Cork must show that one game isn't going to define their season

Cork must show that one game isn't going to define their season
A Cork flag flying in the Páirc. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

WHEN Ronan McCarthy finally sat down sometime last weekend to watch the Munster final back he may have found that brutal spell from minute 13 to minute 23 the most interesting and revealing.

It’s a tough watch — believe us, we did it a couple of times and there’s not a hint of positivity to be located — but it contained more or less everything to explain the game as well as that ‘oh no’ moment in every heavy beating where it became obvious to everyone playing and watching that things were only going in one direction. 

The bare figures? Kerry blitzed Cork for eight points in 10 minutes.

Cork gave away six possessions from play and three from kick-outs (which all led directly to scores); Kerry made only two errors on the ball in 10 minutes (a wide and a misplaced kickpass). Watching back, you can see Kerry clicking into that rhythm of movement where they do whatever they want with the ball and that realisation hitting Cork that nothing they want to do was allowed happen.

Paul Geaney hits the net. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Paul Geaney hits the net. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Cork will wonder how their entire game-plan was shut down and look at ways of reacting more effectively. Kerry dominated the kick-outs on both sides. They pressed Mark White’s restarts relentlessly, pushed up one-v-one on Cork and got bodies to attack the spaces more aggressively and cleverly.

If you pause any of Cork’s kick-outs from the behind-the-goal angle, every single Kerry player is always ahead of his Cork marker from every position to attack the break. Example: for the last score in that 13-23 minute spell, a Cork long kick-out landed in the middle of bodies, Kerry emerged with possession and with one quick handpass and two snappy kickpasses they were able to find David Clifford one-v-one with his marker inside the scoring area while eight Cork bodies were taken out of the game just outside the 45.

Kerry did what they wanted on their own kick-outs, where they basically brought their defenders into the middle and hit the wings. On their very opening kick-out after a large stoppage where Cork had ages to get set, Shane Murphy was able to pick out Sean O’Shea on the run on the wing, isolated against Stephen Cronin, to win the ball, turn and set up a score.

Big problem number one — Cork had no control of possession in the middle third.

Cork’s spaces for running were clogged up completely by hard-working Kerry numbers, where the likes of Ian Maguire couldn’t break tackles, Stephen Cronin got turned over for a score and for a goal chance early on.

Cork couldn’t get the ball past that central third with kickpasses either. After the initial burst of that goal from Sean White’s punt (a clever ploy where Deane was able to lord over Paul Murphy in the air), Cork didn’t hit a forward with a kickpass that stuck properly between the third and the 13th minute.

At one point Aidan Walsh couldn’t find a free man to kick to from a free at midfield even. Kerry kickpassed perfect ball in front of their forward line at will. A point where Paul Geaney swept a crossfield ball for O’Donoghue and Clifford to work a one-two was wonderful.

For one score Cork kicked the ball to Mark Collins but he was swallowed by four Kerry defenders before he could get possession; Kerry kicked the ball to Clifford without bother in another one-v-one position to win a scored free. Kerry were constantly able to create chances by moving the ball quickly with that constant interchange and combinations in attack.

Big problems number two and three – Cork couldn’t work the ball into the scoring area. Luke Connolly needs the sort of service that say, David Clifford was getting. And Cork couldn’t stop Kerry working the ball into the scoring area.

And at the end it all, here we are again. Another imposition of reality by Kerry where they obliterated Cork’s strengths and exposed weaknesses, another mix of players not being quite good enough on the day and structural flaws. Kerry were more powerful, faster, had more quality and Cork couldn’t cope with the step up in intensity and questions asked. Even the method of strangling that middle third and generating one-v-ones for a talented inside line feels familiar, like 2005 or 2009 or 2014 all over again.

A lot of the momentum and belief from the Tipp game has been shadowed and again Cork are left with reminders of how far away they are from contenders at full-throttle right now. This isn’t new or surprising and it might be sinking in again that this constant possibility of getting this kind of dispiriting footballing lesson from Kerry can’t be explained away by management deficiencies or one or two scapegoats and that there’s a deeper pattern here that needs contemplating.

Cork may find a way to be competitive with Kerry once-off in certain circumstances but it’d only paper over cracks and the sobering reality is that for all Cork’s plans for progress in this next few years, Kerry look to be years ahead in all aspects of player talent and county ambition and tactical awareness right now. A curious Cork public has been lost again and that sense of hope that more or less everyone in Cork football expressed last week of a competitive progressive type of performance now looks desperately misplaced.

Stephen O’Brien buries a goal chance. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Stephen O’Brien buries a goal chance. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It may be that the annual measurement against Kerry needs to be rethought completely as a fair judgement of form and level and it’s genuinely tough to imagine Cork necklacing together some of the scores Kerry created or being able to work up 3-18 with the same verve on an elite stage.

That’s hardly for Ronan McCarthy in the next week or two. The flaws that conceded 21 times and scored just six times can’t be fixed short-term but there’s a sense that Cork must find a way to attack and defend with more conviction, that management must re-engage a group of players to believe that a summer of football is there for them, that this one game won’t define their season and that there’s a way of making up the gap between Cork and the top three or four.

Cork aren’t sure of how big that gap is but they’ll look for as many games as possible to find out.

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