Behind the scenes: How an emphasis on tackling and kick-passing transformed the Cork U20 footballers

Behind the scenes: How an emphasis on tackling and kick-passing transformed the Cork U20 footballers
Peter O'Driscoll and his team-mates celebrate beating Tyrone. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

CORK football is having a moment.

The seniors went toe-to-toe with three of the top teams in the country and reconnected with the idea of having ambition again.

There was something in the U20 All-Ireland win though that stirred the spirit in the county, where it was possible to make out exactly what can be achieved when players develop their skills and mentality in a certain environment.

There was a thrilling flow to the football but substance as well and it was hardly an accident that the team found the answer to every question that was put in front of them — dismantling Kerry, solving the puzzle of Tyrone and then the response to that first-quarter All-Ireland final situation.

Ask team coach Maurice Moore and that’s exactly what they’d been working towards all year.

There were elements of Cork football (and football in general) that had to be forgotten and it was striking certainly to see a team that was willing and able to go man-v-man in defence against some very strong attacking opposition.

This took work and time and offers an insight into how a coaching method can make a difference. Moore mentions a culture where players were naturally falling into a system of defending in numbers, that they were taken aside individually and in groups and given responsibility for their own defending.

Weaknesses in tackling technique were improved.

A shift in overall approach followed. Moore explains.

“The coaching was very much to improve one-v-one defending as the skills were limited initially with a lack of decisiveness in the tackle. However, this one v one development also had an important role in the dynamic of group defending.

“Once one person in the group had a difficulty with the tackle it had a knock-on effect as players were then able to be picked off.

“For this reason, the discipline of being responsible and tight on your man resulted in a shift in mindset. This change led to players, instead of just marking space, they were now marking a player as well as working on the skill of tackling.

“It is often a skill which is neglected and after repetition more than anything under different tackling stress they developed much more effective defensive skills.”

Lorcán Quinn of Tyrone in action against Jack Murphy. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Lorcán Quinn of Tyrone in action against Jack Murphy. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Playing with the ball went under similar deconstruction as the overriding philosophy of moving the ball at speed clashed with old habits. In early games and training the players tended to move towards the ball to take a handpass.

Shape was lost and options to move the ball direct just weren’t available. Moore references a history of handpassing drills in small spaces as developing this tendency in players to seek short and mentions this absence of vision lines in players in possession to look for longer passes as a natural result of that kind of training (he’s seen this in development squads at 14/15 as well).

Basically, you can’t tell players to kick the ball if there aren’t any options to kick to; Cork went about rectifying that by changing the movement of players off the ball.

“It was not up to the ball carrier to kick it just for the sake of it but more up to the players around him to create the positioning and appropriate environment for a kick,” Moore says.

“It is not enough to tell young players to kick a ball. There must be an understanding of appropriate timing in the kick as well as using it in the right place from the viewpoint of both the receiver and the ball carrier.

“By constantly repeating scenarios which put them in effective receiving and kicking positions, it led to a very efficient use of the ball.”

The management team all brought their own roles — Pat Spratt’s massive knowledge of players, Con Burns’ conditioning work, the input of Míchaél O’Cróinín and Colm O’Neill with individual players during training sessions.

Keith Ricken created a perfect atmosphere that allowed characters to develop and bonds to take hold in the group.

Regular full-sided training games allowed Ricken hone in on specific areas that needed work. Players were constantly challenged with the idea of the impact of their decision-making on how the group attacked and defended.

Training was varied with as Moore calls it, “a purposely chaotic game environment.”

So a skill might be worked on, executed at a level of difficulty and then the scenario would be changed or different constraints introduced to keep the players constantly thinking and on edge. A specific example?

“So, a session might progress from full visual kicking whereby they knew exactly where the player receiving the kick was, to non-visual whereby they had to scan for the player and move it quickly.

“They were having to be quick with their thought process and execute it effectively. This was a vital component in creating a platform on which the players could become alive and switch on their full potential.”

The players responded. A specific game example.

Moore has a clip from the John Kerins Tournament game with Kerry in Clon that showcases the team’s development in the direction the management was asking.

You can see Cork win a free in front of their own posts and over a minute of possession, seven handpasses and six kick-passes, they work the ball perfectly up the field, back and across and then back inside into the scoring zone again for Cathal O’Mahony to kick a handy point.

It’s remarkable to see the angles of attack, the constant switching of players and ball accurately by whatever method necessary to create the conditions for O’Mahony (involved in the move twice before scoring) to wander into a position to take free possession 30 yards out directly in front of the posts.

It’s just one score but it’s fairly easy to spot the potential and trace a line from the team that can produce that sort of moment to a pile of the moves and scores throughout the championship campaign — one score for Damien Gore in the final jumps out where Mark Cronin popped a crossfield kick into Brian Hartnett’s run.

Total football might be a stretch but there was a definite flow to the patterns of ball and player movement.

The year rolled with its own dynamic after that. Cork never let up in giving Waterford a good chasing.

The performance “of intensity and decisiveness” v Kerry allowed real confidence and momentum to appear.

Fionn Herlihy shoots past Kerry goalkeeper Brian Lonergan. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Fionn Herlihy shoots past Kerry goalkeeper Brian Lonergan. Picture: Denis Minihane.

Tyrone was a disappointment, slower and lacking energy for long spells and if the comeback brought more belief and feelgood, it also offered a chance at some truths to be pointed out.

The video analysis by DNA Sport Solutions showed mistakes with lack of movement in attack (the players didn’t have to be specifically told once they saw the video) and motivation for improvement was easy.

The last 45 minutes of the final took care of itself as the team clicked into that rhythm and found their own way.

Moore mentions how it was out of management’s hands at that stage, a not-insignificant note on how the players took ownership.

“They went for it playing the football that they were now familiar and comfortable with which is playing quick, varied and responsible football.

“Maybe that first 10 minutes reflected the way Cork football was in general while the rest is the way it should be and the way it is moving.”

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