Friday 23 February 2018

Eoin Liston: There's always the back door – but final still huge for Munster giants

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

For my generation, playing Cork in the Munster championship represented a major undertaking. There was no safety net; a bad day at the office meant our greatest rivals would dump us out of the championship. The tension going into those games was enormous.

Since the introduction of the back-door system, however, that has obviously diminished somewhat. Now, the fixture is still a huge deal for all involved, but the knowledge that either side can still attain All-Ireland glory no matter what the result has softened the blow of losing.

After all, Kerry have captured the Sam Maguire twice – in 2006 and 2009 – having been beaten by Cork in Munster, while the Rebels won via the same route in 2010. So, one may argue, on the face of it, that the provincial final battle on July 7 is no different in terms of the overall impact on the teams' respective seasons.

But this one, I feel, is different. Both sides have eased their way to this point. Kerry have won their two games against Tipperary and Waterford by an average of just over 21 points, while Cork have achieved a 13-point winning average over Limerick and Clare.

Therefore, it is the first real challenge of the summer for both sets of players. Easy victories can make guys complacent and it can diminish the horrible feeling of defeat.

Kerry, for example, have lost three big championship games to Down, Dublin and Donegal over the past three seasons.

For different reasons, those defeats were very hard to take. The players involved must try and revisit the pain of those setbacks and channel it in a positive way.

I often speak of the madness needed to win big championship games. That madness comes from the hurt of disappointment.

Cork, too, can't forget what it was like losing to Donegal last year – or the criticism they received when Mayo put them away against the odds in 2011.

For the first time in many years, neither is considered the outstanding favourite in terms of All-Ireland glory. Much of the focus so far has been on Donegal and Dublin.

While there won't be much attention paid to that within the respective Cork and Kerry camps – it will probably suit them – a poor performance and a loss in the Munster final may sow the seeds of doubt. Players could be saying to themselves: 'We have failed our first big test, where do we go from here? What do we need to do to make this right?'

They would be facing a potentially tricky All-Ireland qualifier having had two easy run-outs and a defeat, to go along with an indifferent league campaign. It is at this point where a good manager will really earn his reputation, as he will know that change is required.

Everything will need to be looked at from training to tactics to the personnel on the field. And it will have to be sorted in a relatively short period of time, in a well thought out and careful manner.

It's not an easy task and something Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Conor Counihan will be desperate to avoid.

But there is always a flip side. The games in Munster would have represented a chance to try out new ideas, not just from a tactical point of view, but individually – a player can gain huge confidence from pulling something off in a game and he will know it's in his locker to call upon again.

CRUCIAL

Communication on the field is crucial and it is another area that would have been improved upon over the course of the two matches so far.

Both teams have introduced some new faces into the starting teams in terms of championship fare. Regardless of the nature of the victories, these young fellas have now tasted championship football. There is no substitute for that.

Also, the performances so far have been by no means perfect. Waterford actually outscored Kerry in the third quarter.

Similarly, Cork raced into a seven-point lead against Clare, but it was 1-11 to 0-7 at half-time, meaning the Banner men were more than competitive for a significant period.

Fitzmaurice (below) and Counihan will be able to look at this and show the players that they still have much work to do. The weeks leading up to the final will be spent ironing out these issues and preparation in terms of tactics and addressing weaknesses will be meticulous.

It all makes for a really intriguing tussle. I remember the stress of getting ready for this kind of Munster warfare. And it's exactly what these players will be going through over the next few weeks.

Irish Independent

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