying to make things happen, kicked a score, somehow managed to get possession back and work a free against four Kerry tacklers for the equaliser.
A few years ago I asked Powter about the dream of playing for Cork and he corrected that by saying he wanted to win for Cork.
He has that nice mix of attitude and genuine footballing ability to do whatever he wants on the ball that might just define this group if he gets a proper run.
More than anything it was a Cork team who knew what they were about, who had a clearheaded idea on how to win the game and enough faith to believe that it would work. When Ronan McCarthy was brought in three years ago now, his positivity was the one constant reference and that has translated into a group that consistently performs now with that mentality.
Cian O’Neill will get credit from the group for the details of the performance. The discipline to be aggressive to the ball, the willingness to drag Kerry into spaces full of multiple Cork bodies and the collisions that created turnovers. On the ball, Cork avoided contact (the call from sideline, as it was in the league games, was to keep the ball moving, to not get caught static in possession) and the patience to work some of the scores was notable.
One score in the first half had over 20 passes and almost two minutes of possession. The score for the equaliser in normal time had 39 passes. The winning score had that combination of composure to work the chance properly, as Tomás Ó Sé mentioned on The Sunday Game how Connolly was the guy to get on the ball, willingness to make the break from Meehan and then ability to finish the chance from Mark Keane, who maybe hasn’t gotten enough credit for the finish actually.
And now, hope.
Sure there are caveats. Kerry missed a lot more than they’d have expected (Clifford’s 1-2 would have won it on its own) even if there was an element of being a little shook by the constant pressure. That kind of game-plan won’t work every time and that kind of ending won’t play out every time.
Use of the ball will need to improve in areas around the middle third where the ball probably wasn’t kicked often or well enough. Tipp will offer enough of it, anything after that can wait. But there’s a sense of a breakthrough win, with the minors and U20s and the attitude of the younger gang who now see no reason to fear Kerry at senior level, who know what’s possible all of a sudden.
This is a natural developmental step for a group that’s been pushing for this since last spring, that had four good games/performances against top eight sides last summer without winning but made progress. Now they have that statement win. Beating Kerry did lay down a marker but as Ronan McCarthy mentioned, beating any top-eight side was needed to push this process on again, to give that extra buy-in and belief again now.
Jim McGuinness always mentioned how his Donegal needed to beat Tyrone back in 2012 to allow the players proper belief in what they were being asked to do. Imagine the kick that lads like Maurice Shanley and Sean Meehan will get from coming through the biggest test possible, the extra focus it will give to the lads around a little longer.
Cork players know they’ve been doing the right things but you still can’t really fake the kind of effect a win like this has on the dynamic of a team that’s been low on these sorts of experiences overall.
A big win in all sorts of ways.