IF YOU need reminding that James O’Donoghue didn’t roll out of bed the pre-eminent inside forward in Ireland, that the best footballers and football teams are a product of unceasing hard work, you need only look at his previous Munster final on Leeside.
Just like Sunday, one team was derided as an embarrassment to the jersey while the other’s future was declared secure after an unmerciful hiding the scale of which was foreseen by few in advance.
That time, though, the whip was in the other hand. In the 2011 Munster U21 final, Cork and Kerry rolled up for what was supposed to be a cracker. O’Donoghue, Paul Geaney and Stephen O’Brien among the stars in green and gold, Aidan Walsh, Mark Collins, Damien Cahalane and John O’Rourke leading the defence of the home side’s honour.
It was instead a humiliation as deep as Kerry have ever suffered. For the citizens of the Kingdom, the final score must have read like some tally from a gruesome disaster in a far-flung field: Cork 2-24, Kerry 0-8, almost double the margin of the 2014 senior final. O’Donoghue and Geaney, who tormented Cork so cruelly on Sunday, mustered one point from play between them.
Twelve players from that 22-point massacre, six from each side, were back to play a part in Sunday’s 34-point turnaround. You can theorise that Cork tend to put a greater emphasis on physicality at underage than Kerry do, and you would be correct, but it is still a reversal of fortunes that beggars belief. Had the Kerry U21s been on the lash the night before the 2011 final, it would remain hard to credit.
It might be easier to figure out had Cork’s acquisition of silverware that night in Pairc Ui Chaoimh been a one-off. But it was the start of four Munster U21 victories in a row. The most recent completed a run of a staggering nine from 11 provincial titles in that grade. Kerry have been able to best the rest of Munster once at U21 since 2002.
We are not naïve enough to think that U21 dominance guarantees senior success, but what is unquestionable is that season in and year out Cork are producing a bewildering array of footballers with at least the potential to make useful seniors.
If O’Donoghue, a wing-forward of considerable talent but zero achievement in 2011, can return as one of the best footballers in the country three years later, how can Cork combine all that promise and arrive with an end product far worse than anything they have fielded at senior since 2004?
What has become of such a powerful football county? Sure, their history is one of underachievement in terms of Sam Maguires gained, but it is scarcely one associated with abject surrender to any opponent in any circumstances, let alone their fiercest rivals in the last Munster final on a much-loved home sod.
While O’Donoghue, Geaney, Johnny Buckley and others are a testament to what can be made of oneself with application and self-belief, many of Cork’s most promising young players have wasted to a shadow of what they could be.
Walsh is the obvious example; there is talk he sustained a knock early on Sunday, and our sympathy to him, but even leaving Sunday aside, it is alarming how rapidly he has regressed since 2010. He was not the finished article then, but all who saw him knew that if finesse could be harnessed to his power, he was good enough to dominate midfields around Ireland for a decade.
Now, he is so far off the standard that it is as if, with every basic error, he is silently pleading to be taken off. Eoin Cadogan also got steadily worse the more he tried, leading many to lay the blame at the door of dual players in general.
It is true that more than a dozen Cork players who play only football also stank the Pairc out. But if hurling is not the start and end of Cork’s problems, we would suggest that the issue is indicative of a greater malaise.
That is this simple truth: Cork are not taking football seriously enough.
O’Donoghue, Conor McManus, Michael Darragh Macauley and any other player with serious designs on a Celtic cross are devoting their lives to its pursuit. The Rebels are retaining three key men who are trying to play a second sport that requires complete attention and hoping that their football team will be all right on the night, as if this is 1964 and not 2014.
It is precisely the same complacent attitude that leads them to select a manager because he will quietly acquiesce rather than demand the best, who will allow club fixtures to run smoothly and lads to hurl a bit of ball on the side.
A sideline that will passively allow such a blasé state of affairs is exactly the kind of sideline that will stay looking at a keeper spraying weak kick outs down the throats of four powerful Kerry fielders.
That will allow that midfield dominance be the platform for the utter humiliation of the isolated Cadogan and Michael Shields, two defenders who, while they have their faults, have battled manfully for the county in the past and deserved better.
It is not a problem that stops with Brian Cuthbert. It is an approach that flows from the top, that brave Cork players downed tools to eradicate, but which appears stronger than ever.
We have listened to endless talk since Sunday that Kerry have the more skilful footballers, and they do, but O’Donoghue’s development is the ultimate proof that skills are mastered through devotion.
Kerry can produce such beautiful football because they are willing to give themselves over to making the most of themselves. Cork, having started with a greater volume of raw material, a choice of footballers that any county outside Dublin can only dream of, seem interested only in pissing it all away.