WELL that escalated quickly.
Cork put in a Munster final performance, while still losing, of daring and belief and there’s a willingness to forget the grimness of the last number of years or even the horrible nothingness of a three-game period in spring where it was impossible to locate anything positive and people basically wrote off the next five years as a wasteland.
And here we are, one game away from the last eight (or one game away from another oblivion) and there’s this growing feeling of something like optimism. There is an issue of balance here and if there’s an inclination to dial down the expectation based on recent experience, as one Cork football sufferer texted pre-Kerry: I will never be fooled again by hope, it does feel different this time.
Mainly because we’re not entering the qualifiers in full-on crisis mode like more or less every year since 2013, where either confidence has been on the verge of complete collapse or the entire method of playing has been up in the air post a chasing from Kerry. This time Cork are probably in the best shape of all beaten provincial finalists, with some form and momentum and a real sense of purpose found. Where it’s possible now to make out what kind of team they’re attempting to be – Cork will run hard and fast and press positively and if that seems a basic enough starting point, it’s more than we had to work with previously.
There are things Cork will want to do better and things they’ll look to repeat. The manic tempo from the second half in the Páirc where Cork pushed up aggressively into Kerry’s spaces is a template for the kind of conditions Cork want to recreate.
Mark White’s kick-outs ought to provide a decent base for possession again if Cork can find that extra man as effectively short and attack the break – those longer punts offer Cork a new kind of counterattack threat that came in the build-up to the second goal against Kerry.
Ruairí Deane’s runs must now be a real target for opposition analysts and yet they come from such random plays and positions that they’re more or less impossible to stop happening and it’s almost a given that Cork will make one or two goal chances from those bursts for Deane himself or an able support player who recognises the spaces.
Having that bit of extra composure in scoring situations will be high on the improvements needed list. Cork might not have a marquee forward right now in a potential All-Star form sense but you could see the difference getting your shooter on the ball can make in the final play of the Armagh-Mayo game last weekend.
Mark Collins stepped into the top scorer responsibility with an ease to put 0-8 next to his name but Cork will want to get Brian Hurley and Luke Connolly on the ball more in scoring positions – Connolly had one shot at goal from play, Hurley one also. The middle eight will run and carry ball all day and there’s even more line breaks and penetration in them with a bit of confidence and the right combinations. Imagine the devastation possible say, if Ian Maguire can find the right channels to link with Deane or if say Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor can go that extra few steps to commit defenders and open up overloads down either side of the field.
So to the bad news. It’s hardly overstating to suggest a defeat here would mean another year essentially wasted and it’s only a month ago that Cork were widely thought to be vulnerable against any team in Ireland apart from the very lower tier. A more clinical Kerry might have exposed Cork’s one-v-one set-up in defence.
There were spells where lack of fluency as an attacking team was overshadowed by pure will to make something happen by just running hard. Laois have a midfield who will compete, forwards who can take scores (the Kingstons especially will do damage if let) and they will most likely have a go and make this an open game.
Scores in their games so far have been reasonably low – 0-20 was a standout and scores like 0-12, 1-12 and 0-13 are more common – but that seems like more an issue of quality finishing than defensive shutdowns. Cork aren’t at the level of development where they can win a game cruising so they’ll need to find the same desire and application for work that made the second half against Kerry a war.
It was interesting to see Paul Galvin describe it as a typical traditional Cork/Kerry game – Kerry go into lead, spirited fightback by Cork, Kerry have enough to win in end. After all the positivity from a defeat, Cork still need a performance to move on again. Sure Cork were bold and brave and showed a spiky mentality that might yet define this Cork group but did they have the quality to make the next step?
That positive approach won’t be enough on its own in a super eight, it might be enough this weekend.
So it’s different, point two. Laois aren’t Tyrone or Mayo from previous round fours, teams who were simply better, more experienced, at more advanced stages and there’s a feeling that Cork have the ability to control this more effectively, that they won’t be outmatched for quality or in collisions here.
Cork will look to lead and dictate the flow of possession – they certainly don’t want to be chasing a lead - and still there’s every possibility that this could go to places where we don’t know how Cork will react, the tense decision making of a tight last quarter.
But the opening is there to make proper progress now, the best there’s been for an age; it’ll be interesting to see what Cork do with this chance.