ON the Monday morning after Kerry won the league last month, when a convincing win against Donegal secured the Division 1 title, Malachy Clerkin’s match report in the Irish Times started and finished with references to Dublin.
“If and when they have to deal with them, Dublin are going to find Kerry significantly more of a handful than they did in 2019,” wrote Clerkin in his opening paragraph.
“In this fettle,” concluded Clerkin in the last line of his report “they’ll ensure the six-in-a-row is anything but a given.”
Both were more than fair comments but talk of another anticipated Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland final is still anything but a given. Moreover, Cork already seem to be scrubbed out of the equation as any potential barrier to Kerry’s progress.
At face value, it’s hard to see it any other way. Kerry beat Monaghan and cantered past Donegal in their last two league games, while Cork conceded 0-16 to a Louth team, who were already relegated to Division 4, and who ended the match with 12 men.
Any opportunity Cork had to recalibrate their team in another competitive match disappeared when Longford handed them a walkover in their last league game. In that context, Cork just have to trust in their own preparation, and believe in their process.
The results to date in the hurling championship have been more uneven than in the football championship, but, while the two league games may have given football teams more knowledge of where they’re really at, the knockout football championship also dialled up the manic competitiveness and levelled the playing field.
Cork have known all along that Sunday, November 8 was the only date that really mattered. When Cavan manager Mickey Graham was interviewed after their epic extra-time win against Monaghan last Saturday — just a week after Cavan had been relegated to Division 3— he said that Cavan’s focus all along had been geared towards Monaghan.
Cavan may have had two league games, which they lost, but having the long break has given Cork more time to fully focus on Kerry. Being fresher may enable them to sprint out of the blocks and settle into the game quicker. Moreover, all the Cork players played plenty of club football over the last few months. It may be a different level, but it can be easy too to over-cook the preparation for a big game.
It’s also possible to read too much into Kerry’s form coming into this match. Monaghan only really fired against Kerry when Conor McManus was introduced at half-time. Donegal only brought a shadow squad to Killarney. So have Kerry been fully tested either?
The most noticeable difference with Kerry this year from 2019 is their defence. Peter Crowley’s return to centre-back has given it a more stable look while it has also given more freedom to Paul Murphy, Tom O’Sullivan, and Gavin White to attack; in their last two games, the Kerry defence scored 1-5 from play.
Stopping those runs at source will be paramount for Cork, which will place a massive demand on the Cork half-forward line. Just as importantly though, Cork need to be decisive and accurate on the counter-attack if they do turn the ball over.
Whatever about kick-outs, turnovers and possession stats, Cork’s conversion rate will need to be above 70% for them to have any chance of winning this game.
Cork repeatedly had Kerry in trouble from their running game in last year’s Munster final, but their execution and efficiency levels let them down; Kerry had a 77% conversion rate to Cork’s 46%.
Running Kerry so close with those numbers will give Cork confidence now, especially if they can increase that conversation rate. Yet Cork will also need to be mindful of how Kerry have become more adept at putting the squeeze on the shooter.
Against Donegal in particular, Kerry retreated their attack very deep, but that tactic also enables their defence to counter-attack at pace once they turn the ball over.
Cork will also want to get their running game going. Cork also did a lot of damage off their short kick-out last year, which gave them the platform to run at Kerry. Conversely, Cork will also need to put more pressure on Kerry’s short kick-out because it was a huge source of their possession in their last two games.
Discipline in the tackle will also be paramount, but Cork will have learned that lesson from last year’s Munster final. The free count of 27-11 was way too high but, while those numbers reflected Cork’s bullish attitude and aggression that evening, the high concession count of frees was also evident against Louth last month; Cork conceded 10 points from frees that evening.
Unless that number is halved on Sunday, Cork will be in serious trouble.
Cork will need to get their match-ups right in defence, especially on David Clifford and Sean O’Shea, but they have an extra headache now with Tony Brosnan’s emergence — he kicked 0-8 from play, plus one mark, in Kerry’s last two games.
Then again, the championship is a big step up. A one-off do-or-die encounter increases the pressure even more on Kerry. The Cian O’Neill factor is another ace in Cork’s pack, especially with his inside knowledge of Kerry. They may have come against lower-graded opposition, but Cork showed against Louth, and in the latter stages of the league campaign in February and March, that they can score goals.
Cork will need to raise green flags but, if they do, and if they are primed and ready for the battle, the outcome may be different to what everyone expects it to be.