IT was never going to be a classic, a McGrath Cup final at the end of January between old rivals Cork and Kerry, and it was far from being one of those legendary encounters between the neighbours. But for me, and many others from the attendance of 6,500 or so who made their way to Killarney’s Fitzgerald Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the first day of post lockdown era, a cold bench under a grey sky on the sidelines for this game was as good or better than the many sun-baked Sundays in July in past years.
The night before Taoiseach Mícheál Martin, who was there himself, had announced the end of most of the lockdown restrictions which we’ve been living with since March 2020. Prior to the restrictions being lifted, attendance limits would have meant a far smaller crowd could have been at the game.
Prior to arriving at the ground, I had been in town and was walking along New Street when I was hailed from across the street. I had just taken off my mask having come out of a shop and was in the process of cleaning my fogged up glasses. The moment of confusion began to clarify and I went across the street to meet my greeter. A friend from college whom I hadn’t met for more than 20 years, Carl Walsh and his wife, Brenda, a member of the Clare panel which defeated Kerry in the Munster final in 1992, a game which I also attended. Now living in Melbourne for the past 20 years, he was back in Ireland for a few weeks to visit his mother. His father, Noel Walsh, a powerhouse in the GAA, had passed away during the lockdown period and he had been unable to come home for the funeral. The same was true of his wife who also lost her father during lockdown.
These stories of loss and separation during lockdown are typical of what we’ve all heard and what a great many had to endure and while we chatted on the side of the street and exchanged memories and spoke of what we were up to and, more importantly, how our children were doing, and spoke of that day’s game, we embraced and shook hands. It was a human thing to do and we hadn’t really been living our full lives for the past two years. Exchanging sympathies about the death of a parent on LinkedIn is a soulless affair.
The game beckoned and I headed off, promising to meet my friends for a drink afterwards. There were crowds streaming up D’Alton’s Avenue to get in and a sole trader selling caps and head-bands. My name was on the gate as I had made arrangements in advance and I didn’t have to queue like the others trying to get in.
Armed with a cup of tea and a match programme, I took a seat in the lower reaches of the stand and waited for the ball to be thrown in. The Cork players were doing their shooting drills at the town end and the Kerry team were on the other side. Pop music blaring on the loudspeaker system was interrupted by an announcer telling us that the match start had to be delayed by five minutes to allow the people outside get in.
When the game finally started, the central parts of the stand and the terrace opposite appeared full if not packed and there were stragglers at either goal taking up strategic positions.
You will read a blow by blow account – and there were a larger number of blows to Cork morale than were to Kerry – elsewhere. That Cork were behind by a point and then a goal and a point without much of a delay didn’t dishearten me. Brian Hurley got one back and his performance throughout the 70 minutes was a highlight for the rebels.
That said the game was over as a contest by half time – Kerry led by ten points, 2-9/0-5 – and Cork were floundering and no amount of substitutes brought on to the field of play could turn the green and gold tide. There were glimmers of sharpness from some Cork players – most notably Dan Ó Duinnín whose late second half point was a model in economic attack involving the minimum of interchanges before the forward did what forwards do as quick as breathe, send the ball over the bar with no nonsense.
The nonsense is what most Cork supporters will worry about in the weeks after that encounter and anticipating tough tests ahead to get out of Division 2 despite the presence of tough opposition such as Galway, Clare and Roscommon, I don’t mind missed kicks for goals or points – it’s the passes which go astray or the balls which are knocked out of the player’s hands or the intercepted kicked or fisted ball which are most upsetting.
When you’re playing a team of the calibre of Kerry, wasting possession like that is unforgivable. It’s a product of the influence of soccer on GAA when players pass the ball side ways or back, probing for a chink in the armour of the opposition, rather than take their own chance or drive forward to force a free in scoring range. Perhaps Keith Ricken and his team can cure that ailment which has hampered Cork football for years.
All that couldn’t put this observer in a bad humour. The final whistle sounding and Cork 12 points to the bad couldn’t achieve that. The darkening sky and the line of traffic delaying my visit to a local hostelry wasn’t going to dampen my spirits.
This had been an unexpected taste of July in January. And the long anticipated ale in the company of friends in the renowned Laurels pub was the creamy head on a tasty pint of a day. We still have to be careful. But we can also become a bit more carefree!