THE first big moment of the Larry Tompkins era.
Cork hadn’t won a championship game yet since Morgan’s departure and there was pressure building after two summers of straight knockout. Dublin came to town for the 1999 league final in the Páirc.
Our first thought on this rewatch was the crowd, which didn’t look that bad but according to official attendance was only 10,000.
Second thought was how the players looked so willowy and lacking physicality compared to today’s lean muscular body shape. We remember Cork at this time as a strong robust group, and they were of course, but they look remarkably light here, even with those baggy late-90s jerseys.
The game itself wasn’t overflowing with huge quality but was of its time – this Cork team got to an All-Ireland final that summer and they were a typical late 90s team, just prior to the Galway-Kerry-Armagh 2000-2002 era and the Ulster football revolution of Tyrone.
It was functional enough traditional football still, lots of collisions, some flashes of brilliance, more knowledge of combinations but maybe without real patterns of attacking beyond trying to get the ball into a forward who could beat his marker.
Cork’s point number four was a good example. Quick quiz. Name the player who never played minor for Cork but played four years at U21 level and captained the county at 19?
His was a remarkable story really that needs more space but at this stage he was one of the hottest properties around and you get glimpses here of what made him such a breakthrough hit that spring/summer. Clifford was rangy enough to win his own ball and though he didn’t look obviously blisteringly speedy, always looked capable of getting those few yards away from the corner-back to hit one of those booming shots around the corner off his left foot.
That’s exactly what he did here, taking Joe Kavanagh’s diagonal kick-pass and pointing way, way over the bar on the turn and we’d get used to the sight for a couple of seasons. He won the Young Footballer of the Year award that year and it looked like himself and Fionán Murray might devastate defences for years.
Some additional notes to this score.
The kick-passing was notable here for its high usage still. The spaces on the pitch looked massive as both teams played fairly orthodox 15-v-15 and there always seemed to be loads of grass in front of the inside-forward lines especially. Haulie O’Sullivan kicked loads of ball into his forwards in the first twenty minutes of the game.
The assister of the Clifford point was particularly at home with this style of football anyway. Joe Kavanagh was at centre-forward and looked completely in charge, picking up ball and being a playmaker in the very best meaning of the word, constantly looking to move the ball as directly as possible with a foot-pass into his inside-forward line.
The kick to Clifford was cleverly spotted and executed. Soon after he pinged a beauty into Mark O’Sullivan’s run. Another aside, O’Sullivan was held up more than once by a really terrible pitch surface that had simply no hop on it at all.
This was the difference when a forward had those instincts to look for and play that kick-pass. Kavanagh had the scoring ability too of course; he curled a massive score over on the run before half-time.
Overall though, that kicking style from both teams meant an awful lot of turnover possession and if you were shown the video of the game and asked for a comparison with current Gaelic football, that would be the key giveaway of a different time. A lot of long passes that were either kicked slightly blind, inaccurate or that were deliberately made into a contested ball and therefore a lot of one-v-one individual battles were still relevant.
Another might be the kick-outs, which weren’t overly complex, although Kevin O’Dwyer – who made two decent saves in the first half – was more inclined to hit the wings and did take a few short ones in the second period. If anyone ruled the skies it was Nick Murphy, who fetched at least four clean kick-outs.
Again, a modern game analyst would probably run out of space on the turnover count, if he managed to keep watching for that long without throwing the laptop at the wall.
The corner-backs were dynamic and aggressive and a first step to what we see today in modern corner-back play. Michael O’Donovan bombed forward in the second half as confidence grew and was directly involved in two points with the same sort of storming positive runs forward with the ball, the sort of passing and going again that Tompkins wanted.
Anthony Lynch was Anthony Lynch. The very first ball that bounced into a battle, Lynch was out in front to compete and disrupt any idea of clean possession for his forward and he was more or less like that for the entire game.
It’s odd now looking back because one of the criticisms of Tompkins was he often played with fewer attackers or with more athletic/defensive worker types in certain areas of the forward line. This had been true in 1997-'98 to some extent but here it’s almost like the balance was slightly off again, with too many gifted talents who could win games with brilliance but lacking the sort of graft to overcome more challenging circumstances perhaps.
The defence locked Dublin down to two points from play and a clearly rattled Jason Sherlock got a red card for reacting late on even if that Cork half-back line of O'Sullivan, Sexton and Martin Cronin looked more interested in going forward than defending.
Podsie O'Mahony kicked three points from play here, could have had 1-4 or so actually, and sold that wonderful shimmy to lose Dublin defenders a couple of times. This was probably his best display in a Cork jersey.
Cork won Munster later that summer in a frenzied second half overwhelming of Kerry but Tompkins never did quite find that balance in the end between the type of ball-players Cork had and the physicality he wanted. Cork didn’t have the firepower or know-how to take Meath out in the final (having beaten them in a dour league semi-final) and never got as close after.
That was Cork in that spell 1997-2002, close but just not at the level of Kerry-Meath-Galway from that time when it mattered.