Kevin McStay: Dublin the biggest beneficiaries of Kingdom’s shock exit
Door to an All-Ireland final now invitingly open for Cork, Tipp, Galway or Mayo
Cork’s Maurice Shanley celebrates with Sean Meehan after the dramatic last-gasp victory over Kerry at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Laszlo Geczp/Inpho
Sometimes in sport, time slows down. It certainly felt like that to the few of us gathered spellbound and frozen in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday evening watching on as Luke Connolly skied the ball towards what was about to become one of the most famous football plays in Cork championship history.
Earlier that morning, I had been scanning everything for another angle on this match. There is always another newspaper article or podcast that you have yet to hear. It is information overload. And I had a last-minute scan through the paper and I stumbled on the 1983 Munster final piece by Dermot Crowe, when Tadhg Murphy knocked Kerry out with a last-minute goal that has become part of Cork folklore.
It took me back. I can talk about that day with a little bit of authority because it was the same day that I made my debut for Mayo. It was a scorching day in Castlebar – and my first exposure to getting used to the idea of getting beaten by Galway. I was an army cadet and I didn’t feel too bad about the defeat. I was too young.
The transistor radios were blaring in the cars as I left MacHale Park and there was a crowd gathered listening to the moment when Murphy scored that goal. And I had an immediate sense that there had been a shift: a rare chink of opportunity had opened up in the All-Ireland. The Invincibles were gone. And I had a sudden sense, rightly or wrongly, that by losing against Galway, we had missed out on that.
And that is how I felt last night leaving a dank and dark Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The mood in the stadium was incredibly warm given that the place was deserted. There was a lovely touch where the stewards gave the players a guard of honour. And as we left some Cork fans were arriving in their cars, flags flying. This win by Cork has thrown the expected All-Ireland form on its head. It means that Galway, Mayo, Tipp or Cork will be in an All-Ireland final. That is a fact.
And the game was the 2020 version of knockout in all its savagery. Kerry were odds-on favourites. And they are kicked out with the very last kick of the game. Here was the old world of Biblical repercussions. To the torture experienced by Séamus McEnaney and Mickey Harte, now add Peter Keane’s name. It is the finality of it that hurts.
I looked back on the tape at the last few minutes of those earlier knock-out games. Conor McManus missed a reasonable chance to win it in normal time for Monaghan. Tyrone had some very bad wides in the closing stages against Donegal.
One of the great advantages of having no skin in the game is that you don’t experience that depression that sets in. The game is replayed in your head over and over. That is what will happen now with Kerry. The Monday morning when they woke up and realised that they have blown an entire year of work will only make it tougher to accept. And everyone in Kerry knows: they have only themselves to blame. That is the worst of it.
And, of course, it has temporarily derailed the golden generation. What you don’t need are all these question marks – do we have the right manager and the right players and approach – the stuff that will be discussed all winter.
Peter Keane has known nothing but success in his managerial career. Okay, they didn’t win the national league final against Mayo a year ago. But they gave a magnificent account of themselves in an All-Ireland final against the best team the game has seen. And then they won the league this year and looked primed. Now comes this shot out of nowhere.
The problem is they kind of invited it on. They hung around for that one punch – the underdog boxer with the big right. And what a spectacular, knock-out shot Cork threw. There was something about it that was quintessentially Cork.
But let’s stay with Kerry for a moment. By tomorrow, they will be very much on their own in absorbing this defeat. I expect they are still in shock in some ways. But the spotlight moves on. The noise fades. The commentariat begins to preview next weekend’s game.
I have this phrase: the theorem of championship week. Teams can talk themselves into strange positions. Here locally Roscommon almost got themselves into a favourite’s position to beat Mayo. And this was happening in Cork. They were beginning to talk themselves up. I read a very bullish piece by Ciarán Sheehan. But you couldn’t make a case for the Division Three champions to beat Division one champions. I don’t think any convincing, rational case was made for them.
They haven’t beaten a top eight team in as many years. They managed to score 3-10 in last year’s final but Kerry hit 1-19. Cork also have a new goalkeeper and a new central spine. They have others out with injury. You couldn’t make a convincing case as to how Kerry could lose.
