WHEN Paul Kerrigan controlled the ball out on the right wing in Cork’s opening attack of the second half against Laois, he took a look up into the open spaces towards the opposition goal.
He saw Mark Collins drifting in behind his marker and floated a glorious crossfield pass into his chest. Brian Hurley had made an initial run for Kerrigan down the wing, spun (losing his man who slipped) and ran into the space in front of the Laois goal.
From here it all depends on Collins’ awareness (hardly an issue) and you can see Collins has spotted Hurley’s run even before he has the ball, immediately shifting balance to make the necessary quick handpass, which Hurley neatly finishes first-time.
A few things of note. Hurley’s finish was far trickier than he made it look and says something about his confidence levels right now (it might be unfair but Hurley of last year or even this spring would have caught it and tried to make sure). The combination jumped out, that interplay of natural movement and ruthless composure.
Mostly though it marked another turn for Cork, where it’s clear now that Brian Hurley has moved into territory we feared we wouldn’t see again and Mark Collins has stepped into a different role for Cork, a key provider of big moments and scores.
There are different aspects to this development for Collins. Cork’s recent deficiencies have been a major problem and it’s been a desperate challenge for a forward who work bests when combining with others and finding angles to run and link play in a team that’s lacked any kind of fluency as an attacking unit.
His skillset has often been interpreted in certain ways, where his engine and intelligence on the ball have been too much of a temptation for managers not to use him for specific jobs). All three previous managers used him as a sweeper/deep-lying link at various times, often reasonably effectively in moving the ball but unable to influence games with enough scores and/or assists close to goal.
Billy Morgan and James McCarthy have both declared him a natural centre-forward and he’s played mostly at midfield for his club. It was only down the Páirc in the spring against Kildare that it looked likely he’d fill that drifting wing-forward role again, and there was something about watching him trot back into that position in front of the full-back line whenever Kildare had the ball. It’s not that Collins was underperforming but you felt there was more there; this rejuvenation has worked for everyone.
This positioning makes total sense of course. It’s obviously something Ronan McCarthy wanted to do right away, in his very first McGrath Cup game Collins was full-forward.
Collins is the sort of player who’ll create a relationship with anyone clever and has always had that basic footballing intelligence. There’s a natural knowledge of movement with his club teammate, where Hurley will know what run to make and Collins will know where to look, a sort of Bergkamp/ Henry link-up.
It’s been a fascinating watch, the development of the Castlehaven combo up top and mainly this organic leap that Collins has made from middle-eight link to scorer-in-chief. Cork have moved on in the middle section with more aggression and younger legs.
The likes of Donncha O’Connor and Colm O’Neill have slipped away. If Collins’ 3-32 in 27 championship games up to this summer was hardly evidence of potential responsibility, the 1-25 in three games so far has been startlingly good.
After going full-throttle for a long while, there’s a sense Collins has been able to adapt his game, to pare back and concentrate more on providing quality on the ball inside the scoring zone. Frees have been straight-forward. Shot selection has been flawless, Collins just doesn’t take on shots that aren’t there and it’s been a lesson in efficiency to see his scores from play so far.
Kerry point one, a turnover inside Kerry’s 21 and then a kick over the bar without hesitation. Kerry point two, a carry from Liam O’Donovan into the scoring zone, and then a shot on the turn first time over the bar.
Points against Laois followed similar templates of shots taken within a second or two of possession. Ruairí Deane kicked ball into spaces left and right of goals and Collins won ball in space in front of goal. For one point he shot first time on the turn. He followed up a blocked shot from Ian Maguire and launched a curling strike from distance after bursting past a few tackles.
He’s scoring from positions he wouldn’t necessarily have been in previously but he’s also taking on shots where previously he might have offloaded to a more recognised scorer. The link with Hurley has been a bonus.
At one stage against Laois, Hurley had a handier pass to a more open teammate but slipped a longer pass to Collins, who assisted for a Deane point. There was a goal chance created in the opening half as well, where Collins again ran onto a Deane kick and handpassed across himself onto a Hurley run – he punched over first time.
And for Collins’ goal second half, Hurley could have gone for a hat-trick himself but did a dummy solo and passed for his mate to finish, a neat nutmeg low and hard under the keeper.
Collins wagged a finger at Hurley in appreciation and looked genuinely chuffed to have his goal, a recognition perhaps of his new role, the perfect leader of the attack who can perform at the necessary level right now for this emerging Cork team.