AN early start to the 2023 campaign sees the Cork senior footballers’ first action of the New Year involving a familiar foe.
The turkey leftovers will still be in the fridge, unwanted presents still unopened and a few stray Cadbury’s Heroes available for consumption when Cork and Kerry cross swords in the first week of January.
McGrath Cup games rarely get the pulses racing and that’s not all down to the biting cold weather.
Yet, John Cleary along with a refreshed backroom team’s first full game in charge of the county’s senior footballers should still make for intriguing viewing.
Unsurprisingly, Cleary and his extended panel have been busy in recent months. Strength and conditioning programmes have been sprinkled with new voices introduced into the camp including Kevin Walsh (Coach) and former Olympian Rob Heffernan (Performance Coach).
Having individuals of Walsh’s and Heffernan’s stature infusing new ideas and fresh approaches is a positive thing for Cork football.
As a coach and player, John Cleary has always sought that extra percentile in an effort to constantly improve. Bringing in the aforementioned duo, neither weighed down by any previous Cork GAA baggage, will offer the senior panellists two new points of view.
Add to that Micheál Ó Cróinín (Naomh Abán), James Loughrey (Mallow), Barry Corkery (Éire Óg) and Ray Keane’s (MTU/St Finbarr’s) combined voices and the Cork senior footballers will have plenty of worthwhile advice dished out before a ball is kicked in anger.
Yet, as former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion and Tiger owner Mike Tyson famously said: “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Waiting to land the first body blow of 2023 are the reigning Munster and All-Ireland champions.
Jack O’Connor’s approach of regularly fielding his strongest available team was one of the key features of the Kingdom’s run to the 2022 All-Ireland final and subsequent success over Galway. It is doubtful O’Connor will stick to that approach for their upcoming season opener.
As with Cork, Kerry will most likely use the McGrath Cup as an opportunity to test fringe players and any newcomers on their respective panels.
Will we learn much from the first Cork and Kerry senior football clash of the year? Unlikely but recent early season meetings between the age-old rivals have always delivered plenty of talking points.
The latest match-up should, at the very least, offer some early signs of what’s to come in 2023.
Last January, Killarney was the venue for a straightforward Kerry 2-17 to 0-11 McGrath Cup victory over the Rebels, a game played out in front of huge post-Covid attendance.
Keith Ricken was patrolling the Cork side-line and although he witnessed a 12-point defeat, there were positives to take back over the border.
Micheál Aodh Martin produced a string of impressive saves and underlined his status as Cork’s number one. Castlehaven’s Rory Maguire made a notable senior football debut, scoring two points and looking assured in the wing-back position. Maguire would become a mainstay for the remainder of the campaign.
His clubmate, Brian Hurley, contributed 0-5 despite close attention and limited possession. Nemo Rangers’ Mark Cronin produced an eye-catching display and scored 0-3 from his corner-forward position.
Kerry’s ability to carve through their opposing defence would be a common theme of 2023. David Clifford had a quiet afternoon by his own high standards, finishing with 0-2. Paul Geaney’s 1-4 along with superb Paudie Clifford, Killian Spillane and Brian Ó Beaglaoch displays bode well for Kerry’s future prospects. The Kingdom went from strength to strength and finished the year as All-Ireland champions.
Cork and Kerry’s previous McGrath Cup meeting took place in December 2019 at Austin Stack Park in Tralee.
Ronan McCarthy was Cork manager at the time but the main headline act that afternoon was Ciarán Sheehan. The Rebel forward was making his first competitive appearance since returning from the AFL and starring for Carlton Blues.
Cork’s 6-19 to 2-9 victory, as welcome a headline as it generated, was achieved against a Kerry U20 selection.
That’s because the Kingdom’s senior panel and manager Peter Keane were in Thailand on holiday having lost the All-Ireland final to Dublin after a replay three months before.
On the plus side, two young Cork forwards made names for themselves that afternoon in Tralee. Cathail O’Mahony bagged 1-4 with Kilmacabea’s Damien Gore registering 3-5 including a converted penalty.
Let’s hope the first week of 2023 unearths a couple of more gems for John Cleary ahead of what will hopefully be a long and productive year.