THIS league won’t be easy after all.
If Cork are being judged solely on results and getting out of Division 3 is all that matters, well it was job done in the end on Saturday evening in the Páirc. If this campaign is about performance levels and creating vibrancy and excitement — well, not so much here, not yet anyway, for a Cork team still in the process of finding themselves.
If there was maybe an expectation that Cork might be too good and powerful, the first half especially was a reminder that it won’t just happen — Cork were nervy and unsure, and never really looked in control of the game until the last 10 minutes.
Offaly were slicker and moved the ball into scoring areas with more fluency.
It was uncomfortable for a spell — one of those frustrating halves of football where it was no great mystery how Cork ended up playing here, with a lot of turnovers and attacks that lacked direction, prompting groans from the crowd.
It was obviously better in the second half, with a bit more intensity, but Ronan McCarthy spoke beforehand about a consistent performance level and he won’t have been happy with the lack of focus or conviction early on.
Certainly the video analysis team had plenty to use for the “things to work on” file. Cork looked disconnected on the field for long patches, like a group of players without the patterns and fluid movements of a team as yet. Anything they did try out seemed to be very much a work in progress.
The zonal press on opposition kick-outs missed out at times, with Offaly men drifting into free spaces far too easily. Cork’s retention on their own kicks was patchy as well. They struggled to win possession long, and even put players under pressure in the wrong areas with shorter kicks — at one stage, Matthew Taylor got possession facing the sideline with three Offaly players on top of him.
Those basics of what Cork did both with and without the ball were challenged a little more than might have been expected. Cork were under pressure in the full-back line throughout the first half, with the movement of Bernard Allen and Anton Sullivan isolated two-v-two inside and hit consistently with ball — Offaly scored nine points from play as Corkstruggled to stop that flow individually or as a defensive group.
There were a few times that Micheál Aodh Martin in goal could be heard shouting at this defence to make contact with Offaly, and they certainly lacked the defensive aggression of last summer.
The attacking play missed flow and invention. Those who went to the game expecting a focus on that exciting new inside-forward line, the mix of young talent and the comeback kid, and how it might combine together were left disappointed.
Cork struggled to find or involve it in general play. Ciarán Sheehan drifted out the field as a fulcrum of the attack and moved pretty well as a player for the half-backs/midfield to hit with ball, linking play through the lines, kicking two points from play and setting up the first two points just by acting as someone to play off for runners on a one-two.
Damien Gore and Cathail O’Mahony did a lot of running inside him, but Cork struggled to get them into the game and couldn’t manage to find their movements with any decent ball into scoring areas. Gore had an assist and O’Mahony kicked two good frees, but had one of those opening nights where he tried hard to impact but never quite clicked. Hopefully they’ll both be better for the experience here.
Cork managed to hit 0-20 in the end, so penetration and some composure did arrive, even if it was a trudge at times. Michael Hurley jinked and ran at defenders as usual, kicked four points from play in the second half (it could have had more), and generally took on the responsibility to make something happen or create a shooting position every time he got on ball.
Ruairí Deane again ran to punch holes, and now seems to have this ability to run directly past defenders without even having to do a deception or swerve. Probably Cork’s best combination move came towards the end with a kick-pass from Kevin Crowley to Colm O’Callaghan running inside, who hand-passed to Deane arriving at his normal pace into the spaces.
Deane got dragged down for a free, but it was one of the few times Cork actually opened Offaly up with speedy, direct movement of ball that broke lines.
Maguire and Crowley did both get on the end of runs down the middle in the second half, but lacked the clinical finish or obvious option for the handpass for an easy goal. Again Cork need work on that balance of having strong runners with ball through the middle third and actually kicking the ball more quickly into the scoring areas.
It’s hard to recall Cork kicking the ball into a forward in a one-v-one situation where he could have worked a shooting opportunity.
Sean Powter did try with a couple of diagonal kicks, and getting him more active on attacking plays seems vital. Simple things can make a difference.
At one point near the end, Tadgh Corkery’s crossfield ball, hit it with purpose and pace, landed 10 yards in front of his target, who received the ball on the run. Too many other passes were taken static or runs weren’t made beyond the ball to open spaces. Still, Cork got the win.
It served as a reminder that there’s a lot of work to do, while Kerry and Dublin went blow-for-blow at Croke Park. Maybe that’s enough for January.