Darragh Ó Sé: I really can’t see any hope for Cork
Years of mishandling football across the border make Kerry a shoo-in for Munster
Cork scored 2-1 in the first 10 minutes of last year’s Munster final but the Rebels soon lay down. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Another year, another Munster final column, another Kerry v Cork job. The one thing I can’t get over is how much this game has changed since I started writing this column in 2010. Back then, it was a toss-of-a-coin game. The teams drew in Killarney, and Kerry got out by the skin of their teeth in extra-time in the replay. Cork went on to win the All-Ireland, after Kerry had gone out to Down at the quarter-final stage. It all feels like a million years ago.
This fixture was never a done deal for Kerry. You’d go into plenty of games in a year against this team or that team knowing it was a foregone conclusion, but Cork was never one of them. It couldn’t be. There was too much history, too much mingling between players in the colleges, too much knowledge floating around for one team to get too far away from the other.
That’s why I’d always be able to find an argument for Cork in the run-up to these games. Of course, when you do that you get fellas accusing you of trying to be too clever, but you can be called worse things. It was always genuine, though. Maybe I was spooked by years and years of finding them the hardest game we saw before Croke Park and just presumed they’d come back eventually.
But there’s no way to big up Cork these days. I saw a lot of people lamenting the state of Offaly hurling over the weekend – to me, Cork football is nearly worse. After all, it’s 21 years since Offaly won an All-Ireland in hurling; it’s only nine since Cork won Sam Maguire. And now they’re down playing Division Three football. That’s some drop.
Never mind their league position: look at how they’ve been going out of the championship in recent years. They lost by 16 points to Tyrone last year. Okay, they gave Mayo a right rattle in 2017, but the year before that they were easily beaten by Donegal. In 2015, Kildare beat them out of nowhere before losing by 27 points to Kerry. In the past five years, Cork have beaten Clare, Tipperary, Sligo, Limerick and Longford in the championship. That’s not a list that would scare anybody.
Not just personnel
I didn’t see them falling this far. I saw their players coming through at minor and under-21 level and I was sure they’d get it together at senior level. You look around some counties and you see that they are where they are because they don’t have the players. But that’s not Cork’s issue – not the whole of it, anyway.
They have lost some good players to hurling: Eoin Cadogan, Aidan Walsh, Damien Cahalane. Even Shane Kingston and Sean O’Donoghue were damn fine underage footballers in their time. All of those lads have shown themselves to be serious performers at the top level with the Cork hurlers, and if they were available, Ronan McCarthy would probably be using them.
But in a way, that’s neither here nor there. McCarthy isn’t the first Cork football manager to lose players to hurling and he won’t be the last. Cork still have more useful footballers available to them than most counties. They’ve been in more All-Ireland under-21 finals since 2010 than Kerry, for example. They should be doing much better than this.
Over the past decade, all belief has been squeezed out of them like water from a wet cloth
Last year in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was maybe the worst letdown so far. In the first Munster final in the new stadium, with the players they have and the fact that Kerry were blooding some younger lads, I gave Cork a good chance of doing something. Maybe not winning, but definitely starting to turn the thing around. But they were beaten out the gate long before the end.
They just rolled over. It was a whitewash. And I came away from it thinking: how much more can these fellas take? If Cork were a boxer, they’d have been retired years ago. They wouldn’t have been able to find a promoter willing to put up the money to get them on the bill.
There’s obviously a mental problem there now, especially when it comes to Kerry. As we saw over the rest of the summer, that wasn’t a great Kerry team by any means last year. The win over Cork was as good as it got by a mile. But the problem for Kerry is that doesn’t mean anything any more.
How many of them have ever lost a game to Cork? James O’Donoghue and David Moran would be about the size of it. The flipside of that is how many Cork players have ever beaten Kerry? Paul Kerrigan and Mark Collins were there in 2012, but after those two you struggle to find another.
So what you have is a generation of Kerry players who have no idea what it is to fear Cork. And a generation of Cork players who haven’t the first notion what it takes to beat Kerry. When habits are so ingrained like that, you can talk ability and skills and physical conditioning all you want – there’s still a mental gap that has to be bridged somehow before anything can happen.
That’s the real killer for Cork football. Over the past decade, all belief has been squeezed out of them like water from a wet cloth. It’s so obvious when you watch them play Kerry that all it takes is the slightest setback and they’re done.
Look at last year’s game. They scored 2-1 in the first 10 minutes, running at Kerry like demons and exposing the huge problems in the Kerry full-back line that ended up costing them in the Super 8s. But as soon as Paul Geaney and David Clifford got a few points each at the other end, Cork completely lay down.
They only scored three points for the rest of the day. I don’t care who you are, three points in 60 minutes of a Munster final is a sign of huge mental weakness. No matter how good the opposition is, score that little and you’ve given up. And if you’re giving up in a Munster final after scoring two goals in the first 10 minutes, your level of belief must have been fairly nonexistent to begin with.
Best man for the job
This doesn’t happen overnight. Looking in from across the border, it looks like the result of years of mishandling of Cork football. I don’t know the politics in Cork but even I could see that the stand-out candidate to manage the Cork football team at various times has been John Cleary. He never got the gig and Cork are where they are.
It doesn’t ultimately matter what the reasons for Cleary not getting it are. What matters is that not enough people were working in the best interests of the Cork footballers to make sure the best man got the job. Would that happen in any of the other top counties?
Jim Gavin was the next man in for Dublin long before Pat Gilroy stepped down. Everybody in Kerry knew Peter Keane would be stepping up once Éamonn Fitzmaurice went. It’s been rockier in Mayo but they tend to do things their own way up there anyway. But Cork always seem to be putting out fires, getting rid of lads without being sure whether they had an upgrade ready to go.
Add it all up and you have a Cork football team that has been ground down by years of failure. The Munster final is a non-event now. Nobody is going to Cork on Saturday night under any illusions. Kerry weren’t hectic against Clare but it would still be a big surprise if Cork managed to pull out any sort of result against them.
This is no good for anyone. Apart from anything else, it takes all the fun out of it for Kerry people. Not the most pressing issue for Cork football, I admit – they’ll hardly be bringing it up at county board meetings – but still. What are we supposed to do in Kerry if we don’t have Cork to hop balls with? Won’t anyone think of the poor Kerry people?
You run into people on the street this week in Kerry and they talk about Cork as if they’re a pity case. They even get a bit cranky about it, giving out that if Cork were a bit better, Kerry would have to get a bit better to keep them down.
Kerry weren’t great against Clare in the end and, ordinarily, that would make Cork’s price of 6/1 on Saturday night possibly worth a pop. But we know what we know from watching these two teams play each other over the past few years. I really can’t see any way to give Cork a chance here.