AS the second half wore on, the mood of those in the stand and on the terraces became increasingly sullen.
Kerry were struggling to make any sort of breakthrough on the Cork defence. They were struggling to fashion a comeback from a desperate position and the natives were restless.
There was a feeling, not so much that they had left this one behind them, but that hadn't made best use of their advantage when they had it. That most certainly was true. Kerry deserved better from the first half. Kevin Shanahan made a big impact around the middle. Matthew Flaherty, Greg Horan and Tomás Ó Sé were picking up some good breaks. The forwards were showing up well and their reward was a four point deficit at the break.
Too often they were cut open, wide open, right down the middle of the defence by a Cork forward division that, statistically speaking, wasn't all that gifted. Apart from the goals that is. All Cork managed was six points over the hour, four of those in the first half, with only two of them from play and of those two from play only one came from a forward – the imposing and talented Michael Cahalane... oh and in case we forget one of their three goals came from the half-back line.
After the drawn game it was clear what Kerry had to do: improve their midfield and capacity to win breaking ball. After the replay the lesson is clear: tighten up at the back. It's all very well and good saying that the goals came against the run of play. They still came. They still fatally undermined Kerry's chances of winning this game. It was unfortunate that the first goal came off Eanna Ó Conchuir in the form of an own goal, it was less so that Michael Cahalane was able to get a head of stream up, less so that he was able to crack the ball off the crossbar.
That occasionally happens in games. It occasionally happens too that ball will be turned over as its being carried out of defence resulting in a goal. It's, obviously, not good when that does happen. It cost Kerry dearly on Friday evening. A very harsh lesson for a bunch of young defenders to learn and that's how they should look at it, as a lesson. They'll learn and grow and come back stronger for it if they're coached and encouraged in the right way.
And that's precisely what you'd expect from Mickey Ned O'Sullivan, Peter Keane and John O'Keeffe. They will have to take a close look at their defence from this game, in terms of personnel and formation. O'Sullivan has shown a willingness to adapt to the new realities of modern football. He played Conor Jordan, nominally the full-forward, as third midfielder and, more often than not, as a sweeper in front of the half-back line.
Jordan had a decent game in the role. One would still have to question the amount of times, even in the second half, when Kerry's defence was sliced open down the middle. Okay Cork are big and strong and imposing and all of that, but if Kerry are going to make an impact on this championship (Munster and All Ireland) they're going to have to learn to cope with challenges such as these – Cork aren't going to be the only imposing team they're going to meet along the way.
We keep coming back to the concept of learning. It's with good reason that Mickey Ned describes the minor grade as an apprenticeship. Learning, improving and moving on to the next test, the next lesson, is what it's all about. Cork posed certain questions of this Kerry team in the drawn game and Kerry adapted to what they learned in Cork. Cork posed different questions this time around and Kerry will learn from those too.
Fionán Clifford might well start this weekend having had a reasonably successful second half off the bench on Friday evening. The Jordan experiment will surely continue. Shanahan will continue at midfield. Michael Burns could well be handed the number fifteen jersey against Clare having replaced Killian Spillane at half-time against the Rebels. That's the thing about minor teams. They grow. They evolve from week to week and game to game.
One good game doesn't guarantee your place on the team. One below par game doesn't rule you out of contention. Spillane was one of the stars in Pairc Uí Rinn. He was less impressive in the replay. He'll bounce back and have an impact on this team yet. Sooner rather than later. Tomás Ó Sé after a quiet beginning to his inter-county career in the drawn game could have ended the replay with 1-2 to his name. The more he plays the better he'll get.
And Kerry will get plenty more games. Their defeat at the weekend practically guarantees them a further four games – this weekend's play-off, a semi-final against Waterford, a Munster final and an All Ireland quarter-final. That's providing they don't slip up against either Clare or Waterford. Those are games they should be winning. It doesn't always necessarily follow that they will. The extra game against Cork should stand to them.
Having seen this Cork team over the past two Friday evenings one wouldn't be so certain that they'll qualify for the Munster final in Killarney. They're probably favourites to – how likely is it that Tipp would be able to win the Munster title three seasons in succession? – but they're far from the finished article. Like Kerry they'll improve game on game. Their biggest weakness, Cahalane aside, is their attack. They really didn't impress in Austin Stack Park. Killian O'Connor looked a star in Pairc Uí Rinn, but was well marshalled by Greg Horan this time around.
If what could come to pass does come to pass – i.e. Kerry qualifying for the Munster final and Cork crashing out at the semi-final stage – then the absurdity of the system as it's presently constituted will be laid bare.
This isn't a criticism of this Kerry team and these Kerry players – the system is the system and they'll utilise it to the best of their ability – but of the Munster Council (and the delegates) who came up with it.
With six teams competing, a round robin system of two groups of three with the top team in each group qualifying for the final would make a lot more sense than the present system wouldn't you say? Nopes we're not holding our breath either.
It's an argument for antoher day. The question now is whether this Kerry side is good enough to win a Munster title? Friday's evidence was very much a mixed bag. The scoreline would lead one to think it was all doom and gloom. The reality, as it so often is, is far more nuanced