Who can improve most for replay?
THE cynics amongst us wondered, before the ball was thrown-in, did either side really want to win this game.
Losing, the theory went, was inarguably the easier path to Croke Park. All victory would get you is a trip to Tipp and a 50% chance, at best, of reaching the Munster final on a day when defeat would come without any safety net.
Before the match both managers rejected the idea that they – and their players – would happily settle for the backdoor and a semi-final against one of Munster's minnows and a practically guaranteed All Ireland quarter-final berth as a result. That should have been enough to convince us – that and the fact that Kerry and Cork rarely do anything other than full-blooded – and yet we still had our doubts.
The subsequent eighty minutes showed us how wrong we were were. Both teams went for it. No consideration was given, at any stage, to the idea that defeat really wouldn't be that bad were it to come. Kerry certainly weren't thinking along those lines when they battled back from three points down in the final five minutes of ordinary time to snatch an unlikely draw. Cork certainly weren't thinking along those lines when the surged forward in search of the equaliser right at the death, cracking the ball off the upright and winning a penalty.
We spent so long before this match wondering whether it was better to win or lose that we missed the obvious: the best possible result for both teams, win or lose the replay, was a draw. The more competitive football both these teams play the better. Whoever wins the replay will have another sixty minutes (at least) of top quality football played before they travel to Semple to take on the reigning champs (a major boost), whoever loses will be similarly bolstered.
"A game like this is as good as ten training sessions," Mickey Ned O'Sullivan said after the game.
"Lads will have learned, a lot of them were experiencing inter-county football for the first time and you know once they're over that they'll be able to learn from it and move on. Both teams will go a long way."
It was through games that Kerry developed a competitive team last season, it'll be through games that they develop one this season. They've got the core of a good football team here, a team with potential, which is all you can reallly ask for at this stage of the campaign. Unsurprisingly Kerry's best players on Friday evening – Patrick O'Connor, Matthew Flaherty, David Foran, Jack Savage, Conor Keane – were those with the experience of last year's campaign.
For guys like Brian Sugrue, Tomás Ó Sé and Killian Spillane (who showed some real potential, scoring Kerry's first goal) it's only going to get better. They won't be as nervous, they'll know what to expect, they'll play their own games. The more games they play the more that will be the case. For guys playing their first games of serious inter-county football this replay will be a Godsend.
Kerry should be better this Friday night as a result. Cork will be too. They had quite a number of rookies in their ranks, a pretty substantial majority in point of fact. Not that they played like rookies. Not that they looked like a young and inexperienced team. Yet again Cork looked bigger and stronger than Kerry, despite the fine work being done behind the scenes with development squads and the training regime of John O'Keeffe.
Cork's full-forward Michael Cahalane is something of a man-mountain, their centre-forward Killian O'Connor is a fine player, while at midfield Peter O'Neill and Mallow's Ryan Harkin were utterly dominant for long stretches of this game. The West Kerry combinatoin of Eanna Ó Conchuir and Barry O'Sullivan just couldn't cope. It wasn't until the second half when Mickey Ned O'Sullivan sprung Ardfert's Kevin Shanahan – and O'Neill went off with a knock – that the tide began to turn somewhat.
Shanahan has the height and the physique to compete at this level and will surely get the nod to start this Friday, probably at O'Sullivan's expense. There's also the possibility that Mickey Ned will move Ó Conchuir to the number 14 jersey he occupied for Pobalscoil Chorcha Dhuibhne and last year for the Kerry minors. That's not likely to happen, having started the season with Ó Conchuir at midfield the Kerry management are likely to persist for another game or two.
The management was pleased with the performance of the Kerry defence. It's fair to say that they were under serious pressure. At the same time, it's fair to point out that they weren't flawless. Killian O'Connor gave Greg Horan plenty to think about. Don O'Driscoll made life difficult for Brian Sugrue as did Jack Bushe for Sean T Dillon.
The Dingle duo of Padraig Ó Conchuir (who saw off both Conor O'Driscoll and Aidan Moynihan) and Matthew Flaherty were both very good – the fact that they're both veterans at this level surely played a part in their ease on the ball and in the tackle.
Cork did miss an awful lot – including a missed penalty towards then end of the first half, although a lot of credit most go to Shane Ryan in the Kerry goal for blocking it – however.
"Obviously you have to take your chances," Cork boss Ephie Fitzgerald commented.
"But if you weren't making your chances you'd be more worried. To be fair their goalkeeper made a few very good saves, balls blocked off the line and what not. Obviously [after] missing a penalty fellas can put their heads down. This year we focussed on guys who have character and I think they showed that out there tonight – their never say die spirit. That game was, to all intents and purposes, gone with five minutes to go, five points down and five or six of those had a hard match last week in the hurling championship. It's not easy to come back."
Cork's superiority, on the basis of what we saw in Pairc Uí Rinn, is based on their dominance of the middle third. If they can continue that dominance and covert more of their chances then they should have enough about them to finish the job in Austin Stack Park. Kerry would seem to be the better football team, in terms of skilful players and pace. As Mickey Ned O'Sullivan suggests, if they improve around the middle then they can do the business on their home turf.
"With limited possession and limited supply into the inside forwards, we were still in that game," he said.
"You were up against two very good midfielders and an exceptional centre-back and a centre-forward, so they controlled that diamond there and we have to come up with ways of counter-acting that. We have exceptionally good players [inside], but we need to give them supply and that's the area we need to work on."
If Kerry do so – with Shanahan starting – then, on home soil, they can advance.