SATURDAY evening’s game oscillated far more wildly with excitement, energy and anticipation than most expected it to but one passage of play in the third quarter neatly encapsulated, and almost defined, the tone, trend and tactical direction of the match.
By that stage, Gavin White was man-marking Ruairí Deane but White can have such a penetrating impact going forward that Deane was immediately locked on to the Kerry man anytime he threatened to attack.
Deane had drifted back towards his own 45-metre line down the left flank of the Cork defence to set himself for a potential White surging run but when Gavin Crowley handpassed the ball backwards. White took the ball from a standing position, which allowed Deane to arrive into the tackle with force. When White went lateral across the pitch, Deane hunted him down, which allowed Matthew Taylor to force the turnover.
A quick exchange of passes between Taylor and Luke Connolly released Deane on the front foot and, while Kerry had bodies back, Deane took off on a 50-metre slalom run right through the centre of the defence. Deane let fly from inside 10 metres but the shot was blocked by Jack Sherwood and cleared by David Moran.
A goal would have levelled the match but Cork raised a green flag shortly afterwards when Brian Hurley flicked a half-blocked Ian Maguire dropping shot to the net.
Cork had real momentum by then but that previous passage of play still summed up the difference between the sides; Cork repeatedly had Kerry in trouble from their running game but their execution and efficiency levels continued to let them down.
In the end, Kerry scored 20 of 26 chances for a conversion rate of 77%; Cork nailed just 13 of 28, for a conversion rate of just 46%. Yet even when Cork had that momentum after the goal, their conversion rate from there to the end was 44%; conversely, Kerry nailed seven of their last eight shots.
Those comparative efficiency levels will disappoint Cork given that they had more possession (51%) over the 70 minutes but that was always likely to be the difference if the game was tight.
Kerry have more high-powered scoring forwards than Cork but Saturday’s match once again underlined the genius of David Clifford. Cork had been so on top in the third quarter that Clifford didn’t have his first possession of the second half until the 53rd minute; yet from his four plays in the final 20 minutes, Clifford scored one point, was fouled for a converted free and had an assist.
Cork couldn’t get a handle on Clifford at any stage of the match – from 13 plays, he scored three points, had a hand in three more and almost engineered a goal. On the otherhand, given Clifford’s brilliance, Cork could be somewhat happy that they restricted Clifford to those numbers.
Unlike last year when Kerry won 44% of Cork’s kick-outs and mined 1-5 off that possession, Kerry won just three of Mark White’s kick-outs on Saturday, and translated that possession into just one point. Moreover, the possession from their kick-out, especially their short kick-outs, gave Cork the platform to run at Kerry.
Even when Kerry were dominating, Cork were still creating chances. Overall Cork’s work-rate was higher, which was underlined in the statistic for turnovers-in-possession, which Cork won 11-5. The free count of 27-11 left the Cork players, management and supporters infuriated with referee Anthony Nolan but it also reflected Cork’s bullish attitude; unlike last year, when Cork didn’t lay a glove on Kerry Cork hit hard and often.
Cork had the edge at midfield where Killian O’Hanlon was outstanding and Maguire shaded his battle with David Moran. Both Maguire and Moran made the same number of plays (20) but Moran was never the physical powerhouse or dominating presence that Kerry expected, or needed, him to be.
The Cork full-back line was in huge trouble early on but that pressure eased when Cork got a foothold around the middle, and the same volume of ball being kicked into the Kerry full-forward line slowed down, or the huge tracts of space Kerry’s runners were exploiting, was shut down from Cork players drifting back the field.
James Loughrey had a fine game on Paul Geaney, limiting him to one point and one assist, but Cork had a better structure as the game progressed. Cork had found that better balance between defence and attack during the league but having an overall better shape also stemmed from the confidence and belief that Cork generated as the game developed.
Cork matched that structure with good game-management and tactical flexibility.
Early on, Cork had tried to isolate Hurley and Mark Collins inside, which had mixed results from long balls. Collins manufactured the play which led to the first Cork goal but, while Hurley scored his goal from a long ball, he only won four of the balls played into him. Two of those possessions led to Hurley being fouled for converted frees but Cork largely dispensed with that tactic when it wasn’t working.
It may have seemed surprising to haul Hurley off late on but Gavin Crowley was sitting as a sweeper in front of Hurley by then and Cork knew that the running game was their best option to get at Kerry.
After a quiet opening, Deane led the charge; from 20 plays, he had two assists (one for Luke Connolly’s goal), he had a hand in the creation of the Cork penalty, and was fouled for a free but on another day, Deane could have had two goals.
Collins played a more orthodox role than normal but he was impressive too; from 23 plays, he scored two points and had an assist; yet, similar to Deane, Collins also could have had two goals.
Those missed chances will haunt Cork but, no matter how disappointed they are, Cork will still take massive heart from the manner of this performance.
Most importantly of all though, is that Cork build on it now in two weeks.