Cork football still searching for answers after a season of stark contrasts

Cork football still searching for answers after a season of stark contrasts

Dejected Cork players Sean White, Cathail O'Mahony and Maurice Shanley after defeat to Tipperary last weekend. Picture: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

THAT feelgood didn’t last long. Neither did the sense of a breakthrough. 

If the win over Kerry conjured an emotional outburst that got to the heart of the desperation for Cork football to succeed, well the loss to Tipp gave an idea of the reality and ongoing contradictions in the game here. The messages last Sunday night told a story. 

Disappointing, yes. A massive shock though? Not really. 

Beat Kerry and everyone points out how there’s no reason Cork shouldn’t be winning these big games anyway and it could be the start of a new era. Lose to Tipp and everyone says 'oh well that’s Cork football' and points out that’s a truer level anyway in the grander scheme of things. 

There might always be an unfair overemphasis on the last performance of the season but it seems so very fitting to end a year winning all league games and beating Kerry in championship and still be unsure of where Cork stands in the end.

Some of the same problems have endured. There’s still the struggle to find the proper personnel and smarts in defensive zones to mark top forwards at times, as Sweeney/Quinlivan showed with their 0-12 last Sunday. Working ball into the scoring areas against teams who clog the running channels has riddled Cork more than most counties and it became apparent after a time against Tipp that A) there weren’t spaces to get runners past the defensive line, B) slowing up the ball movement was only decreasing the chances of finding those spaces and C) Cork didn’t have the nous to find another way. 

Steven O'Brien of Tipperary, supported by Liam Casey jumps for the ball against Killian O’ Hanlon and Ian Maguire. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Steven O'Brien of Tipperary, supported by Liam Casey jumps for the ball against Killian O’ Hanlon and Ian Maguire. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

The instinct to look sideways or backwards in possession without penetration was startling at times and it was one of those occasions where the thought occurred that the balance in that middle eight was skewed too far towards power and speed to the absence of knacky kick-passers who might find a route to the scoring area before/over/through the defensive blocks. 

On one occasion in the first half, Mattie Taylor sent a lovely crossfield kick-pass to Brian Hurley to set up a score for John O’Rourke but that stood out so much because it basically hardly happened again. Players waited for Ian Maguire or Deane to make a burst or they made these isolated runs themselves and Cork either got turned over or took on the wrong shots from the wrong areas with the wrong person shooting.

It just all came across a little one-dimensional and safe, where Cork didn’t have the abandon or creativity necessary to alter the flow of the game. There was a difference in mentality too. 

Cork had attacked the Kerry game with a lack of fear but once the realisation set in that things were slipping last weekend, there was a definite sense of a team lacking the fluency to execute the skills, a sort of collective sudden lack of conviction in everything. 

It wasn’t that Cork weren’t trying but even the basic kicking and handling wasn’t happening and decision making fell away. Apart from the mentality, Tipp looked the better footballers for large patches in basics like kicking and shooting. 

Cork have work to do to find the right mix of freedom to play off the cuff and still have a more structured sense of how they go about moving the ball more effectively into the shooting areas. There’s a pile of coaching to be done in how the group approaches games and how they manage games.

If that all feels a little too negative this week, there’s a longer, deeper game here of course which needs more thought. Cork are in a much better place now than the end of 2018 and spring of 2019 and a lot of the talk from the camp before and after the Kerry game spoke of a changed culture in the group, a shift in preparation and focus and attitude that delivered last summer’s experiences, promotion (from Division 3, but still), hungry young players pushing, that win at last against a top-six county. 

Both experiences of the last few weeks will be worthwhile for the U20s coming through – we know, learnings were not meant to be a potential out here but just the circumstances of winning against Kerry but losing sloppily to Tipp is bound to create feelings worth anchoring for future use. The defence had barely a handful of games between them and will be better. 

Ronan McCarthy made a curious reference afterwards to changing expectation and whether Cork could and should have the ambition to want more than the odd once-off win over Kerry. And that was the most dispiriting thing maybe, the suggestion all along that the group just needed this one win to push on and the feeling that there was a consistent performance level at last but then still came with the underperformance in the very next game out. 

A Munster title and an All-Ireland semi-final with Mayo would have been real progress but a loss like last week allows the same questions and doubts linger again. Ronan McCarthy might not even want another go but does Cork really need another upheaval with new coaches (players have spoken highly of people like Cian O’Neill and Kevin Smith) and more ideas that take another year or two to bed in at this stage of development? 

There’s still a feeling of transition in the group where this batch of U20s are experiencing these type of challenges for the first time and 2021 will probably bring more of that as players like Shanley, Meehan, O’Mahony, Gore, O’Callaghan are integrated further and joined by others for a full league campaign hopefully. 

Honesty and work-rate have been at the heart of this direction but is that enough or is something extra needed to take another step in evolving the way of playing? A shorter winter to ponder which may be no bad thing at least.

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