Tomás Ó Sé: Kerry must run Rebels ragged and make clear statement
Cork look a different animal this year and first Munster final in new Páirc Uí Chaoimh is a chance for Ronan McCarthy's team to lay down gauntlet, but Eamonn Fitzmaurice is too smart to let troops take eye off the ball
I'll kind of miss the old tenement this evening even though what they've built in its place is a masterpiece.
It's true, the first Páirc Uí Chaoimh was a bit of a dog. Whoever designed it didn't really know their customer, the famous tunnel a health and safety nightmare, the dressing-rooms not much bigger than walk-in wardrobes. But by Christ the place had real life in its stone. Heading down there to play was like going to the Coliseum.
My first game there was a Munster minor replay in 1995 that we lost. I'd never played inside a fully enclosed stadium before and, to me, it felt something huge to play in a ground that had such history in our house.
One year later, we had a day there that became a turning point for Kerry football. Did the double over Cork, minor and senior, both Kerry teams housed in connecting dressing-rooms. I'll always remember my uncle Páidí coming into the tiny showers after the curtain-raiser and grabbing me around the neck for an emotional hug.
It was his first year as senior manager and he'd be absolutely soaked going back in to give his team-talk.
We were under strict instructions to be quiet, so as not to distract the seniors as he spoke. So there we were, squashed together like sardines in a can, listening to the passion building as Páidí revved them for war. That was a young Kerry senior team that had lost to Cork the year before and it was a do-or-die day for them now.
In later years, the seniors would have the 'luxury' of those two cramped rooms to themselves, the minors re-housed in a prefab out the back. The conditions in the old place always felt incredibly primitive, but I loved that side of it. Always used it as a motivational tool, telling myself that this was all part of Cork trying to break us down psychologically.
Even that business of having to walk through the throngs of people in the tunnel just to get to the pitch? Loved it. Bring it on. You won't break me!
So heading back in this evening is going to feel a hell of a lot different. I've been to a few hurling games there and it's fair to say the only thing it shares with the old place is its site. It's magnificent.
And I've a feeling that's going to be reflected in the size of the gate.
True, Cork footballers struggle to win the hearts of their people and some are saying the Páirc will be half empty for this. I disagree. I suspect there's a fresh appetite locally to go to a game down by the marina and, right now, there's just the faintest suggestion that they might have a football team worth following too.
As a Kerryman, I can't help think of George Foreman's famous line here about a boxer never seeing the big one that hits him. Not because I think Cork will win. I don't.
But because the drum roll for their first big football day in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh has been no louder than the tapping of fingers on a table. And that makes this feel like a bit of a trap.
I went to Cork's game against Tipperary and they look a different beast this year. In my view, Cork simply haven't had their act together in recent years. So much so Kerry have been getting a virtual free pass in Munster, albeit they were lucky to force a replay in 2015.
Anyway, I have a specific memory of Ronan McCarthy as a player and it's something I see mirrored now in his management of the Cork team.
In '99, we played them in the Páirc on a horrible, wet day. Having lost to Kildare the year before, the pressure was on. Now Maurice Fitz was arguably the best player in the country at the time and, on his day, unmarkable. McCarthy? He was just this big, tough corner-back who took no prisoners. It shouldn't have been a serious contest. But, I swear to God, he blotted Maurice completely out of the game.
And he did it by whatever means were needed, plenty of off-the-ball stuff, a lot that was ruthless and unscrupulous even. But that's who and what he was - an enforcer offering no apologies. And I like that in him.
It's precisely the temperament that Cork footballers have lacked in recent years. A bit of badness, even madness maybe. McCarthy's given them a bit of an edge, but there's a lot of thinking going into what he's doing now too. He won a county title with Carbery and it's clear he's a tactically astute operator. So Kerry will under-estimate this fella at their peril.
Trust me, that's not an effort to start blowing smoke up Cork behinds. Anybody who thinks it is needs to wake up. Because Cork have been under-achieving for years and McCarthy knows it. Yet we got a glimpse of what they could be last season against Mayo. That's the problem. Cork are about as consistent as an Irish summer.
My view is that a lot of that has been to do with appointing the wrong people. It seems to me that Cork GAA has put more thought into building the new 'Páirc' in recent years than in having a football team fit to grace the field. That's the attitude that's jumped out at me. The football job? Any takers? The man at the back? Sound, any other business?
So Cork footballers have lacked an edge because they've lacked direction. But that's changing. Which is why I believe that, if Kerry have any complacency here, a rude awakening will be coming our way.
There's a lot of history on that site and Cork will be determined to honour it. And you know something? I hope they do. I honestly hope that they give Kerry a bucket-full of it, make them earn this title.
Because we've two managers here who understand what Kerry v Cork is all about. Two men who have that edge.
And Cork GAA is on a high at the moment, their hurlers unbeaten in maybe the most competitive Munster Championship we've ever seen. Now the pressure is on the footballers to join the party.
Jim McGuinness wasn't joking when he said the one county outside his own that he'd love to manage was Cork. The raw material is there. You don't have to be a rocket-scientist to see that.
Now I still think there's a chance Kerry could squeeze the life out of them this evening, but, if they don't, this promises to be a real mental test for Eamonn Fitz and his team. The total opposite of the Clare game. I mean what if Geaney or Murphy or Moran don't measure up? Or if Kerry's seven first-year championship players aren't up to speed? Then it'll be a tough day at the office, but that's precisely why every Kerry player should now relish the challenge.
Put it this way, If Cork are still in this game coming out for the second half, then this gets interesting. It becomes a proper Munster final. And it strikes me that, whatever happens, Cork won't come up short through indecision on the line.
