IN that last 10 minutes of the All-Ireland final a fortnight back, it felt like something important might be about to happen.
Not so much from the history side of things (do most ordinary people get that worked up about the difference between four and five titles in a row?), but in the idea of what might be coming, of what impact the result might have on the next five to 10 years of football.
You know the drill by now.
The winning All-Ireland team are influencers on how other inter-county teams develop their game-plans and styles and philosophies, either as imitation or reaction — remember how the entire country picked up on Tyrone or Donegal winning teams in the last 15 years — and there is a genuine difference in what a Dublin win and a Kerry win might lead on to for everybody into the next decade.
Another title for Jim Gavin’s team seems to offer less hope in ways, in that it’s tougher to reproduce the conditions that have led to this domination. Who else can find the perfect storm of financial backing, pure numbers, a hungry generation of driven individuals and proper background organisation?
A Kerry win though is a game-changer.
No other county is likely to be able to produce a David Clifford or Sean O’Shea as naturally, but there’s still this suggestion for starters that an All-Ireland can be achieved with the right belief in young talent and focus on playing the game in a certain way, basically that you don’t need either Dublin’s machine or a monstrosity of a defensive system if the players are good enough.
This matters for Cork now, the direction that football is heading and their place in that movement. Let’s take it that kick-out strategies are the biggest tactical focus of the last few years — how to retain possession short and long from your own, whether and when to press high on the opposition restarts must be two huge analysis points for every inter-county manager before and after most games now.
Let’s take it that Cork are well stacked for the modern goalkeeper in Mark White’s emergence this last couple of years and there are serious keepers coming through behind judging from the minors/U20s.
Other than that, Kerry have reached an All-Ireland and gone toe-to-toe with the Dubs mostly by trusting their own way rather than copying another, by going with their new batch of youthful energy and ability and backing them to find a way with positive attacking football.
It’s a process Cork have already started. The seniors went at it with Kerry and Dublin this summer remember and really only came up short for that bit of composure and true quality v Kerry and physical and mental experience to stick with Dublin for that last 10 minutes.
The U20s took on Kerry and Dublin physically, tactically, in footballing terms and came out on top in one-v-one battles and as a collective. There wasn’t any gap in individual quality or technical skills or even conditioning.
The minors thrived in games that were open and high-scoring. The players-aren’t-there argument at senior level was sort of blown away this summer, at least to a certain level, where a minimum performance base was located.
Those next-step match-winning sort of players were easily identifiable in both the U20s and minors and there’s a pathway to be laid out now in how quickly and successfully these players can be brought through.
The Kerry experiment mentioned above, where these young lads have been exposed to a very demanding situation with massive expectations has shown the potential payoff for trusting players of 20/21/22 when it’s needed.
Kerry have never lacked for coaches with belief in playing a certain way. Cork either haven’t always had a group of coaches in the background with this strong idea or haven’t been able to get them working with teams, but that does seem to be changing.
It wasn’t too difficult to watch the U20s and minors win All-Irelands this year and see a resemblance in the way both teams attacked games with a consistent attitude of being positive on the ball, in the way both coaching groups openly and obviously created environments for players to be able to solve problems and respond to crisis situations on the field.
It was fascinating to read the interview with the two managers last weekend and their explanation of the reactions to tough moments — how Cork minors have actively spoken about and worked on keeping calm for moments like last-minute scores for and against, how the U20s had been so focused on sticking to the process of the next ball, even at 1-6 down in that final.
This is important. Cork’s reputation for collapses and inconsistency of performance seemed to indicate a group that didn’t have full belief in what they were doing; that’s not something that could be said about any Cork team this year. Intent ran through everything Cork seniors did from May onwards.
Purposeful and creative football linked the flowing, high-scoring play of the U17s and U20s. If the game is moving towards a less structured, more fluid style, that seems a more natural place for Cork to thrive with a game more suited to energy and hard running.
This mental block of Cork football being a joyless kind of calling has been shifted now as well, where these young players have had this wonderful experience of being involved and winning All-Ireland titles with Cork. Most of them will want to kick on and do more. Others will want to follow.
It’s not difficult to see how momentum can have an impact. This might all be building at the right time for Cork to be in with the top counties now again more than in the chasing pack.