OpinionPat Spillane

Kerry not falling under Rebel spell

Robbed: Mark Collins reacts as Padraig Hughes awards a penalty
Robbed: Mark Collins reacts as Padraig Hughes awards a penalty

THERE are no prizes for guessing what the big topic of conversation was in my native Kerry all week.

Last Sunday’s Munster final raised so many questions. Can Cork replicate that performance in next Saturday’s replay? Will Kerry be as flat again? Will Alan O’Connor again rule the roost at centre-field? Should James Loughrey be given the job of marking James O’Donoghue again?
Let’s clear up one thing about the drawn match. It WASN’T a penalty! Cork’s Mark Collins had his eye on the ball at all times and his collision with O’Donoghue was completely accidental.
The million-dollar question facing Kerry is: Do they have sufficient time to sort out their malfunctioning defence?
Even though I predicted that Kerry would win, I had a sneaky feeling the game would be a lot closer than people imagined. And I alluded to this in my preview. On reflection, the criticism of Cork was way over the top.
After all they had finished top of Division 1 and comfortably beaten Kerry in the league, while in last year’s championship they lost by a point to Mayo in the quarter-final. But for another bad refereeing decision the game would have gone to extra-time. 
And, don’t forget, in last year’s Munster final Cork went into the game as red-hot favourites.
For some strange reason Cork tend to be on the receiving end of a lot of unwarranted criticism. In fact, they are comfortably the most maligned football team in the country. Even their 2010 All-Ireland final victory was spoiled by suggestions that their opponents Down were the worst team ever to reach an All-Ireland decider. 
It was conveniently forgotten that Down actually beat the defending All-Ireland title holders Kerry in the quarter-finals. Furthermore, it’s often overlooked that they’re not the only team to underachieve or suffer big-match collapses.  
Armagh won just one All-Ireland when they were at their prime; Donegal only have one All-Ireland during their current run and what about Dublin’s second-half collapse against Donegal in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final?
Of course, Tomás ó Sé’s uncharacteristic outburst about a “rudderless” Cork just about put the tin hat on it. 
As everybody knows we pride ourselves in Kerry on being ‘cute hoors’, particularly when it comes to football. We’re experts at talking ourselves down and building up the opposition.  
When it comes to the art of ‘cute hoorism’ the ó Sé brothers, Darragh and Tomás, are among the best in the business − and I mean that as a compliment. So I couldn’t believe it when Tomás dropped his guard and delivered a few home truths about Cork. It was akin to throwing petrol on an open fire. Believe me, I know. I was that soldier in the past.
The end result was that a highly motivated Cork team arrived in Killarney hell bent on proving their critics wrong. For long spells they were impressive. They had done their homework on Kerry. Their deployment of two sitting sweepers was very effective as it blocked off the supply lines to Kieran Donaghy.
They counter-attacked from deep running at the Kerry defence and repeatedly opened them up. They had leaders all over the field and the performance of their newcomers, such as the O’Driscoll brothers, was first class.
Cork looked the fitter team, though I shouldn’t be surprised as their physical trainer Pat Flanagan is one of the best in the GAA. So why didn’t they win?  
They left their full-forwards too isolated and didn’t hit them with enough early ball. This was always been an issue with Cork – they play a safety-first game and are not prepared to gamble.
The statistics say it all: Only two Cork forwards scored, whereas eight Kerry forwards got on the score sheet. Brian Hurley is at his most lethal close to their opposition goals and he spent too much time around the middle of the field.
Cork also should have pushed up on Kerry’s kick-outs in the latter stages and put the home side under even more pressure. I fear the Rebels may have lost their chance of a famous win.
Kerry can take at least one positive from the day, as despite playing poorly they scrambled a draw. They only hit top gear for a brief period in the second quarter when they scored five points in a row.
It was a first bad day at the office for Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice. He hasn’t figured out his best 15 yet, while replacing Bryan Sheehan after 60 minutes turned out to be a mistake. 
However, the big problem is that he hasn’t carried out any remedial action to a defence whose poor form has been evident all year. 
They had the worst record of any Division 1 team, conceding 9-90, and in their two championship matches so far they have conceded a whopping 5-20. They are vulnerable when run at and their tackling technique is poor, which results in the concession of a lot of scorable frees. Most worryingly, they don’t protect the D in front of their goal. 
Surely it would have been an ideal time to deploy Aidan O’Mahony whose experience and physique would surely have halted some of those Cork runs!
What worries me is how flat the Kerry performance was. It certainly lacked the intensity, ferocity and hunger which characterised the performance of the other All-Ireland champions Kilkenny in the Leinster final.
So who will win the replay?  As a rule of thumb the advantage is with the team that were favourites for the original game. 
This is based on the assumption that they will learn from their mistakes and will produce a better performance second time around. So my vote goes to Kerry. Of course, they have already got a lucky break because the replay is back at Fitzgerald Stadium, due to the fact that Páirc Uí Chaomh is being redeveloped at the moment.  
Kerry have a patchy record in Munster final replays against the Rebels, but the defeats they endured were in games which took place in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Neither side can countenance defeat in the replay.
The losers have to play a qualifier a week later and if they win that game they will almost certainly face Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final on the August Bank Holiday weekend – not an inviting prospect!
On a more general note, what the action in the last three weeks has showed is that there is nothing to replicate the excitement, drama and tension that local derby matches generate. 
We witnessed it in Sligo when the Yeats County achieved a shock win over Roscommon, in Croke Park when Westmeath finally got the better of Meath and there was an incredible atmosphere in Fitzgerald Stadium last weekend.
This is why the provincial championships will always have a place in the GAA. Apart from the excitement which local derbies generate, it also gives the minnows the best chance of challenging for silverware.
So, for all the negative publicity that Gaelic football has received in recent months, the football championship has been a pleasant surprise. And apart from the quality of the football it has been far more competitive than its hurling counterpart. 
Gaelic football is dead – long live Gaelic football!