Cork footballers had the need for speed before the top teams caught up

Cork footballers had the need for speed before the top teams caught up
Cork's James Loughrey tackles Andy Moran during the 2017 qualifier, which went to extra time in the Gaelic Grounds. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

IN an interview this week on his time with Mayo, Andy Moran spoke about the influence of the Cork 2010 football team on a subsequently brilliant career.

Basically on an All-Star trip that autumn while watching the likes of Pearse O’Neill and John Miskella training, Moran realised his definition of fitness levels were way off what was needed to make an impression at the business end of seasons.

For a sort of random soundbite at this time of year, the story managed to impart layers of real meaning.

For starters, a reminder of how impressive and imposing that Cork team was athletically, a team that was assembled deliberately with power in mind and that set standards for physicality even up against the Ulster boys.

It mentioned the difference in league and provincial form (or more than form, in terms of physical and technical readiness) compared to the type of levels needed at Croke Park on the big days out, something we tend to dismiss but which is clearly a thing – studies have shown by the way that the total distances covered and the amount of high-intensity running done in football games increases quite noticeably in August and September, where the hyper-athletes come to the fore.

It said a lot about the potential of learning from others and taking lessons board as well. In the same way that those young Man Utd players learnt the value of extra work from Eric Cantona, Andy Moran was given a glimpse into where he needed to go to make that next step and he was willing to do that.

John Miskella gets the ball away from Kerry's Kieran Donaghy in the 2007 Munster final in Killarney. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
John Miskella gets the ball away from Kerry's Kieran Donaghy in the 2007 Munster final in Killarney. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Moran also went into some detail about the positional aspect of this and that was an interesting aside too. He wasn’t able generally for the demands of playing at Croke Park against that Cork team or similar elite level sides physically, especially not when it was out in the spaces of the half-forward line against a rampantly attacking half-back line.

Moran just didn’t have the legs or the pace to keep up and it was his move to the full-forward line that defined his later career, allowing him use his intelligent movement closer to goals and not running up and down wings all day.

These demands have gotten worse of course and it was noteworthy how fast Cork fell behind here again after some superiority for a spell. Jim McGuinness spoke of how athletically intimidating Cork were in 2012 and that team had energy and power to run teams over; it was only a few years after that Cork were playing catch-up in fitness preparation terms when they realised (slightly surprised in fact at the time by the gap) that they were way behind on the GPS stats in distance covered in games and that was a huge factor in fall-offs in performances against the top teams.

Pearse O'Neill was a powerful runner at his peak for Cork.
Pearse O'Neill was a powerful runner at his peak for Cork.

Basically it was more or less impossible to win a game against Dublin or Kerry or Mayo if their midfielders and half-backs were hitting 12km in a game and your midfielders were only able to manage less than 10km. Cork advanced their training to try and hit those peaks but they were playing serious catch-up that’s probably still being felt.

In studies done on running levels at elite level gaelic football, the midfielders (followed by half-backs and half-forwards obviously enough) cover the most distance, cover the most distance at highest speeds, perform the most sprints and accelerations, reach peak velocity the most times in a game.

It isn’t a place for anybody not able to run long and hard and fast, especially as summer progresses.

It was interesting to hear Colm Cooper talk about his time at centre-forward for Kerry and how the top teams began to look at things a little differently, how they’d target the forward by making him run back as much as possible and the sort of long day a half-forward might have trying to keep up with a Jack McCaffrey say.

Andy Moran also spoke about his role as a half-forward playmaker but lacking the legs in Croke Park to influence games, his switch to inside-forward allowed him get on the ball more with his clever movement without needing the same overall athleticism.

This isn’t a new thing of course (Anthony Lynch for example mentioned his test of a forward was often making an early burst up the pitch to see how he reacted) but the demand of running up and back after the pure speed and athletic capability of someone like a McCaffrey or a Lee Keegan is an extra level of legs and energy that not every player has in their locker.

There are half-forwards and midfielders, some very decent ones, from anywhere over six or seven years back who possibly wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the speed and fitness levels.

Some extra notes here. Clearly there’s a movement for almost every position in size and mobility.

There aren’t as many Kieran Donaghys to face these days as there were in the 2000s. Defences don’t necessarily need the aerial competitor in defence. Cork’s full-back line in 2010 was Carey-Shields-Cadogan with Canty as back-up, no shortage of heft there.

Graham Canty could play in defence or midfield. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Graham Canty could play in defence or midfield. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

The physical make-up of defences is changing with altered needs, so that pure power is now about speed and acceleration and the ability to sustain that more so than the size necessary to win a 50-50 battle.

The half-back line was always athletic anyway and it’s easy enough to trace a line from Miskella-Kissane to Liam O’Donovan-Mattie Taylor and spot the same hard running and fitness levels to get up and down the field. Midfield still needs height and fetching ability to a point but legs are an absolute must – Ian Maguire is still Cork’s most natural here.

It’ll be worth keeping an eye on the figures here as they progress and if it’s hard to see midfielders and half-backs increasing their average distances, there may be gains that’ll make a difference in the speed of these runs or the distance covered by high-intensity breaks, so the teams that can maintain a certain level of speed in the runs can make a killing in that final quarter.

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