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Donncha OConnor, Cork, reacts to a missed opportunity. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Donncha OConnor, Cork, reacts to a missed opportunity. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
SOCIAL BOOKMARKS

Footballers need to Tipp the balance in their favour

The Barry O'Donovan column

“THEY themselves told me that their confidence was very brittle and it turned out to be true. 

"We found that when things went wrong, they dropped their heads very easily. But we’re determined this year to address the situation. 

"They’re training very well and playing very well also but we haven’t been able to get the wins we’ve needed to boost confidence.” 

If the quote above from a Cork senior football manager seems all too relevant to recent times it might surprise a little to discover the source isn’t Peadar Healy but an interview we did with Billy Morgan way back pre-championship 2005. 

Cork had been beaten up by Limerick, Roscommon and Fermanagh in the preceding two seasons.

Morgan spent the best part of twenty minutes that day outlining just how difficult the players were finding it to recover any sense of belief in themselves or Cork football.

If the circumstances are slightly different right now, it does give some evidence to the theory that perhaps it’s not such a new concept for a Cork team to lack identity or confidence. 

What followed then? 

Cork recovered, went on a remarkable run where only Kerry beat them in the championship for six summers and if it’s too simplistic to put the turnaround to one man, it’s hard to not recall the feeling that those players completely believed Billy Morgan would lead them to wins and All-Ireland finals. 

If the current situation has been referenced as similar to 2005, these Cork players haven’t shown enough in performances yet to suggest they’ve fully bought into where this management group could bring them in anything like the same way. 

A win or two can change that.

Cork have worked hard on identifying the issues but there are a lot of solutions we still can’t be sure about. 

Fitness and ability to compete on the basic distances ran during a game has been targeted, even though Ciaran Whelan questioned it on the Sunday Game post-Waterford, but if we got into the tactical basics, it’s still not completely clear how Cork defend or attack at their most efficient. 

Waterford may have magnified it with their set-up but the old problem of how to break down a mass defence raised itself again in Dungarvan, where Cork seemed unable to think of or properly execute the necessary on the field, not quite committing to running the ball into spaces with conviction or in numbers and not quite kicking the ball in long enough either. 

The balance of the half-forward line looks decent on paper but lacks a game-controlling presence on the field. 

The half-back and midfield probably still has more runners than kickers, with only really Stephen Cronin out there whose instinctive reaction is to hit a forward in space. 

Peadar Healy gave an interview before the year on how he’d like the team to kick the ball more but there’s only been small patches where that’s been evident and it’s still difficult from game-to-game to put a finger exactly on how Cork are meant to be going about creating chances and moving the ball into the scoring areas, as you could with say Kerry, Dublin, Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan (and Tipp actually) or what coaching work is going into developing this. 

There’s not been enough link-up play between forwards and it took Donncha O’Connor last day to make the lack of conviction elsewhere obvious.

It may come down to nerve and it may come down to football and Tipp are a proper challenge now in both areas. 

They’ll test Cork’s ability to find the correct man-markers for Michael Quinlivan and Conor Sweeney, both capable of grabbing a 1-5 and blitzing Cork in the air or the spaces behind the full-back lines.

If Cork are going one-v-one at the back it’s a serious job to find two defenders with the necessary mix of heft and defensive aggression. 

Tipp tend towards high-scoring games anyways - 3-15 scored in last year’s win followed by a 1-21 v Derry and a 3-13 v Galway. 

This year’s league hasn’t been any different really – a couple of 1-16s, 3-17, 2-15 and then a 3-19 in the final win over Louth – and if the game is open and fast it could become another shootout (they do concede as well, 2-16 to Cork last time, 3-17 to Kerry and 2-17 to Derry and even 0-19 to Louth in that league final). 

They’ll test Cork’s midfield even without Peter Acheson but it should be a more defined battle than against Waterford. 

They’ll get runners joining the lines of attack – Robbie Kiely most obviously - as effectively as any county and Cork’s middle eight will have to be careful with the balance of doing a disciplined job defensively and becoming so distracted that they can’t affect the game themselves. 

Tipp won’t be shy or inferior about making it individual battles around the field and expecting to come out on top.

Cork almost managed to sneak last year’s game without really playing at all, mainly through some sense that they ought not be losing, and that same reaction carried them through the Waterford game a fortnight ago. 

But the dynamic has shifted slightly. 

Cork don’t have that entitlement now that might have dragged them back into a game previously and it’s impossible to know how they’d react to say, a big momentum-shifting goal from Tipp or going 4/5 points behind at any stage. 

Yet there’s a lack of baggage and expectation there in ways that could free Cork up a little, a backs-to-the-wall sort of place that might bring Cork together and express themselves with something like a Killarney 2015 performance. 

The shape of the game will matter. 

Tipp will hope to dictate the flow and find the few gamechanging moments to make the doubts creep into Cork heads. 

Cork will hope to get the sort of run on Tipp that’d bring the crowd onside and if they can bring a top-quality score or a recognisable workrate or even a massive turnover or two at some stage it’d help greatly. 

A tight last ten minutes would be a very interesting opportunity for Cork to lose this tag as the team who can’t close the deal.

It’s difficult to overstate how big this could be. 

A defeat has repercussions, a bad defeat would signal real change. 

A win wouldn’t bring Cork back to the elite or anything yet, but it would alter the feeling around the group. 

Can Cork find the right level of intensity and bring a championship performance out of themselves? 

Honestly, it’s hard to see another choice right now. 

Can Cork know their jobs in defensive and attacking areas and turn that into the cohesive unit we’ve been waiting on? 

Would even that be good enough to go toe-to-toe successfully against an emerging Tipp? 

We’ll know that Saturday evening.