If Cork had won last Sunday rather than lost, it is doubtful whether we'd have noticed much of a difference in their post-match demeanour.
The champions remain as inscrutable as ever. They still keep themselves to themselves. Their emotional spectrum still runs the proverbial gamut from a to b.
It perhaps reached the dizzy heights of c in the immediate aftermath of last year's All-Ireland final. But by the time they got the Sunday Game treatment that night, they had locked their feelings behind closed doors again -- and thrown away the key for good measure. It's not a criticism: they are who they are, they cannot be what they are not. And anyway, as the song goes, it takes all sorts to make a world.
But it's not, we reckon, an irrelevant observation either. There is arguably a direct connection between how they feel and how they play. The team collectively has an uptight personality; it has an uptight style of play too. Their method is mechanical; it generally looks stilted and programmed.
Their performance in Killarney suggested that the winning of the All-Ireland hadn't really freed them up at all. Or maybe that was just the effect Kerry had on them.
In any event their hosts once again provided a vivid contrast in style and attitude. It seemed, not for the first time, that these Kerry footballers play the game as a form of self-expression, while their Cork counterparts play it as a form of penance. One was producing natural and organic football, the other a more processed and manufactured fare. In the green-and-gold corner we had Ronnie O'Sullivan; in the red corner, Peter Ebdon.
Again to emphasise: this is a thoroughly honourable Cork team. They have taken the hard road; nothing has come easy to them. And perhaps only their stoic mindset enabled them to continue in the face of those harrowing defeats that so scarred their long journey to the title. If it meant not going wild with euphoria last September, it meant also that they were admirably devoid of self-pity in the bad days too. They suffered in silence. They are a dignified team.
But still. One wonders if there aren't loads of Cork fans who feel like shouting at them, as they laboriously handpass the ball across the field, 'Jeez lads, will ye ever loosen up?' We're fairly sure that they shout, on a regular basis, 'Will ye kick the f*****g thing?!' Anyway. The All-Ireland title apparently hasn't liberated them.
They were stuck to the ground in that first half last Sunday while all around them the Kerry team wasn't so much moving as pouring. They were at their fluid, free-flowing best during that period. The pace and movement was one thing; lots of teams have pace and movement; it was the blending and continuity that made it look seamless.
Nothing seemed pre-planned and yet everything clicked. If someone moved, he was found. Every time a player on the ball looked for an option, he had one. They moved the ball fast; they made spontaneous decisions and executed them accurately. They barely wasted a ball in open play. It was attacking football of the highest quality. And it was lovely to watch as it unfolded.
This in itself however was nothing new -- not that it should be taken for granted either. But Cork were so at sea in that first half that it almost bordered on exhibition stuff from Kerry. They did, more or less, as they pleased. And when Cork finally opened up in the second half, the Kerry half-back line wasn't mapped. Their unproven midfield combination, which had been sheltered by Cork's timid kick-out strategy in the first half, was eventually swamped.
These aren't major caveats: the return of Tomás ó Sé and Paul Galvin will go a long way towards solving those issues. Besides which, Jack O'Connor has the proven ability to camouflage problems and improvise solutions on a game-by-game basis. Kerry right now are in pole position.
It is a plausible possibility that Cork were ambivalent about last Sunday's fixture. If they were serious about winning it then their supporters should be seriously worried. Maybe, like a horse being primed for a bigger coup on another day, their manager held back ten per cent. Which, by the
time Kerry were finished with them at half-time, looked more like 50 per cent. Kerry weren't one bit ambivalent. They had lots of good reasons to win it; they played like there was no back door available to them.
Cork may take comfort in the belief that while Kerry showed their hand, they did not. From the outside looking in, it seems a spurious comfort -- if it is that at all. But the teams have played cat-and-mouse with each other for so long now, the relationship has become something of a psychological maze.
It's one reason why there was no real consensus afterwards on the implications of the result. Had Kerry spooked Cork again? Were Cork playing a bit of rope-a-dope? Who would benefit in the long run? If it's become a game of poker between them, then Cork's inscrutable expression should help as the cards are dealt.
But this is a guessing game. Park the speculation and look at the hard evidence for a bottom line: Cork are the champions, but Kerry once again proved indisputably they have the superior talent and class.
Sunday Indo Sport