‘Today wasn’t about champagne football’ - Jack O’Connor admits Kerry still a work in progress

Questions remain over All-Ireland champions as they toil to get past Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh

Kerry’s David Clifford scores a penalty during the All-Ireland SFC game against Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

All-Ireland SFC Group 1 Round 2: Cork 0-15 Kerry 1-14

At the beginning of his press conference Jack O’Connor was asked to assess Kerry’s performance. There are plenty of ways to field a question like that, but O’Connor has been around a long time and he knew it was pointless trying to spin silk from what we had just seen. Who would buy it?

“Today wasn’t about champagne football,” he said. “It wasn’t about polished performances. It was about digging in and being better defensively than we were against Mayo. We were cut open against Mayo to an alarming degree. Mayo got six goal chances and scored one.

“I am not sure Cork got any clearcut goal chances today, so that was the first thing we had to correct. We can work on the other stuff; a bit of fluency and a bit more flow up front. But you have to get that other side of the game right first.”

The championship season has reached its halfway point, inching very slowly towards days of reckoning, none of which the All-Ireland champions are ready for yet. They came to Páirc Uí Chaoimh looking for a restorative performance, and left with more things to work on. In the new system they probably have two more games in which they can fall down and stand up, without losing their place in the race, but their lack of form must be worrisome.

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Cork pushed them in the second half and stayed in the hunt until the finish, but were simply too wasteful from dead balls, and didn’t carry a real goal threat when a goal was what they desperately needed.

In the end the game swung on its only goal, when Kerry were awarded a contentious penalty 11 minutes into the second half. The otherwise excellent Seán Powter was turned over in centrefield, and 30 seconds later he brought down Paul Geaney as the Kerry forward was driving at the Cork goal from an angle.

Even though the offence had taken place outside the square, referee David Gough deemed that it had been a goalscoring opportunity, and because the foul had taken place inside the 21 he was bound to award a penalty.

Cork’s Brian Hurley and Kevin O' Donovan in action against Paudie Clifford of Kerry at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

That rule has been around for a couple of years, without being implemented to any degree. John Cleary was furious, and argued that Cork had other covering defenders, but it was very hard to dispute Gough’s judgment; it was more than likely that Geaney would have got a shot away if he hadn’t been hauled to the ground. Clifford buried the penalty.

Cork had reduced Kerry’s lead to just a point after a storming start to the second half, but in the 10 minutes that Powter was off the field Kerry stretched their advantage to five, and it was always going to be hard for Cork to claw that back.

Kerry ramped up their strategic fouling, conceding 16 frees in the second half to Cork’s seven, many of them in the Cork half of the field. None of that calculated cynicism, including a dangerously high tackle by Dara Moynihan, resulted in a black card, further incensing a home crowd already riled up from the penalty decision. From Kerry it was a desperate measure – the most backhanded of compliments.

Cork will take heart from their performance in the final quarter, when they cut into Kerry’s lead again and forced the All-Ireland champions into a turnovers and bits and pieces of clumsiness. In the closing minutes, though, Tom O’Sullivan and Clifford came up with points that were patiently constructed, and in those moves the difference in class between the teams was crystallised.

For Cork, the second half was a big improvement. By half-time they weren’t playing well enough to be a threat, or bad enough to be at mortal risk of a thrashing. Kerry’s four-point lead, 0-9 to 0-5, was about the length of their arm. Cork had no problem moving the ball up the field, but too many attacks ended in places where they had neither light nor oxygen.

Having been so porous against Mayo, the All-Ireland champions were bound to be more conscientious and diligent in their defensive work, and Kerry’s tracking and swarming was consistently good. Everything was easier for Kerry. They were able to move the ball into shooting positions with fewer delays, despite Cork’s improved defensive shape this year, and more developed conscience.

Seán O’Shea, subdued this year, kicked three beautiful points from play in the first half, and Clifford knocked over a couple as well, one of them a prodigious kick from 46 metres. Kerry put on a spurt of three successive points in the middle of the first half, and when they led by four at the break it seemed like a platform for them to kick on. Right now, though, nothing is simple.

CORK: M Martin; M Shanley, D O’Mahony, K O’Donovan; L Fahy, R Maguire, M Taylor; C O’Callaghan, I Maguire; B O’Driscoll (0-1), R Deane, K O’Hanlon (0-1); S Powter (0-2), B Hurley (0-6, five frees, one mark), C Óg Jones (0-1).

Subs: S Sherlock (0-2) for Jones (47 mins); E McSweeney (0-2) for O’Hanlon (58); J O’Rourke for Deane (65); B Murphy for Hurley, T Clancy for Maguire (both 72).

KERRY: S Ryan; G O’Sullivan, J Foley, T O’Sullivan (0-1); P Murphy, T Morley, G White; D O’Connor, J Barry; D Moynihan, S O’Shea (0-5, two frees), A Spillane (0-1); P Clifford (0-2), D Clifford (1-5, 1-0 pen, one free), P Geaney.

Subs: Rory Murphy for Spillane (h-t); S O’Brien for Moynihan (61 mins); T Brosnan for Geaney (62); B O’Sullivan for Barry (65); M Burns for P Clifford (72).

Referee: D Gough (Meath).

Attendance: 14,081

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh

Denis Walsh is a sports writer with The Irish Times