It wasn’t their fault last Sunday at Croke Park that the decider failed to live up to the hype bandied around before a first-ever final showdown between the storied Munster rivals, Kerry simply dealt with what was put in front of them. And even if Cork failed to fire the way both their supporters and neutrals hoped they would, the winners still swept them ruthlessly aside.
Because with the genius of Colm Cooper allied to the sheer force of will epitomized by Darragh, Tomas and Marc O Se, Kerry have tried and trusted brilliance to go with their new blood. In the aftermath of their utterly convincing victory, this team could even go on to emulate the golden era of the 1970s and ’80s.
For a time in recent years, it seemed as if Kerry’s tradition of invariably being there or thereabouts when September comes was going to be undermined as the Ulster counties began to show a strong muscular hand. But for all the intensity that Tyrone and Armagh are still bringing to the football table, they are hanging on to Kingdom’s coat tails.
Cork came into this game with reputedly the sort of defense that was going to make life extremely difficult for the likes of Cooper, Donaghy and O’Sullivan. Even if Anthony Lynch had been forced out of the starting line-up due to injury, Kerry were to be denied the freedom of Croke Park by Graham Canty, Noel O’Leary and Ger Spillane.
In the end, it wasn’t as if Cork suddenly morphed into a bunch of lost souls, but they abjectly failed to deliver on the promise they had shown in shutting Meath out of the semi-final. And to make matters worse for Billy Morgan’s team, it was that much-vaunted defense which lost its way.
While there was superb anticipation from Cooper, and opportunism from Donaghy, Kerry’s three goals were much too soft for a contest of this magnitude. The first was down to goalkeeper Alan Quirke’s decision to come for a high ball and to be beaten to the punch by Cooper, and later, Donaghy’s double was once again down to sloppy defending.
Only three points adrift at the break, and very much in the game despite not finding their best form, the steam went out of Cork’s challenge when Donaghy pick-pocketed Spillane for the second goal early in the second half. “There was no way back for us really,” shrugged Morgan. “The only difference in the first half was Cooper’s goal, and we felt we were in with a right chance, but the second goal was a bad mistake on our part. Kerry’s tails were up and it was very hard to get back at it.”
The third, when Donaghy soared to beat Quirke and Michael Shields, was once more far too easy, and from that moment on, Kerry were coasting towards a 35th title. The prospect of Cork stealing their thunder was gone, and with 20 minutes remaining and a 12-point lead to play with, the winners were able to savor the sweet taste of victory long before the Sam Maguire Cup was handed over to Declan O’Sullivan.
“I felt myself that everything that Kerry football stood for was on the line,” said the ferociously competitive half-forward, Paul Galvin. “Everything we’d achieved in that four or five years, and everything we’d achieved in the last 100 years was riding on that 70 minutes of football. The fear of losing to Cork was driving us.”
The outstanding Aidan O’Mahony echoed that view when he referred to some of the pre-match talk which had portrayed Cork as the hungrier team after 17 years without a senior title. “I think every one of this Kerry team was prepared to leave everything on the field. It was the first Kerry-Cork final, and that meant bragging rights for the next 100 years. So, it was a game we couldn’t lose really.”
And Kerry couldn’t lose, not when Cooper was at his ghosting, elusive best on the way to a personal tally of 1-5, not when Donaghy was working his socks off, not when Darragh O Se swatted Nicholas Murphy away in the key midfield duel, and not when Reidy confirmed his rich promise as a defender.
Having replaced James Masters at the interval with Daniel Goulding, Cork toiled much more in hope than expectation. Goulding did manage a goal, and later, Lynch came off the bench, but by then, Kerry were already celebrating by sending on a succession of their own subs.
“We’re a much better team than that,” said Morgan. “That’s Kerry’s fourth final in a row, it’s our first in eight years. There’s a young team there, and I think there’s a huge future for Cork football.”
Maybe, but not if they perform like that in All Ireland finals. For the moment, this majestic Kerry team are the present and the future of Gaelic football.