Kerry have the history, the class and far more options
Many people will tune in to Croke Park today and hope that this marks the end of the duopoly that has dominated football this decade. It doesn't mean there is anything against either Tyrone or Kerry, but there is always a wish for new blood. So Cork in a way represent many who think a new order might be about to emerge, one which gives a sense of confidence to every other team, that progress in small steps each year can actually get you to the top.
And yet it is Kerry who block the way. As Banty McEnaney said, it is always Kerry who are in the way. They should be forced by the World Bank, in this time of crisis, to give back all the stacks of gold medals to bolster the country's finances and start from scratch again to see what it is like to be impoverished in a football sense.
It is up to Cork to be good enough to create their own history for themselves today, to go out and play with the same power, pace and, most of all, skill which has epitomised their year. That sort of power play started in the league in February when they blew Meath away; it continued with the same type of performance in the league final against Monaghan when I saw them in the flesh for the first time. On that day I wondered if this was a mirage, but the form continued against Kerry in Munster. There was a blip against Limerick but normal service was resumed against both Donegal and Tyrone. So this is a proper team of hardened footballers who have size, rugged strength, real pace and are completely honest. A team to win any All-Ireland. And yet . . . it is Kerry who block the way.
Maybe this is the day when Kerry grow old together; many have been round for all the finals of the decade, a great feat of endurance but of course they played the system well too. Defeat in Munster was only the beginning, not the end, and I wonder if there were not times in defeats to Cork in Killarney and Páirc Uí Chaoimh when the players mentally decided, with winning out of reach, on a policy of 'beidh lá eile'. That lá eile in Croke Park always went their way too.
Kerry have recovered from a few hairy weeks in June and July to become the major force. Same old story, I suppose. But Cork are undoubtedly better now. And yet . . .
When they last met in the final two years ago, it became a sort of comedy show. Cork have learned from that and with Conor Counihan there is an air of calm.
In Kerry, it is always a bit like a duck when things are going west -- calm on the surface but furious work going on out of sight. The dropping of Gooch and Tomás ó Sé reflected an unhappy camp. But from a backs-to-the-wall situation, Kerry have prospered and it is usually a good thing for any manager to either have a crisis or create a crisis when things need ratcheting up. Whichever way it came about, Jack O'Connor has benefited and the performance against Dublin particularly would frighten most teams.
So while Cork have improved significantly, so have Kerry. From last year's team beaten by Tyrone, Kerry have Mike McCarthy at centre-back and Paul Galvin and Tadhg Kennelly in the half-forwards. These are not just alterations; this is adding two of the best three footballers in the country to their team.
Kennelly left a crock of gold for a gold medal, the heir coming home to lay claim to the throne. The Beatles said money can't buy you love, Kennelly would say that it can't buy an All-Ireland either but the satisfaction gained can never be measured in monetary form. I will be very surprised if Kennelly and Galvin do not have a major influence on this game.
Of course Cork have men who could mark them so long as Noel O'Leary and Galvin don't do something silly and walk the plank. Then there is Graham Canty: captain, leader and warrior, a man who could inspire Cork to glory. A Cork side which is the best for two decades. And yet . . . it is Kerry who block the way.
Cork must make hay around midfield. Alan O'Connor was doing well before being sent off against Tyrone but Nicholas Murphy has been dominated too often by Darragh ó Sé in Croke Park. This is his last chance to wipe the slate clean on one big day. Because all the skirmishes south of the border don't count, Croke Park is the place of heroes.
The Cork half-forwards are their strongest unit. Pearse O'Neill will contest kick-outs and will be a one-man battering ram. Paddy Kelly is the big improver and Paul Kerrigan must bolt through half a dozen times, his problem is to get on the ball enough to do damage. Inside, Cork don't seem to have a razor's edge. Daniel Goulding can be special but I will reserve judgement, while it is expecting a lot of Colm O'Neill and Donnacha O'Connor to lead the way. O'Connor had big trouble with frees against Tyrone; he has probably needed a flash lamp as he has practised so much since, but he must nail them all today.
For me, Cork have weaknesses in their full-back and full-forward lines and must dominate the lines in between to win. The best match-up of the day will undoubtedly be Anthony Lynch on Gooch. It is 2-0 to Lynch this year but it is a different Gooch now. Class is class is class. Form is merely temporary.
The main war will be fought between the two 45-metre lines. There will be a lot of big men around and it would be safer running with the bulls in Pamplona than going for a loose ball here. There will be savage hitting which I hope the ref does not get too worried about. It would be best to throw in the ball, let about ten minutes go before giving a free, maybe for picking the ball off the ground or something serious like that.
If Cork can dominate in the air -- and weather conditions will suit -- then they could be on the road. And yet . . . it is Kerry who are in their way.
The darkest hour is before the dawn and Kerry came through that against Longford and Sligo while the sun started to come up against Antrim in the second half. Cork have played all their football in the light and are trying to hold and indeed improve on their form from last April. It is a big ask.
What Cork are trying to do is not just win a game but overcome all the barriers of a lifetime, the hidden walls which great teams must drive through. They have the football and the footballers to do it. And yet . . . it is Kerry who block the way.
If Cork pull it off, it will be the greatest win of all. Yet Kerry are not big into sentiment or sympathy, least of all to Cork, where local pride is nearly as important as medals. Cork must start by dominating Kerry's greatest hero Darragh ó Sé and build from there and they must trust themselves to play with abandon and not worry unduly about Kerry.
And yet the doubts persist. If Kerry are in trouble, they can send for Donaghy, Quirke, O'Sullivan and many more, Cork don't seem to have anything like that quality sitting impatiently and waiting for the call. A win for Cork would be good for the game; however, if I was an apostle I would be with Thomas on this one. Until Cork actually do it, I remain unconvinced. It should be a great game but Kerry to win. As always Kerry block the way.