And there was no sense locally around the hotel and stadium among people I spoke with. People in the city were just hoping to be competitive.
Of course, none of this opinion matters to the people in the bubble – those in the Cork dressing room. When we came into the ground, there was no sense of a major game going on. It was Sunday noontime stuff – people out for strolls with dogs and pop-up coffee shops.
I was watching the Connacht game on the phone and it was business as usual. And there was a sense that it would be the same here. Then I heard that Brian Ó Beaglaoich was in the Kerry team for Stephen O’Brien. That was the first surprise.
God, another defender! Okay, you can see what their intent is. They were playing a system of football alien to them – with future games in mind. They were using this game to rehearse a defensive system they clearly believed they would need at some stage. And that is a dangerous road to go down.
Now, I think the defensive game is alien to the football instinct in Cork as well.
They were a point down at half-time. That was a warning. They only scored 0-5. That was a warning. Cork came back to drag them into extra-time. That was a warning
But their task in this one-off game was simple: to keep the score as low as possible and don’t concede goals and let’s see who gets jittery with a few minutes to go. And they executed it to perfection.
Then, it was a dark, turbulent, soaked evening which added to the atmosphere and made the conditions trickier for finesse forwards. There was a sense of foreboding about the evening as the lights came on and the game got sucked into this vortex of concede-nothing. It was cold and so wet. We got drowned several times in the stands. On the pitch, the conditions were punishing and testing.
So Kerry got tangled up in a web they didn’t see coming – a perfect alignment of the atmosphere, their own tactical set-up, the weather conditions, Cork’s hugely impressive physical application and just this uncharacteristic inability to finish the game off.
And I feel that is because they were locked into a game that was alien to them. Teams play a certain way – a patented brand inherent to particular counties. And Kerry’s is one of attacking flamboyance and skill and accuracy.
They had several chances to alter their flight path here. They were a point down at half-time. That was a warning. They only scored 0-5. That was a warning. Cork came back to drag them into extra-time. That was a warning. But they couldn’t change course and once they got into extra-time, they were playing the game on Cork’s terms. And they nearly scraped through, even so.
Before Cork’s last play, people were literally screaming from high up in the press area because it looked to all the world like they would simply run out of time. But they were so cool and deliberate. I thought all along that what would shake Kerry out of their funk was a goal. But then the goal came at the other end. And the tension was exceptional for an empty stadium.
My instant reaction when the ball went up in the air was: call a mark. I hadn’t a clue who had caught the ball but it turned out to be Mark Keane. And it was a gorgeous finish for a big boy; all one movement and dropped it lovely onto the right foot and just slid it home. Isn’t that Cork though? They have these flicks and tricks.
And even as we are beginning to understand the magnitude of the score, the game is over. The Kerry crowd were on their knees and the whistle blew as soon as the kick out was airborne. Now they have to suffer this horror. To their mind and probably a national narrative too was that they were the only team to stop Dublin.
Who are the obvious beneficiaries from this once-in-a-generation shock? The easy answer is the remaining teams from Munster and Connacht. But the real answer? Well, it is Dublin of course. The road has cleared big time.
Cork will take outrageous confidence from this but they will remain grounded. They will develop and improve and are a dangerous team. In a sense, Cork are a Division One county masquerading as a Division Three team. But you can’t argue that they let the whole show go to pot since winning the All-Ireland a decade ago. I would nearly say it was neglectful given the size and tradition of the county. They needed a regenerative move and it has begun.
I have huge respect for manager Ronan McCarthy and bringing Cian O’Neill into it added another piece. Cork have 250 clubs. There is no reason for them not to have a good team.
But we need to see Cork repeat this against Tipperary. They were savagely engaged yesterday and need to replicate that in the Munster final. The game plan that both teams adopted yesterday can never win major prizes. That is clear.
Those low-scoring games will only take you so far. Cork needed a big win to launch themselves. And they have achieved that. In doing so, they have changed the championship in a way I haven’t seen since, well, when I had my football career in front of me.