IT couldn't be anyone else playing today. Ten years ago this week I started as the football writer for this paper and fittingly it began with covering Cork and Kerry; fittingly, because it's often felt as if I've been writing about nothing else.
It was the last of their do-or-die games in Munster, with Páidí and Larry and everything on the line. That was the same sweltering hot day down in Killarney when Mick Curley adjudged that Seán Óg – that's right, children, he once upon a time played football – pulled Dara Ó Cinnéide down in the square and that Ronan McCarthy's shove on Johnny Crowley along the endline was all that prevented Johnny from booming into the sky and keeping in play a ball destined for the terraces. Suffice to say, an incensed Larry adjudged things quite differently, and shortly after Ó Cinnéide had slotted away both penalties we had the unprecedented sight of Curley instructing Philip Clifford to go over and tell his manager to keep his eyes in their sockets.
Cork would storm back, the charge led by Colin Corkery, playing his first championship game in three years, but Kerry would prevail to embark on another All Ireland title. Cork, meanwhile, were out of the championship by mid-June, just like Meath, the side that had beaten them in the previous year's All Ireland final.
Now every All Ireland finalist plays into the following July at least. You no longer get 40,000-plus to Cork-Kerry games in Munster; a little over 30,000 is the norm now. Only three of that Kerry team – Mike McCarthy, Tom O'Sullivan and Tomás Ó Sé – play today. None of Cork's starting lineup today featured that day. But one thing has remained the same since that day. Cork's summer has always finished earlier than Kerry's, or given they've played each other in two All Ireland finals, Cork's summer has always been inferior to Kerry's anyhow.
This is the 20th time in those 10 years I've previewed Cork-Kerry in the championship. No other fixture in that time has reached even double figures. That's a lot of games and a lot of previews tipping Kerry to win "by about three points". Only once in that time have I tipped Cork – before the 2002 All Ireland semi-final, which explains why I've never tipped them since.
Yet here we are, once more to come up with yet another preamble before probably declaring Kerry to sneak it by the usual three points. This year we might even come up with a different verdict, something wild like Kerry by five, or even Cork by three. We'll see. Before all that, there's so much to weigh up, such as:
Does it really matter who wins today?
In a nutshell, yes, for reasons we'll get to. But even if it didn't, isn't it still a game to be won and enjoyed for today alone? Not even someone as hardened as Johnny Giles will sit in a television studio for a Chelsea-Man U game in November and say sure it doesn't really matter in the long run who wins or not. These are the two best teams in the country. You probably won't get a better standard of game outside of Croke Park all year. Their Munster semi-final replay last year "might not have mattered" ultimately, but it was also by a distance the best game the first 10 weeks of last year's championship threw up.
And that game did matter, actually. If Cork hadn't seen off Kerry so convincingly that day, they'd hardly have had the confidence to see off Tyrone so convincingly in Croke Park and it's the comfort and knowledge of winning that semi-final that has Cork driving on again this year.
To today. It has been rightly said that Kerry don't need another summer in the qualifiers, but Barney Rock was right during the week when he said Cork need to win today even more.
Call it the Mickey Harte Theory. When ghosting his diary of the 2003 season, I pressed him as to why he felt Tyrone would never have won that year's All Ireland if they hadn't come back from nine points down in the Ulster final. So what if you'd lost by only a couple of points? You were still in the All Ireland championship.
When it was all about the Sam Maguire, why was winning that Anglo-Celt so important? Harte argued that if they'd lost to Down that day, a doubt would have lingered for the remainder of the year and ultimately tripped them up. Only a team that had won an All Ireland through the frontdoor first, he maintained, could win one through the backdoor. Seven years on and, as much as it will pain Tipperary hurling supporters, Harte's theory has yet to be disproved.
It's not just the psychological damage a loss would do to Cork but the psychological boost that would come with a win. Beating Kerry in Munster might not represent something new for this team but beating Kerry in Killarney would. They haven't managed that in 15 years. They've since drawn there three times alright but not actually won.