They coughed up two early goal chances against Tipp and straight away, bang, they pulled John O'Rourke back from corner-forward, withdrew Stephen Cronin from centre-back into the hole and Seán White moved across the half-back line. In other words, they didn't wait for the game to change.
Cork changed it themselves.
And that change was absolutely seamless in terms of players knowing what jobs they had to do, which is how it should be with the modern game. Positions are inter-changeable today. In any professional set-up, a corner-forward can adjust to life in the half-back line without being traumatised by the journey.
I've actually worked with a lot of the Cork players in UCC and, technically, they're as good as anything we have in Kerry. True, there's no young shooting star like a David Clifford, but they have a collective of really outstanding footballers who, finally, look like they're working well together.
I got the impression that McCarthy used the National League just to tighten the glue between them. Their midfield of Aidan Walsh and Ian Maguire is a serious combination, one that's not tied down to playing in any single way. What impresses me about them is the impression that they can solve a problem in mid-game.
Maguire is a huge man whose work off the ball is phenomenal. And I'd be surprised if McCarthy hasn't identified Kerry's midfield as an area to attack. I see other changes in Cork's style too. They're a young team now with serious pace in men like Sam Ryan, Kevin Flahive, Seán White, Kevin Crowley. These lads have no fear of Kerry because they've grown up beating them. If there's one thing they need to adapt to - and I'm sure McCarthy has been drilling this into them - it's getting the ball in to their full-forward line quicker.
Two proper deliveries can cover the length of the field in seconds and in goalie Mark White, Cork now have a man who can boom monsters beyond halfway. If Walsh and Maguire are winning those, we have a battle.
I'm still not entirely sure what happened Tipperary the last day, maybe the scheduling of playing on successive weekends got inside their heads. But they just didn't show. They were ghosts of the team we've seen in recent seasons. Like Cork didn't deploy a blanket defence, yet only conceded 0-9. Against that Tipp forward line?
Mark Collins is a brilliant link man in attack. I honestly believe he's a guy that Galway could do with because, for all their weaponry, he's the one kind of player that Kevin Walsh doesn't seem to have access to.
This really smart, almost unseen player who is always available around the half-forward line, offering an outlet. Collins kicked three points against Tipp but had a hand in at least half a dozen more scores. O'Rourke or Ruairi Deane won't ever shoot the lights out, but they'll work tirelessly. I can see the improvement good coaching has brought about in Deane especially.
My Nemo clubmate Luke Connolly got all the plaudits the last day and, between himself, Collins and Colm O'Neill, they kicked 1-17. But I wasn't surprised to see O'Neill left on the bench for this. We all know how much that man's body has been through and, for me, he just doesn't have the pace now.
He's a brilliant finisher with the ball in hand, but I think his lack of mobility was becoming a problem for those further out the field.
Like Paul Kerrigan, Brian Hurley and O'Neill are live options for McCarthy off the bench now, all possible game-changers. That could be huge if the game is in the balance. And, face it, the jury is still out on whether Kerry can cope with a serious team running at them.
It's been brilliant to see Connolly flourish because he's a real a confidence player. I could never understand how he wasn't getting a game under the previous Cork management. I mean, just watch him. He has this lovely ability to glide past defenders. It's almost an optical illusion in that he looks like someone only in second gear, but he's actually flying.
Trust me, this guy's an exceptional talent, can kick off left or right and could be ready for a big year now.
Kerry pushed up very high against Clare, so high in fact that they really had just three defenders back minding the house. It was brave by Eamonn Fitz and I honestly see that as the way forward. But, against stiffer opposition, there could be an element of Russian Roulette to this too. Because, as poor as Clare were, Gary Brennan and Cathal O'Connor still caught an ocean of ball around midfield.
Cork will have seen that. They'll be thinking, 'Do that against us and we have a serious opportunity to make hay here!'
But Fitzmaurice is too smart to be caught on the hop tactically. As I see it, Tipp didn't run at Cork. Stephen O'Brien and his fellow Kerry forwards will. They will test them will all sorts of ammunition. High, direct stuff or snappy running off the shoulder. The common denominator is that everything will be fast.
I really liked the directness of Kerry's play against Clare but what were they up against?
And the truth is they have to win this. It's not negotiable. I mean the idea of them even being rattled by Cork would have been unthinkable at the start of the year. Yet, logically, Kerry have those seven players new to senior championship football and McCarthy will be looking at that and asking his players the obvious question. 'How will those boys cope if we get in their faces?'
So Cork's priority will be to stitch some doubt into Kerry minds and we saw in the league that Kerry can be got at. Most young teams can. They'll need leadership around the field here and, in some cases, that's going to have to come from relative kids. Players like Clifford and Seán O'Shea.
But, if David Moran and Jack Barry get on top in midfield, this is a game that Kerry could win going away. If not, I'd be concerned that we'll see Kerry revert to this slow, lateral passing that takes them nowhere. That this fear of making mistakes, of losing possession makes them freeze. They played an almost perfect game against Clare, mixing it up, going long and short. But they were let do that.
Look, sometimes we bog ourselves down with tactics when it's really a matter of just trying to dominate possession, remaining adaptive and taking your chances.
Cork won't be accommodating, that's guaranteed. Still, they've yet to prove categorically that they've made significant progress from last year, that they're capable of taking a real scalp when it matters. For now, I just can't see it. Because give this Kerry team an inch, they'll take a mile. And that's what I see happening in the Páirc this evening.
The Kingdom by six or seven.