WHEN Mark White’s long kick-out popped up in the air in the early minutes of the second half of the Munster final, the game seemed to stall for a second as the crowd watching from a certain viewpoint realised that something was on.
A large space had opened in front of Kerry’s full-back line, Cork had runners in behind and it just needed recognition of the chance from a few Cork players. Paul Kerrigan obviously saw it and flicked the ball on, Sean White clearly saw that he was standing and he needed to get the ball to a runner.
Enter Killian O’Hanlon, who spotted the gap immediately, took off past David Moran and where he could have taken a point went straight for the heart of the Kerry defence before getting hauled down for a penalty. It was significant. A game that might have slipped away was lit up and Cork surged with belief.
It was a moment of influence from O’Hanlon and was in keeping with the positivity and energy of a really impressive performance from an emerging midfielder at this level.
This hasn’t happened overnight for O’Hanlon. He’s 26 now, emerged through the minor squad in 2011 to the U21s in 2014 and sort of drifted in and around the senior squad the last few years without nailing anything down. He played three years junior before this season and that feels sort of an important aspect of this development. There’s a history of Cork players using it as a stepping stone firstly.
In that All-Ireland winning group from 2010, a pile of them had played junior previously – Alan Quirke, Alan O’Connor, Ray Carey, Ger Spillane, Daniel Goulding, John Hayes, Paudie Kissane – and that kind of experience can allow momentum and belief and a want to go higher to build in players.
There may be something linked to the kind of mentality that Ronan McCarthy has targeted as well, where it shows a natural graft and desire to improve and it’s not difficult to see the type of characters the Cork management have run with here. One player who was involved with him at intercounty level talks of this willingness to stick with it and make this happen through pure determination to make that step up rather than knock around without impact.
There are references to doing whatever it takes in preparation to become a Cork senior footballer. Another person who was involved with various teams with O’Hanlon mentions a confidence thing, where maybe he wasn’t ready to take responsibility in a Cork senior jersey until now, where he was more inclined to pass the ball on safely rather than take the risks of making that run or taking the ball on.
That can happen for a few years at senior level – Ruairií Deane is another example of someone who probably lacked that natural flow to his game with Cork until recently.
Ask anyone who’s played with or coached O’Hanlon in Kilshannig and they’ll all say that he was a standout player from very early with all the skills and athleticism needed to play for Cork. It’d be a stretch to say this kind of breakthrough was inevitable. The evidence has been building though.
We recall the league game against Meath where O’Hanlon was urged continuously from the sideline to be positive in possession, to make that run ahead of the ball and try and go past players in possession, to make things happen at speed and he responded well.
He was a standout up in Thurles when Cork had that vital first win in the league. It was noticeable in the game against Limerick that he was committed to attack when the chance presented and it was O’Hanlon who made the support run to get closest to the shooter for Deane’s goal.
He is the perfect middle eight player for what Cork are trying to do, with the head to do the dog work of tracking and pressing and the legs to do it all day long, to make the turnovers and also drive forward into gaps with the ball.
This isn’t a small find either.
Cork hasn’t been overflowing with midfielders in recent times and if O’Hanlon and Maguire aren’t aerial fetching machines in the traditional sense (and perhaps don’t have enough scores in their locker either), they do offer that balance of running power and attitude that nothing will be won easily against them.
Kerry had a potentially dominant duo a fortnight ago. Cork didn’t quite brush them aside but they certainly won that area and that hasn’t happened all that regularly in recent times (the Kerry test has seen off plenty midfielders who weren’t ready).
There is room for improvement. O’Hanlon got robbed a couple of times in the first half for Kerry scores, caught receiving the ball standing or just not moving quickly enough but that’s the step up in speed of play to one of the top teams. Work is needed on timing and angles of support runs and there were times he got too close to the player in possession or just took/gave sideways passes without gaining any advantage on the field, again things that ought to come with more games in championship heat.
He did look to positively affect the game though. For Cork’s first score in the game it was O’Hanlon who helped a turnover high up, drove with the ball and kicked inside for Brian Hurley to be fouled. It was his run and long kick-pass that set up Mark Collins’ goal chance.
And after that long run for the penalty, it was O’Hanlon who again stretched his legs and took on Stephen O’Brien and David Moran to carry ball down the middle of Kerry’s defence before offloading for Ian Maguire to lob the ball towards Brian Hurley for Cork’s third goal.
He exuded the defiance that flowed in Cork, this refusal to take a step backwards or let the game pass by. Different tests await. He’s shown already an ability to learn and take on the challenge.
It feels like Cork has a midfield combination that suits their needs right now and O’Hanlon is a big part of that.