ANOTHER good week for underage football in the Rebel county, with the minors convincingly defeating Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.
An All-Ireland final now to look forward to in three weeks which might not have been possible only for the Munster Council changing their competition structures this year.
It was a game where both teams appeared nervous to begin with. This is understandable considering Croke Park is different to any other venue. You want players to treat it like any other pitch but that can be a challenge for some.
It has been suggested that the U17 grade now lacks physicality as the players are a year younger, but that certainly wasn’t the case on Saturday. Both teams brought aggression, but it was Cork who had the upper hand physically.
This greater physicality overall as a team was noticeable defensively but also when a player looked to break a tackle or hold an opponent off to create an easier scoring chance.
The physicality and work-rate were excellent but still, this was only the foundation for the win. You need to be organised and be able to create and take your scores, which Cork certainly did.
Cork look certainly to have benefitted from playing a series of competitive matches. Winning breeds confidence but also the management learn a lot about their team and where it can improve.
Cork were gifted an early goal through a mistake by the Mayo goalkeeper on a short kick-out. Patrick Campbell took advantage and this settled Corks early nerves.
Cork looked to isolate Conor Corbett in the full-forward line with Jack Cahalane and Michael O’Neill roaming in and out. This constant movement made it more difficult for the Mayo backs to deal with. Cork attacked with great width, which create further space making it easier to play the kicking game, or for a player to break the line and get into space.
The first half followed a pattern where Cork were certainly the better side but still Mayo were always able to keep in touch shooting some excellent points. Ethan Henry converted excellent long-range frees with midfielder Paddy Heneghan contributing four points.
A good free-taker is so important especially when a team is not playing as well. It just keeps that scoreboard ticking over and gives the team a platform to build on.
Mayo were forced to shoot from further out, as Cork were effective at shutting off the central channel. When Mayo did win possession close to the Cork goal, Cork were quick to flood extra bodies back and shut down the Mayo attack.
Similar to most games goals can be the difference between winning and losing and that was key again this week. The second goal by Daniel Linehan was a big moment as it stretched Cork’s lead to five points.
It was a cracker of a finish where Linehan had to do all the work himself, bursting through after winning possession 45 yards out from the Mayo goal. Once Corbett scored Cork’s third goal, which resulted from a throw-up after another Mayo kick-out error, it was game over.
Cork dropped deeper slowing down Mayo attacks, reducing the risk of conceding goals, which Mayo badly needed. Mayo did score a consolation goal in the closing minutes but Cork were never in danger of losing their lead.
Cork themselves were gifted a fourth goal late on where Corbett took full advantage. What was good to see was Corbett’s ability to recover from errors early in the first half and still have a major impact on the game.
The movement and physical strength to hold off his direct opponent but also the ability to kick accurately off either foot is a major advantage.
An All-Ireland series win is great any day, but Cork still have plenty to improve on for the final. Eight Cork long kick-outs were lost over the 60 minutes.
You can see why there was a focus on going long after errors on kick-outs in the Munster final led to Kerry goals. Cork’s opponents in the final will have their homework done so it will be interesting to see will Cork tweak things again.
Also, there were periods in the game where possession was kicked away aimlessly. You can understand nerves at the start but after Cork’s second goal in the second half, the game became sloppy again with errors on both sides. Cork can be thankful for Ryan O’Donovan who came off the bench to convert two excellent shots from distance.
The win and performance should stand to Cork when they return in three weeks time. The key will be treating the final just like another championship game. It’s great to see a Cork football team in an All-Ireland final come September.
Many hours of travel and work has gone into the preparation of this team by parents, players and management alike. Let’s hope they can go all the way and join the U20s as champions for 2019.