AFTER 50 minute of Saturday evening’s clash, with the game delicately poised at 0-12 to 0-10, Cork had every right to feel confident, but they also had enough reason to be concerned that the tide could turn in a flash flood.
Kerry were starting to get a grip on possession. They weren’t turning the ball over as often as they had in the first half. Cork had played with an incredible intensity but sustaining that ferocity was going to be even more difficult considering Kerry’s greater depth and superiority on the bench.
The biggest concern though, centred around Cork’s kick-out, especially their long restart.
Kerry had just brought on David Moran and they lined him, Jack Barry and Diarmuid O’Connor across the middle as an imposing barrier, with Tadgh Morley also pushing up to buttress that wall. With the Kerry forwards pressing the short option so intensely, Dylan Foley had nothing to aim at.
As Foley weighed up those options, he stood over the ball for 13 seconds, altering his run-up on a couple of occasions to pull out of an intended restart. Foley eventually went to his left but the ball was won by Graham O’Sullivan, which ended with a Kerry point.
After Kerry pushed the margin out to four shortly afterwards, they got Foley’s restarts into a vice and squeezed the life out of Cork – and the game – in the process. Within the space of just over a minute, Kerry had mined two more points straight off two long Cork balls.
Cork did win their next long kick-out but Kerry instantly turned over that possession, which resulted in a Stephen O’Brien score. Cork won their next long kick-out too but they were turned over again in the tackle seconds later and Paudie Clifford put Kerry eight in front. When Kerry almost scored the game’s only goal seconds later, David Clifford’s chance – which was well saved by Foley - had been engineered off another long Cork restart.
The final stats were revealing around kick-outs; Kerry mined 0-7 off Cork long kick-outs; Cork sourced just one point off Kerry kick-outs.
Kerry just wore Cork down, which was always likely to happen, no matter how well Cork played; the comparative conditioning levels between both teams was stark; Kerry’s bench was loaded with class and experience whereas the Cork bench had made just 11 appearances between them, with six of the 11 subs having never having played championship football before. That included Foley, who has limited experience as a goalkeeper.
Any serious outfit can’t be satisfied with a pyrrhic victory when it amounted to a 12-point defeat, but the biggest fear Cork supporters had in the lead up to the match was that it could be another annihilation similar to last year.
The scoreboard was harsh on Cork and the players have a lot to be proud of considering the gulf between these teams. They were brave and manful and Cork contributed to a clash befitting the history of this rivalry, along with altering the modern trend of this fixture, which has been defined by Kerry’s superiority.
Kerry are still the dominant force but Cork fronted up and posed them plenty of questions that took Kerry an age to answer. Cork’s defensive structure and set-up was excellent but it could only be maintained through relentless work-rate all over the field.
Kerry did have eight scorers from play, compared to just Cork’s three, but Cork defenders were never left isolated like they had been throughout the league. Kevin Flahive had a fine game on David Clifford, while Cork’s defensive shield hinged on Seán Powter’s role as the sweeper, with a constant eye towards drifting to Clifford’s side. Ian Maguire was also deployed deep which meant Cork almost had like a double sweeper system at times.
Powter was brilliant on the counter-attack in the first half, but his long injury lay-off meant he didn’t have the energy to join the attack after Cork forced the turnover in the second half.
As Cork’s energy drained, so did their numbers. Cork had hit Kerry hard from the first ball. Of Kerry’s 10 first-half turnovers, five stemmed from incessant heat in the tackle, with Cork sourcing three points from those 10 turnovers.
On the other hand, seven of Cork’s eight first-half turnovers were a result of Cork taking the ball into contact, with Kerry mining three points off that possession.
Cork only turned the ball over 17 times in total, with Kerry turning it over 18, which was impressive from Cork considering Kerry’s greater physical conditioning.
Kerry though had almost double the number of shots (30-16). Cork’s conversion rate of 68% was much better than in recent seasons but their task was all the greater again with Kerry’s coming in at 76%.
Cork only had six shots at the target in the second half, compared to Kerry’s 17. Yet the overall possession numbers show how competitive Cork were throughout the contest; Cork had 245 possessions, which was just 19 less than Kerry’s 264.
Yet the kick-out numbers were decisive, with Kerry winning 27 kick-outs to Cork’s 13. And the damage Kerry did on the Cork restart was ultimately the difference.