THE BEST performance I’ve seen from this Cork team came in the Munster semi-final replay of 2009, when they destroyed Kerry, 1-17 to 0-12, in Pairc Uí Chaoimh.
While the scoreline on Sunday was similar, the fluency of the Rebels’ display was not quite to the same standard. Nonetheless, it was no surprise that Kerry, with such an unsettled looking selection, succumbed at the same venue in similar fashion to three years ago; what was a complete shock was that high-profile analysts, particularly Colm O’Rourke and Joe Brolly, were prepared to already talk of this great Kingdom side in the past tense.
The end will come for this Kerry team some day, and given their lack of underage success – aside from the 2008 U21 All-Ireland – the landing will not be a soft one. A perusal of the facts, however, would not lead one to believe that day is likely to fall in 2012.
Jack O’Connor’s team were away to the most consistent side in Ireland on Sunday. They lost by five points, yes, but they also lorded the midfield breaks and fashioned four clear goal chances while playing particularly badly.
They are spoken of as old men and an oft-repeated line is that they “won’t have the legs for the qualifiers”. This statement makes the mistake of equating the qualifiers with a trek across Siberia. What they are, in the real world, are three football matches that Kerry have more than a month to prepare for.
They enter the back door in Round Two, where they will play a team that could not make their provincial semi-final, hardly a daunting task for a group of men that probably find Celtic crosses in their spare change jar.
If Kerry have any sort of decent luck with the draw, Round Three, where they cannot face a team that made a provincial final, should not be insurmountable. And provincial final losers have a bad record in Round Four.
Kerry could reasonably expect their qualifier path to be something like Louth, Monaghan and Sligo; my friends, if you want the closest thing to a safe bet that Gaelic football has to offer, back Kerry to re-emerge in the mainstream in the All-Ireland quarter-finals on the August bank holiday weekend.
Ah, but there, where they might face teams such as Dublin, or Mayo, or Donegal, the naysayers might expect Kerry’s “old men” to flounder once more. The problem with that argument is that most of the Kingdom’s players are not that old.
Colm Cooper turned 29 last week, for example. He looked blunt and disinterested in the Pairc, but the Gooch is a Croke Park player. It may be a disappointment to those of us that would like to rank him among the greatest ever that he produces little year-round consistency; but it is also true that he is likely to be a terror once more as summer starts to melt into autumn.
Bryan Sheehan, who looked like a footballer of the year contender throughout the spring and was absent on Sunday, is 26. So is Darran O’Sullivan. Anthony Maher, who blossomed beside Sheehan this year, is younger again. Declan O’Sullivan, who performed to expectations on Sunday, and Kieran Donaghy, who did not, are both the right side of 30. Killian Young was U21 four years ago.
That list of players who are in their peak years is enough to build a decent team around, especially if O’Connor can get Donaghy and Cooper firing. Paul Galvin is 32 but only playing inter-county for eight years, and the deep pain his expression bore as he sat on the bench for the closing minutes on Sunday suggests he will not be lobbing the towel in.
You might just argue that 32-year-old Marc O Sé or his older brother Tomas have their better days behind them, but you would also be reticent to bet against them producing decent performances in Croke Park. Meanwhile, Aidan O’Mahony, another eyeing a bus pass at the ancient age of 32, played quite well against Cork.
That is not to say that O’Connor does not have problems, but to our eyes those problems are his young players, not his older ones.
His vote of no-confidence in Daniel Bohan and Shane Enright will worry Kerry fans expecting those players to step up, for the manager sees them play more often than anyone, and obviously deemed them not yet up to facing Cork.
Kieran O’Leary did get a vote of confidence but disappointed; O’Connor could really do with at least one of James O’Donoghue, Patrick Curtin, or Barry John Keane maturing quickly. O’Donoghue’s cameo in the Pairc suggested he might be leading that particular posse.
Elsewhere, questions such as whether Eoin Brosnan is the right choice at centre-back and whether Johnny Buckley is ready to deputise in the event of another midfield injury persist.
It is a considerable “if”, but if Kerry can avoid injury and suspensions, they can still field a more complete looking football team than at least 30 other counties. Your columnist is not much of a gambler, but we still fondly remember lumping on Kerry the last time they were written off to this extent, prior to the Dublin game in 2009. And we remember the feeling of satisfaction knowing the money was safe before 15 minutes had elapsed.
Kerry might not beat anyone by 17 points this time around, but they remain our tip for the All-Ireland.