Cork football played with spirit and skill offers hope of more glory

Cork football played with spirit and skill offers hope of more glory
Cork players Jack Lawton and Eoghan Nash celebrate after defeating Galway at Croke Park. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

WHERE to start with this latest Cork football story?

A minor All-Ireland after what seemed like an age of waiting and a win in the end that was as impressive as it was unexpected. Most Cork football people read reports on May 8 about another desperate loss to Kerry and the thinking would have been more crisis and more plans for how to fix things.

Liverpool beat Barcelona 4-0 that night as a sign of what’s possible with pure belief, hope, and will and this Cork team showed some of that spirit (and audacity) here to turn a dispiriting situation into a gloriously successful season.

Cork had heroes on and off the pitch, moments of brilliance, individual performances (if you’d thought Conor Corbett might not live up to expectations — 1-7 and a season-changing last-minute goal was a decent response), and mostly another shot of confidence that Cork football can go in the right direction.

Cork captain Conor Corbett lifts the Tom Markham Cup. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cork captain Conor Corbett lifts the Tom Markham Cup. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

You’ve seen the goals from the All-Ireland final by now, right?

Say the first goal, where Cork hadn’t really flowed properly yet and then Michael O’Neill caught a kick-out, played the sort of powerful one-two that opens teams up completely (the kind of play where everyone just goes: ‘Ah OK, that’s how easy it is to create a goal if he wants’), and then had the awareness to pick out Jack Cahalane for a lovely swivelled finish that was much harder than it looked to execute.

Or the third goal, where again Michael O’Neill had the desire and wherewithal to take on his man with the ball, as Cork demonstrated the mentality to be completely ruthless at a time most other counties would have been happy to settle down and play themselves into extra time.

And mostly that second goal, a thrilling piece of wonderful improvisation, finding a way to make and take a goal chance at the exact moment it was desperately needed.

If Dublin or Kerry had conjured a match-saving goal in those circumstances, it would have been remarkable composure under pressure — it was sensational for an U17 team. Yes, there were references to Galway being naive to leave their defence two-v-two with Cork’s dangermen, and the initial reaction was actually a little bit of disbelief about how Cork had managed to create that situation.

But watch back, and you’ll see goalkeeper Cian O’Leary tear back into his goal for the ball (having just conceded what everybody expected was the match-losing goal after a brilliant individual performance, by the way) to get things moving quickly. By the time the replay of the goal was shown on TV, the ball was out at midfield and Cork had possession from a knock-down.

Again, two things jump out here. Most teams needing a goal would have looked short to keep possession from the restart.

Even when Cork won the ball in midfield from the break, there were runners to give a safe pass to try to work a position, but Cork recognised the opportunity in a fast direct ball and were brave in taking on a 50-yard kickpass at that stage of the game to put Conor Corbett in behind the Galway defence.

It was hardly a gimme from there either, but Corbett wasn’t spooked, won the ball clean against three Galway players, cut back inside, bounced it to make a better angle and then dragged his shot low back across a defender. Basically, he did everything correctly under the most extreme pressure. He was the coolest guy in Croke Park at that moment.

This Cork team did so many things to admire, defended well at times, got so many well-put-together scores and kicks from distance, fielded balls, were aggressive and controlled to varying degrees.

But those three goals said so much about the identity they made for themselves as a fast, hard-running side who wanted to attack and be creative and were able to do this cleverly and relentlessly until they beat everyone who mattered.

Seriously, how and when did Cork football become so much fun to watch again? The rhythm of the football, the sense of purpose and attacking positivity to every play, the racking up of massive scores. We’d become sort of used to watching Kerry light the place up, becoming increasingly scared for a future of David Clifford domination, and wondering how far exactly Cork had fallen behind the top counties in the development of young footballers.

Cork hadn’t beaten anyone outside Munster for an absolute age at this grade, and losses to Kerry were defining and were stopping any chance of development. And then... well, this summer has been a reminder of what’s possible with belief, proper investment in good coaching, and a bunch of players who’ll buy into everything they’re asked to do.

There was a noticeable shift in conversations with people involved underage that things were starting to turn, but it’s important for momentum and confidence to get proof of that. Imagine just how much experience of being a Cork footballer these players have fitted into one year.

A thumping from Kerry that could have destroyed a team lacking substance but instead they moved on and learned, were better in the Munster final, but maybe still lacked that killer instinct to win big games with big moments. They learned and moved on again. They won games playing really well and then in the final, when it looked like their game and timing was just a little off, they found a way to express themselves and eventually exploded.

One coach in Cork GAA explained to me earlier this year how young players need to be exposed to the full possibilities of game experiences —winning and losing tight games where the result is in doubt in the final minutes — and this group got that and more from a few months of football. Bonds and relationships were built that’ll filter into the next era of Cork football.

There’s an obvious pattern to this resurgence too — a clear reward for a method of playing that puts the focus on scoring. The Cork U20s managed to put away 3-17, 2-17, 3-16 from the All-Ireland quarter-final to the final. This U17 side scored 3-19, 4-12, 3-20 in the same time-frame.

If there’s a shift towards attacking mindsets in football after an era of defensive systems, then Cork ought to be leading the way. Certainly it should be difficult to make any argument that Cork don’t have the skillset or scoring forwards to be taking teams on in shootouts over the next few years. Cork football can look at those sort of days as a real possibility now.

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