Kerry won't want to give them that confidence boost. Besides, if Kerry win they'll be playing all their football for the rest of the year in either Fitzgerald Stadium or Croke Park. Why would they want to go anywhere else?
There's another reason why Kerry should want to win today. It tends to get overlooked, with the Team of the Decade argument only put to bed last year and the Kilkenny hurlers closing in on an unprecedented five-in-a-row this year, but this Kerry team are within touching distance of immortality themselves. Reach this year's All Ireland final and they'll become the first team to reach seven consecutive finals. Win it and Kerry will have won four of the last five, five of the last seven and six of the last 11. Only one side this past 60 years has a record that rivals and eclipses that – Micko's team of All Talents. In other words, win this year's All Ireland and this Kerry team, much to the chagrin or protestations of my colleague Liam Hayes, can rightfully claim to being one of the best two teams in living memory.
But maybe the reason such a prospect has gone largely unnoticed is that Kerry don't radiate the same aura of invincibility that Cody's Cats have, and that is as much due to their recent record in Munster against Cork as their record against Tyrone in Croke Park. Losing in Munster only to come back to win in September might be the stuff of cute hoors, alright, but of immortals? Lose today and this Kerry team will have only won one provincial title in the last five years. Greatness demands more.
The Donaghy factor
For all the talk of Cork's strength in depth, their fullback line is vulnerable, even if debutant Jamie O'Sullivan should contain Bryan Sheehan. But Ray Carey in only his second season succeeding Anthony Lynch as the Goochbuster? And Graham Canty, having played less than half an hour of inter-county football this past nine months, is being asked to mark the sharpest and most dangerous forward in football?
A 15-minute cameo last September apart, Cork haven't come up against Kieran Donaghy since the McMahons curbed the twin towers in the 2008 All Ireland final.
It will be fascinating to see if Cork have absorbed the lessons of that day. Clearly, they will pressure the ball out the field, but when the ball does come in, will someone front him? Will Canty look to break it? Or will he, like Conor Gormley in the 2007 Inter-provincial final, wait for him to land and then force him to his left?
This game will tell us where we really are with the handpass rule. (By the way, where have the GPA gone? This issue is playing on players' minds this summer a lot more than the grants was a few winters ago yet there hasn't been so much as a text poll over it).
A few weeks ago Dara Ó Cinnéide, with the kind of insight that makes him the best post-match analyst on the RTE roster, spoke about the various nuances of full-forward play like using "soft hands" to lay the ball off to the runner. Just like in Thurles a Kerry forward making a run today off Donaghy's shoulder might be hauled back and have a goal disallowed. Because be sure of one thing – however well Cork play Donaghy, the big man will create at least one goal chance that could turn the whole game.
Can Cork make Kerry's backs and midfielders feel old?
Only four years ago the Cork forward line was only averaging 8.5 points per league game. This past year they averaged twice that. Daniel Goulding and Paul Kerrigan have all taken their game up a level from last year. Ciaran Sheehan has the kind of athleticism, talent and boldness to trouble Kerry. Cork have picked a team to run at Kerry from all angles and at some point in the second half some of those thirtysomethings in the Kerry backline might feel their age.
So, who'll win?
A part of me feels Kerry are once again a step ahead of Cork. For years Kerry have shown only 85 percent of their hand in Munster while Cork in contrast last year disclosed their Pearse O'Neill kickout strategy months ahead of the county's imminent rematch in Croke Park. Burned by another Croke Park defeat, Cork have all the signs of a team who want to beat Kerry twice this year – with Plan B for Munster and Plan A reserved for Croke Park. But now Kerry are coming with Plan A in Munster while Cork start three debutants. But then, maybe that is a gauge of Cork's greater vitality.
Even when we factor in the law of averages we're no wiser. On one hand it suggests Cork are overdue a win in Killarney; the other says Kerry are overdue a win in Munster.
But for the first time since '95 Cork have the firepower to hit 15 or more scores in Killarney and it's a matter of whether their backs can hold Kerry to less. We think they will. With Paul Galvin out injured and Darragh Ó Sé retired, Kerry aren't quite as formidable by land or by air in the combat zone.
Yerrah, Cork by three points.