“CORK should have won more.”
That’s a phrase used with regard to the team that won the 1973 All-Ireland football title and, as crazy as it sounds now, Billy Morgan’s two-in-a-row side of 1989 and 1990.
More recently, it was a stick used to beat Conor Counihan’s team with – an All-Ireland, three Munster championships, three Division 1 league titles and one Division 2 were not considered sufficient during a period when Tyrone, Kerry, Dublin, Donegal and Mayo were all strong at various times. We haven’t checked, but the 1945 team were probably also accused of leaving silverware behind them.
Of course, it is factually true in each case – unless a team wins a grand slam, there’s always room for more. But, given the place Cork currently occupy in the footballing landscape, such talk seems positively greedy.
It’s hard to pinpoint one moment where the Cork-Kerry rivalry, so taut during the Counihan era, got to the stage where it is now, with the Kingdom so dominant that they are rated as 1/50 with some bookmakers and the handicap at around 12 points.
The reality, of course, is that there were a few staging posts. The 0-24 to 0-12 loss in the last Munster football final at the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh, when Cork were seen as favourites; the following year’s decider in Killarney, when Fionn Fitzgerald’s fortunate late equaliser for Kerry. The fact that Cork haven’t been in Division 1 of the Allianz Football League since 2016.
Would things have been different if Cork had been able to follow the win over Kerry in 2020 with victory against Tipperary in the Munster final? Possibly, but it doesn’t do anybody any good to ponder the counter-factuals. The sad truth is, as enjoyable as Mark Keane’s goal was at the time, the moment loses some of its lustre due to subsequent events.
Rather than being a point from which Cork could build, instead it now stands as almost like a fever-dream – did that really happen, beating Kerry in a deserted stadium on a dark November Sunday? If it did, last July in Fitzgerald Stadium certainly served to dull the memory even further.
It’s easy to forget now that Cork led by 1-5 to 0-3 in the first half, following Brian Hurley’s goal, but by half-time it was 1-12 to 1-7 and Kerry won by 4-22 to 1-9 in what proved to be Ronan McCarthy’s last match in charge.
With such churn in the panel since it’s not hard to understand how transition has led to a stasis since then in terms of results. Promotion from Division 2 was never a real possibility and thankfully relegation was averted. It was a case of treading water, to a degree, not the ideal preparation for trying to give Kerry a game.
Ultimately, that’s what would suit Kerry and probably the rest of the country – Cork ask a few questions of their neighbours but then do the decent thing and fall short. Rather than joy at an upset, the general national reaction to that 2020 result was that main challengers to Dublin’s six in a row had been taken out.journalist Michael Foley tweeted after last year’s Munster final that, “Cork-Kerry must be the only rivalry in sport where most neutrals are rooting for the favourite, and absolutely wire into the underdog when their underdog status is proven beyond doubt.”
The unavailability of Páirc Uí Chaoimh wasn’t their fault and they weren’t willing to cede home advantage, especially as Páirc Uí Rinn had been chosen at the alternative site. It’s a place the squad are familiar with through club games and training sessions and, up against such hot favourites, Cork need any marginal gains they can get.
Against that, though, is the fact that, for the second time in under a year, Kerry have been faced with the choice of a walkover or accommodating opponents. In the All-Ireland semi-final, they gleaned no good karma for their gesture and they will be keen to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again.
A Cork win isn’t completely out of the question – before Mark Keane, there was Steven O’Brien in 1994 and Tadhg Murphy in 1983 in terms of against-the-head home victories – but it would be a huge surprise. Not that surprises are always a bad thing.
Most Cork fans would surely accept a good performance, something that ensures Kerry have to win the game rather than being gifted it. A strong display would hopefully allow for some momentum to be built through the back door.
And then, in a few years, we might be saying that this Cork team should have won more.