WITH 70 minutes played at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Shane Ryan stepped up for a kick-out and a wave of noise swept through the Cork support. The score was 3-10 to 1-17 and that sound seemed to flow from a collective realisation that it was alright to believe, that after a week of wondering if it was plain silly to have any hope of a result (or even performance) that the game was there for the taking.
Then Kerry snapped the kick-out, David Clifford did his thing to work the angles for a point on the breakaway, the bubble burst and if it came like a punch to the gut, mostly if just felt like fun to be engaged in the emotions of a proper football match with Kerry again.
It was that sort of game, fun and open and chaotic and lacking any structures – there were passages of play where runners attacked the spaces end-to-end and it just felt like neither defence were able to control the energy and pace of the intent from both sides.
If we wondered about the risks of going toe-to-toe with Kerry, Cork were brave and positive in absolutely everything they did. No sweepers, aggressive in individual battles, they attacked with abandon in possession mostly and even when there were times when they might have doubted their ability to stay in the game, it just felt different here, where there wasn’t a sense Cork were going to collapse away.
Even the body language when Cork came out after half-time suggested a change in mentality. In that second half especially Cork hunted in packs, forced turnovers, made every ball uncomfortable for the opposition. Three Cork players spat out David Moran at one point.
Ruairí Deane chased down a turnover he had no right to make happen. Right near the end Liam O’Donovan stepped up to get a hand into a tackle way up in Kerry’s half, Cork won the ball back and it summed up the relentless will of Cork to contest everything – O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor especially drove forward into the spaces all night. Killian O’Hanlon’s runs were massive for two of the goals.
Deane continued his emergence as a top-level maker of gaps in opposing defences here, opening up spaces by bursting with power and conviction to the extent there were those sort of ripples of anticipation whenever he got in possession and started running and everyone in the crowd realised Kerry had no idea how to go about stopping him. You’d expect two or three goal chances a game now at least so conversion rates will be worked on. Mark Collins stepped into the main scorer role with assurance.
Mostly it was Cork’s simple willingness to take Kerry on all over the field more than any tactical analysis that captured the Cork crowd. There was no inferiority on set-up, no long spells of passive defending. Cork looked capable of making chances whenever they moved at speed with the ball. All tackles and chases got roared on more loudly as the game became a proper championship one. Cork players seemed to grow in belief and the crowd responded with more emotion than we’ve seen for an age for Cork football.
For all that, Cork lost and there are reasons why. Chances created from wild running were finished with the same lack of calm. There were spells where Kerry seemed a bit snappier on kick-outs from both sides.
Kerry were slicker, had a more natural rhythm to the movement of ball and combinations in the scoring zone and well, they had quality plays from Stephen O’Brien, Sean O’Shea, the genius of David Clifford when needed – there were times in the first half Cork were only hanging on, if Kerry had goaled from that moment of magic from Clifford it was 2-5 to 0-1 after 15 minutes.
Cork’s forwards only managed a point from play outside Mark Collins and more work is needed in getting Cork’s shooters on the ball in the scoring zone. The loss of Eoghan McSweeney’s distance kicking was particularly felt here.
Perhaps that experience of composure in the mad speed of top-level games was there in Kerry’s ability to work scores more fluently, Cork reliant at times on individual drive to create big plays. There were just little moments where Cork desperately tried to make things confrontational but Kerry had that little spark and awareness of spaces to slow the game at crucial moments – at one point Sean O’Shea was being pulled and dragged off the ball but still managed to get free to find possession.
Cork struggled to contain Tom O’Sullivan and never got to grips with Stephen O’Brien’s influence on the ball, while unfortunately for the next decade David Clifford’s class will be a constant, but those sort of losses will be taken as part of Cork’s willingness to make it that kind of open game. Cork gave everything of themselves to take Kerry on but just came up short of high quality at vital moments; there are worse ways to lose.
That there was genuine devastation afterwards seemed right but refusal to accept moral victories ought not overtake the reality that it’s an awful lot better than another hammering and crisis.
Cork have a basic starting point for what can be done with this mentality to go for a game with work and running and pride. It felt good to believe again for a time, now Cork go about extending that.