Friday 13 December 2019

Kingdom fighting to find new princes

Christy O'Connor

When Cork annihilated Kerry by 22 points in last year's Munster U-21 final, it was Kerry's biggest football championship defeat at any level.

Moreover, it seemed to represent another major levee breach caused by the rising Cork tide, which had been threatening to submerge Kerry since the Rebels beat them by eight points in the 2009 replayed Munster semi-final.

When the dam appeared to have burst that day, there were immediate comparisons made with 1987, when Cork's victory in the replayed Munster final signalled an end to Kerry's 'Golden Years'. That win also heralded a new beginning for Cork football, which saw the county win seven Munster titles and two All-Irelands in nine years.

Before that crusade was launched in 1987, there was a sustainable cockiness about Cork football after a whole generation of players had grown up beating Kerry when winning seven of the previous eight Munster U-21 titles.

Twenty-five years on, the trends are somewhat comparable. In April, Cork beat Kerry to win their seventh Munster U-21 title in nine years. And others are getting in on the act. Tipperary defeated Kerry in the 2010 Munster U-21 final while Tipp also beat them in last year's Munster minor final. Tipp turned them over again in this year's minor championship and will be fancied to repeat the dose in July's Munster final.


Consistent defeats at underage level have suggested that the success of Kerry's seniors is camouflaging serious concerns for the future. And that it's only a matter of time before the cracks appear on the walls and the roof caves in -- like it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

On Tuesday, Colm Cooper dismissed that theory on a number of grounds.

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"The underage structure hasn't been too good," he said. "We haven't won a minor (All-Ireland) since 1994. The

U-21s? Okay, we won one (All-Ireland) in 2008, but I suppose the only thing that we can take from that is that we've had one or two guys coming into the squad every year.

"Even though they haven't been winning All-Irelands, that's all you really need -- one or two, or maybe three if you're lucky, to come into the squad and integrate. I'm not too sure I would go as far as to say that the senior success is papering over the cracks. It takes a while for a young fella to come through in Kerry into the senior set-up."

Cork did win their senior All-Ireland in 2010, but their anticipated domination of Kerry after the 2009 Munster semi-final replay never materialised. Kerry beat them in the 2009 All-Ireland final, the 2010 Munster semi-final replay and last year's Munster final.

Cork's annihilation of Kerry in last year's U-21 final suggested a monumental gulf between the teams, but there is an interesting comparison between the personnel involved and those who featured in this year's NFL.

Six of that Kerry team got significant game-time this spring, while Cork only used three of their side. Ciaran Sheehan was injured, Damian Cahalane was playing hurling and was still featuring with the U-21 footballers, while Conor Counihan has had a policy of not selecting U-21 players if they are still involved in the U-21 championship.

Yet the manner in which Kerry have been able to override the perceived deficit between the counties at U-21 level has been a critical factor in Cork's struggles to rein in Kerry at senior level.

Kerry's ability to regenerate has always been a wonder, but it has been even more pronounced in the last two years, especially when they lost four massive players after the 2009 All-Ireland final -- Darragh O Se, Tommy Walsh, Diarmuid Murphy and Tadhg Kennelly.

They have since lost four more from that final -- Mike McCarthy, Tommy Griffin, Tom O'Sullivan and Micheal Quirke -- to retirement, while David Moran has been out with knee injuries.

Kerry recent success has been defined by their ability to adapt and evolve. They've still managed to keep winning, but losing last year's All-Ireland final left questions to answer because when they needed fresh legs in the last quarter, they weren't there.

Stimulating controlled regeneration in a mature and decorated squad was going to be even harder with the dearth of underage success, but Barry John Keane, Brian McGuire, Peter Crowley, Shane Enright, Patrick Curtin, Johnny Buckley, Jonathan Lyne and James O'Donoghue all showed promise this spring, while Daithi Casey impressed with Dr Crokes. Most of those players had also featured on Kerry U-21 teams beaten by Cork.

In another sense, Kerry couldn't be expected to continue mining the gems that they unearthed in the last decade. They produced one outstanding forward in every season between 2002 and 2008 -- Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan, Paul Galvin, Darran O'Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan and Tommy Walsh.

That supply level has dried up, but Kerry are still producing talented forwards. Despite this, there is still a strong feeling in Cork that a takeover is inevitable. Part of this is based on the theory that when Kerry's nucleus of great players retires, the players coming after them won't have that same inner belief.

That theory is also backed up by the sense that if Cork keep beating Kerry at U-21 level, those Cork players will eventually have a mental stranglehold at senior. Yet much of that transition will depend on how Kerry stagger the departures. Then they will hope that new leaders will emerge yet again.

Kerry can't deny that the Cork tide is gathering volume. But this is not the 1980s and it won't be as easy to wash Kerry back up on the rocks. This time it's going to take a tsunami.

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