Cork football rewatch: A missed chance in Kerry that had a devastating impact 

Cork football rewatch: A missed chance in Kerry that had a devastating impact 

Cork’s Mark Collins reacts as referee Padraig Hughes awards a penalty to Kerry during the Munster final at Fitzgerald Stadium in 2015.

CORK’S great what-if moment from the post-Counihan era: if Fionn Fitzgerald hadn’t landed that late kick in Killarney in 2015, what might a win against the All-Ireland champions down there have done for Brian Cuthbert’s team and time in charge?

Remember this Cork group and management had spent most of that spring trying to recalibrate from the previous summer (2014 was a year of learning) and mostly succeeded — they hammered Kerry and Donegal and beat Dublin in topping Division 1, before a bad collapse to the Dubs in the league final which would have longer-term implications for mentality.

Donncha O'Connor scored the second goal. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Donncha O'Connor scored the second goal. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Still, if ever a team needed a signature win it was this Cork; it’s an unknown what this might have done for confidence levels, what kind of breakthrough it could have started.

At the time it felt like a massive chance missed, but from memory, we left Killarney that day fairly positive that there were signs of recovery. On look-back it was even more important, in that it was the one sliding doors moment that could have halted a tough few years, and it’s even tougher to figure out how they didn’t win.

Anyway, the first thing about the game that almost jumps off the screen: Cork’s absolute positivity in every single aspect of play. This was a team primed for months to be let off the leash at the right time and generally, they reacted in the way expected and planned.

Patrick Kelly replaced the black-carded Paul Kerrigan and had a fine game. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Patrick Kelly replaced the black-carded Paul Kerrigan and had a fine game. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

This was carried into the sideline too, I remember the ferocity that came from every single Cork person in the Cork group that day where they seemed set on doing everything on their terms and making everything a contest. 

First ball in — two Cork defenders, Stephen Cronin and Eoin Cadogan, came bursting out in front of their men, just exploding with intent.

And basically, apart for maybe 10 minutes of the second quarter, that intensity never let up. Cork had three turnovers in the opening two minutes of the game. They hunted in packs, tackled aggressively, Paul Kerrigan and Mark Collins drifted back to create extra bodies for Kerry to get past and then for extra options on the way out.

Cork constantly just tore into the spaces with and without the ball. For the opening score, first Cadogan and then Alan O’Connor pelted past the ball to create an extra man ahead for the player in possession.

And then by the way, one of Cork’s forgotten great goals, that first one here that just filleted Kerry completely. A catch under the bar from Cadogan and then a beautiful flowing move with four kick-passes (Cronin, O’Connor, Donncha O’Connor, Mark Collins), running into the spaces and then that wonderful forwards’ instinctive movement from Colm O’Neill at the end to lose Marc Ó Sé — a move-out and then back in to create the space that was more Sergio Aguero or Robbie Keane than Gaelic football.

And that was the template really for the game. Cork just kept creating chances with those runs and movement at speed and the noticeable thing looking back is how often Cork looked to take on their man with the ball, just running at them and going past more often than not.

It’s not something you see as often even now. Barry O’Driscoll got in for a goal chance after a lovely combination between Paddy Kelly and Colm O’Neill. Kevin O’Driscoll tore down the middle for a point.

Stephen O'Brien of Kerry with Barry O'Driscoll of Cork. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer
Stephen O'Brien of Kerry with Barry O'Driscoll of Cork. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

By the second half and those second and third goals, Cork were rampant. The second goal, again another goal just created by running hard at the Kerry defence, first Barry O’Driscoll bursting up the left wing in support and then Donncha O’Connor with the really clever dinked punch over the keeper.

And then Michael Shields strode past a few Kerry tackles again and just came upon Barry O’Driscoll who had snuck into space behind Kerry’s defence to slip a shot into the net. O’Driscoll was actually unplayable for spells here, carrying ball and constantly offering himself from wing-back. 

Steven O’Brien had a really tough time following him. Colm O’Neill kicked two wonder points, one special on the turn and then a little clip from a tight angle. 

Colm O'Neill fires a point. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Colm O'Neill fires a point. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Alan O’Connor bossed the middle and the collisions in his first game back with exactly the right sort of force and mentality.

And for all that Cork didn’t win of course and it’s difficult to find a reason why that was or at least to pinpoint a weakness that left Cork down. The two Kerry goals were extremely soft obviously, a defensive turnover error and then that really disputable penalty call at a time Cork seemed in control.

Giving up 2-15 seemed a lot against a Kerry side that rarely had control and that balance between attacking football and not being open was a struggle at the time. James O’Donoghue was a constant threat especially.

The game management in the last five or six minutes could have been more controlled, Cork kept it scrappy and lacking pattern (which had worked to then to be fair) just got caught in the end by Fitzgerald’s punt.

Fionn Fitzgerald kicks the equalising point. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Fionn Fitzgerald kicks the equalising point. Picture: Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE

But there was definitely a feeling in the air in Killarney that afternoon that Cork had it won, more so than any other near-win through that era, and it was probably the best Cork performance there since 1995. Some Cork players had their most influential game for Cork and never got as close to Kerry again — by the following week Kerry had targeted Alan O’Connor to not allow him control that middle third and Cork just couldn’t repeat the same level of rabid hunger to unsettle Kerry a second time.

Kerry put seven goals past Kildare and lost a poor All-Ireland final to Dublin. Cork were ambushed by Kildare and Brian Cuthbert was gone, despite two Division 1 league finals and this performance that deserved and surely would have led to more.

It’d be 2019 before anything like that purpose was found again.

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