THE right way is not straightforward. All week, there have been conflicting ideas about Stephen Kenny’s Ireland soccer team.
One is that the players are learning a different style, passing more, trying to change the nature of an Irish soccer team, with signs of that coming together.
Another is that football is still about creating chances and scoring, that a lack of quality will always bite, and that you might have to adjust your ideal style if the players aren’t there.
There’s a sense that results and performances can be judged on realistic expectations for Cork football as well. There’s a group that’ll suggest Cork don’t have the players and that results in recent years have been a signal of that. There’s a group that’ll suggest Cork are underperforming, based on the talent available, and should be competitive.
The approach in recent years has been inconsistent enough to allow any sort of argument to be made. Even this management era has had distinct shifts on how best to make Cork a serious team again. Ronan McCarthy spoke, in year one, about having the confidence to take teams on, but the defence got ripped apart for scores so much that he was already declaring the need for change by the last game.
Year two began with obvious emphasis on keeping scores down, but four games of basically not knowing how to move the ball into the attacking areas just wasn’t working — Cork’s highest score was 1-10 and they still conceded 2-12 and 3-13. The summer brought abandon and excitement and plenty of scores, but also four defeats and a clear need to find a more reasonable balance.
Year three has been a tricky read — games have had a different flow anyway, with the opposition generally allowing Cork possession and control — and inconclusive, so far, in how Cork might approach a game with Kerry. In their last two league games, Cork scored 3-13 in each, but they conceded 0-21 and 3-11.
It’s tempting to suggest an attacking focus. It’s more fun for starters and an easier sell to people who need entertainment now more than ever. The games have gone that way anyway in the last few years and, in Cork club football, the scoring has been through the roof.
Cork’s marquee players are forwards, and you could easily picture a bunch of proper scoring threats who’ve got a run of form in them and imagine the sort of devastation they could cause.
Let’s imagine what might happen if Luke Connolly and Brian Hurley both went into their club form mode of the last month — Connolly has shown glimpses for Cork of the fluidity and freedom of Nemo; Hurley looked on the brink of exploding again last summer, but never quite did after the Laois game.
Or what if Mark Cronin or Cathail O’Mahony stepped up, while Mark Collins remains the most reliable non-star forward around?
In Cork’s five championship games last year, their points total read: 27, 19, 28, 20, 18, 18. It was decent attacking, but they only won the games in which they scored over 20 points and that’s a realistic target for any game you want to win as the year goes on.
The fact that Cork don’t have the same obvious defensive quality in positions 2-7, and that many of that group are more effective driving forward with the ball than necessarily stopping scores in front of their own goal, can make a point for either argument.
Do Cork try and make up for a defence that still has question marks over its ability to stop the other team scoring? Or do they concentrate on strengths and find a way to attack teams and get as many scores as possible from an attack that can click together?
Reality dictates the need for both, but there still is a risk of doing neither properly and being unsure exactly what kind of team you’re meant to be — there has to be a decision towards one or the other at some stage.
Inter-county managements haven’t had much time to develop elaborate systems of play in this limited pre-championship, with or without the ball, so the decision on how much to risk is more relevant than before. Even an international soccer manager, like England’s Gareth Southgate, explained the difficulties in trying to impose a style of play on a group that is only together for a few days at a time.
A county team in an area that has an inherent way of playing might be able to fall back on that, but a handful of training sessions in a few weeks, before facing Kerry, doesn’t leave much space for finding patterns of play or working on ways to move the ball. Cork have athletic middle-third footballers who like to run and carry ball, and they looked at their best going forward last summer, when they were able to commit to pushing runners up the field — the two goals against Tyrone, for instance.
In the game against Down, in the spring, it was mainly runs into the channels, and down the middle, that carried ball into the scoring forwards. Hurley might thrive in one-on-one situations against a defender from a long kick-pass into space, but it’s possible that others, like Connolly and O’Mahony, would prefer to pick up possession in spaces where they can get shots away or unlock defences closer to goal.
It was interesting to hear Kieran Donaghy talk, this week, about a team that has forwards making runs, but which doesn’t have players in the middle area with the ability or belief to hit them with kick-passes. The flipside of committing runners to attacking areas is, of course, those runners piling forward and leaving spaces behind when moves break down. Dublin caught Cork on counter-attacks last summer for killer goals.
Tyrone and Roscommon both got runners into Cork’s danger zone too easily to get game-changing goals. Offaly, in game one of this year’s league, counter-attacked on Cork effectively. Cork have to try and get enough bodies in attack, while not leaving themselves open at the back.
The bigger question of whether the championship is doable right now remains up in the air, but there’s hope. We haven’t even considered the reality of losing players for games and for weeks at a time.
That balance of attack-defence and a right way to play is on everyone’s list of the smaller questions to be answered in the coming months.