Player profile: Clon defender Liam O’Donovan has taken his chance

Player profile: Clon defender Liam O’Donovan has taken his chance
Picture: Jim Coughlan.

THESE things can be lost in the noise around the big GAA weekends but James Loughrey gave a really decent insightful interview before the Dublin match last weekend.

He spoke about being called a disgrace to the game by his wife for his performance in the Tyrone game last summer. He explained why the defensive style of football just never took properly with the instincts of Cork football.

And he got across exactly how fresh hunger and attitude can change the dynamic of a group, mentioning how even a fitness test earlier in the year had taken on such importance in preparation, basically out of the challenge and fear of looking bad compared to the natural speed and legs of youth.

Loughrey brought up one name in particular — “I like watching Liam O’Donovan, cos he’s so bloody aggressive.” It’s a view shared by an awful lot of Cork football supporters right now.

In Cork’s summer of becoming good again, O’Donovan has been a breakthrough, a blur of constant forward movement and positive energy that’s defined how Cork have stepped up here.

There was the promise and vigour of the Kerry performance, the overwhelming of Laois and if there were then some fears of a reality check against Dublin, Cork and O’Donovan didn’t take a step back or look outmatched in the collisions and somehow left a 13-point defeat in a better place than they’d arrived.

There’s been the aggressive defending against his man all over the pitch. Against Kerry O’Donovan made some serious turnovers, ripping the ball from hands in the tackle or getting a hand in to disrupt a pass – in the fourth minute of injury-time it was O’Donovan who stepped into the tackle to dispossess Kerry and start the last Cork attack.

Against Laois he again fronted up, stopping his man running at one stage so he had to turn and pass backwards, again winning turnover ball with his body strength and later attacking a kick-out in the air to stop a clean possession, a play that led directly to a Cork point. There’s been the relentless driving forward with ball and without ball.

If there was a little first-game hesitation when he got to a certain area of the field against Kerry, he’s already evolved. Against Laois he popped a point after a driving solo run into the scoring zone. Against Dublin he was manning the centre-back position one moment from a Mark White kick-out and when Cork won possession on the left wing and there was space to push into, O’Donovan bombed forward to kick a point on the run into the hill.

He’ll carry ball into scorers as well, assisting Brian Hurley against Dublin for his dummy solo score and Mark Collins against Kerry with a handy handpass. Most of all it’s this relentless blitz and willingness to positively affect the play everywhere on the pitch.

For that Mark Collins assist against Kerry, he had linked the play inside his own half 20 seconds earlier and the last quarter of the Kerry game was a particular tour-de-force of plays in defence and attack.

His GPS check with Mattie Taylor post-game must be an epic watch. This is part natural engine and part mentality. When O’Donovan came into the Cork U21s they used to do a 1,500m run down the Mardyke on Friday nights; O’Donovan was out in front by 200m most nights when just out of minor.

You can follow whole sections of game on video and just watch O’Donovan a constant presence on the screen as the ball moves up and down the pitch, always aware of any spaces that open up down the sidelines to run into to stretch the defensive line of the opposition. He can defend.

In last year’s U20 Munster final he marked David Shaw, who was taken off after forty minutes and you could see the awareness of danger when keeping tabs on Niall Scully last weekend. There’s leadership too. When Cork had lost their first three long kick-outs against Laois it was O’Donovan who dropped back into the spaces and actually demanded a short pass from Mark White to alleviate the pressure and take control of possession.

He was vice-captain of the Cork minors, captain of the Cork U20s last year.

If this Cork football summer so far conjures images of Ruairí Deane tearing past a tackler or Brian Hurley banging a goal, then O’Donovan’s runs forward have been just as much a part of things — the brave honesty to support every run like it was his last and the attitude of attacking every opponent and game in the same way.

Last summer after the Tyrone game Ronan McCarthy made reference to knowing exactly what needed to be done, the sort of people he was looking for now to play football for Cork and it’s just about possible that O’Donovan has exactly the skillset and mentality that the Cork manager was talking about. If the Clon man hadn’t rocked up, McCarthy would have had to create him.

Ask anyone who’s coached O’Donovan and they’ll tell of a player who’ll become aware very quickly of what’s needed in any role and who’ll then do whatever is needed – he was only barely on the Clon senior side when he was already leading his area of the field for stats and influence.

For all that Cork have rebooted this summer, any major shift in personnel has come in the defensive jerseys — it nearly seems a push to call what O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor do defence when they spend a fair portion of their time in the opposition half. The drive and energy coming from the back of that middle eight has been absolutely key to Cork getting on the front foot in games.

Cork needed a certain type of player back in the two to seven roles and it’s hard to think of a Cork defender who’s had an impact in his rookie season like this. In the best possible way O’Donovan looks like he’s playing his first season for Cork football, with none of the baggage or doubt and all the purpose and expression of a player who just wants to get on ball and make things happen.

Cork will look to push on, O’Donovan leading the charge for this group who want to run forward and see how far they can go.

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