Clinical Kerry close down all escape routes for Cork

 

ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL FINAL: Kerry 0-16 Cork 1-9: GENERATIONS OF practice and a clear-sighted practicality were both in evidence as Kerry crowned an historic decade in Croke Park yesterday, tucking away a 36th GAA All-Ireland football title – the county’s fifth in 10 years.

The ability to play to their strengths and conduct a game plan with the minimum of fuss fell like a cold fog on the urgency and thrust of the all-action game that Cork had showcased all season.

Jack O’Connor and his selectors shrewdly called the shots in setting out the team and Kerry gave their opponents one early glimpse of the inviting target and when that was spurned, set about dismantling the highly-rated challenge of the Munster champions, who had defeated them so comfortably three short months previously.

Despite themselves Cork managed to get back into contention with 15 minutes to go but that opportunity ran through their fingers like fine sand and they failed to score at all in that time.

Ironically the first quarter was when many expected Kerry to launch a major offensive in order to conjure up the phantoms that have haunted Cork in the many clashes with their neighbours on the big stage in Croke Park. Instead Cork made the early moves and by the 11th minute led by five, 1-3 to 0-1.

Everything was going to plan. Colm O’Neill, the rookie full forward, demonstrated his insouciance on the biggest of days by knocking in 1-1 in a couple of minutes. The point came first, exuberantly kicked over after Pearse O’Neill – in a rare contribution on a most disappointing afternoon – had given the scoring pass.

Three minutes later he fastened onto Nicholas Murphy’s free, admittedly facilitated by Tommy Griffin’s slip and finished wonderfully with his left foot high into the Canal End goal.

Had they been able to kick on and extend the lead it would have given Cork an iron grip on the match and forced Kerry to chase the outcome but the remainder of the match would evolve into a sorrowful mystery for Cork, as they managed just six further points to emulate the modest total of two years ago when succumbing to a traumatic defeat against the same opponents.

On this occasion there was no thrashing in the pipeline but at very few stages during a disappointing match did it look as if the title was truly up for grabs. Too many aspects of Cork’s game plan misfired and the hard running and relentless movement that had carried Conor Counihan’s side so impressively to the final ground to a halt in a welter of indecision and aimless passing.

Possession didn’t come with the practised ease of previous weeks. Having taken apart Dublin’s kick-outs, Kerry trained their sights on Cork’s and with similarly devastating impact. Alan Quirke’s restarts went badly in the first half and if Kerry didn’t do as well on their own ball, their graft and hard work on loose ball, with Paul Galvin and Tomás Ó Sé again outstanding, overturned what had been one of Cork’s key advantages this season.

Séamus Scanlon gave another Herculean display in winning and tidying up possession whereas Darragh Ó Sé beside him completely prevented Cork gaining any decisive edge in the air.

It was on the two 40s that Kerry won most conspicuously. Pearse O’Neill had been a shoo-in for the centre forward All Star but Michael McCarthy capped his remarkable comeback this summer by virtually shutting out the towering Aghada man, whose influence was severely curtailed.

Cork captain Graham Canty, in pole position for Footballer of the Year going into the final, was also under pressure from Tadhg Kennelly, who was restored to centre forward with Declan O’Sullivan moved inside to the edge of the square where he gave late Cork call-up Kieran O’Connor (in for the injured Ray Carey) a miserable time.

Canty’s galvanic runs from deep were curtailed by Kennelly, who achieved his emotional ambition to win an All-Ireland in his late father’s footsteps after a glittering AFL career in Sydney and, as soon as he began to fade, Kerry moved quickly to bring in fresh legs.

The pre-match concern about Cork’s accuracy was also vindicated, as they racked up 14 wides, many of which were off good chances that might have re-positioned the team for a renewed challenge at critical junctures of the match.

The crucible of the match could be seen between the 55th and 60th minutes. Daniel Goulding, who was well marshalled by Tom O’Sullivan for most of the afternoon, kicked a free to place Cork on Kerry’s shoulder, a point behind 1-9 to 0-13. Had they been able to catch their opponents, the last 10 minutes might have had a different texture.

Donnacha O’Connor, hard working but his dead-ball acumen still not recovered and expertly tailed by Marc Ó Sé, twisted and turned to open up a chance of the equaliser only for his marker to pull off a brilliant block and consign the opportunity to waste.

All-Ireland finals are all about pulling the trigger at the right time. Teams rarely have the luxury of stacking up misses and surviving. Cork’s shot at the big time had gone astray – even assuming they could have mustered the momentum to keep going had the equaliser gone over.

That sort of speculation was rendered nugatory when in the succeeding three minutes Kerry emptied the barrel. Tommy Walsh, more than justifying his recall with four points from play, arranged in two bursts of two, fired the first two and the irrepressible Tomás Ó Sé, somehow having ghosted in unmarked, added the third.

Bang, bang, bang. Cork were dead.

Neither side scored in the final 11 minutes. Cork chased the match in a futile frenzy but Kerry’s massed defence more than held firm, keeping out not just the increasingly urgently needed goal but preventing the concession of the point that would have reduced the margin to a single score.

Cork’s half backs never laid down the tracks that had made such inroads in previous matches and there was a startling lack of composure in managing possession, which too often was run into cul de sacs or aimlessly tossed around.

This mightn’t have been Cork’s worst defeat at the hands of Kerry but it was dispiriting in the extreme. Had they known they would hold Colm Cooper scoreless from play, hopes would have been high for a successful outcome to the championship – allowing that Cooper’s six frees were flawlessly cashed in and half of them awarded for fouls on him – but whereas Kerry were clinical in taking chances, Cork were the opposite.

So Kerry rattled off a fifth All-Ireland this decade, making it one of the most successful eras in the county’s history and all the more admirable for the quality of opposition with which they have had to contend. And Jack O’Connor’s decision to take the risk of coming back has been rewarded with the ultimate vindication.