WHILE I am too young to have experienced the 1983 Munster final and Cork’s epic victory with Tadhg Murphy’s late goal, I was lucky enough to experience impressive fightbacks in clashes against Kerry in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1994 and 1999.
Good as they were, though, they were achieved by Cork sides still regarded as blue-chip teams, considered capable of mixing it with anyone else.
This goes some way to illustrating the magnitude of what Ronan McCarthy’s Cork team achieved against their Kerry counterparts on Saturday night. By now, you’ve surely seen the screen-grab of Pat Spillane’s column expressing the view that Kerry’s forwards could have a field day against Cork, but to be fair to him, he wasn’t the only one expecting an away victory.
Given that the championship is straight-knockout this year, the likelihood was that they wouldn’t have been leaving anything to chance, but instead it was Cork who made the most of the benefits of the direct route.
It’s important to bear in mind that they were up against the recently crowned league champions, having spent the campaign in Division 3. While Cork were picking up wins, the quality of the opposition was well below what they could have expected from Kerry.
Cork’s time away from the limelight have been a period where it has been easier – for those within the county and outside it – to sneer at the team. Any expected victories were not given credit and any defeats were used as a stick to beat the team with.
The Rebels were being measured against the high standards of the Conor Counihan side which won the 2010 All-Ireland but only Paul Kerrigan remains from back then and Mark Collins was the only other member of the team on Saturday to have experience of beating Kerry in the senior championship.
This was a developing team that was subject to the kinds of ups and downs that sides experience when they are far from the finished article. To measure the progress, we now have clashes against Kerry in three consecutive championship seasons to compare – in 2018, Cork lost by 17 points; in 2019, they lost by three; in 2020, they won by two. It’s not a scientific undertaking – 2018 was worse than the ‘real’ reflection, but even so, the progress has been seismic.
The current Cork outfit have had to find their own way and the positive impact Saturday will have on them could be huge – think back, for instance, to the way Cork beat Kerry in 1987 and went on to make it six Munster titles in nine years, winning two All-Irelands in that time.
We’re not saying that that will be repeated, but there is a great chance now to reach an All-Ireland semi-final by beating Tipperary in the provincial final. The important thing is to make sure that there is no complacency ahead of that game next Sunday week.
Given that the back-door option wasn’t there, Cork’s management deserve credit for their brave team selection, giving so many young players their chances, as well as securing the services of Mark Keane from Collingwood, of course.
Ronan McCarthy was entitled to feel smug at how things panned out, but he preferred to give the credit to his players.
“It’s great that off the back of the U20 win last year, they are coming in and winning big games straightaway,” he said.
“But, at the end of the day, I thought there was a lot of talk about us ambushing and coming in under the radar, it’s not the way we saw it at all. If you look at our subs, you had Luke Connolly, Michael Hurley, Mark Keane, Damien Gore, we have huge quality now within the group which has been built up over the last two to three years.
“So I felt maybe that we didn’t feel we needed to ambush, we felt we could go in and go toe to toe, and on the back of say the Super 8s matches last year and the game against Kerry game here, and we also played a big game against Donegal here in the league last year, we felt we were very close and we were in better shape again, and there was no reason why we couldn’t get there.
“Obviously, it has worked out on this occasion.”
Hopefully, it will work out again.