AS BREAKTHROUGH shots go, it was a zinger.
In the Munster U20 final against Kerry, Cork’s number 14 won a ball in front of his marker and shifted his run to the right-wing looking for space, over-soloed a little in front of himself and as the ball popped up, it became obvious Cathal O’Mahony was taking this ridiculous shot – on the run moving away from goal, close to the right sideline just outside the 21.
Anyone who had seen O’Mahony play previously, especially in the John Kerins game in Clonakilty, knew he only needed the tiniest space to get a strike off but most of the viewing public weren’t fully aware of his range, yet.
There’s a statistical metric called expected points (or expected goals in soccer, where it originated) which measures the chance of a shot from any area on the field going over when compared to the success of previous strikes from that area.
O’Mahony had already scored from outside the 45, way outside the scoring zone. This shot was from an extremely risky sector, with his right foot, under pressure.
And yet, there was a feeling, a certainty in the way O’Mahony lined it up and in the conviction of the strike (more or less all O’Mahony’s strikes go way, way up into the air, lacking any self-doubt) that made it feel an absolute sure thing it was going over.
Those watching at home went from 'you cannot be serious' to 'interesting' to slack-jawed 'oh wows' in the space of one play.
There are some remarkable points on this. For starters, that O’Mahony nails these shots so regularly that he has his own personal expected points rating and that Cork football has a forward whose very first instinctive movement is to find space to get a shot for points away.
That they might even have two of them inside there, where Mark Cronin has this ability to find spaces to work shots from more reasonable positions, that he can nail these so often and more than anything that he has the head to keep looking and keep shooting, again those points against Kerry especially noteworthy for that knack of receiving ball in areas he was able to just swing that wand of a left boot.
O’Mahony has 1-4, 1-5 and 0-7 in three championship games (in John Kerins Cup action, there was 0-9 v Kerry as well remember) and Mark Cronin has 1-3, 0-5 and 1-2, decent numbers from an inside-forward line that was identified very early on by management as having potential to do serious damage.
Mostly though it’s entirely in keeping with the identity of this group, this lack of any sense of fear and resounding certainty of their place in the world that has allowed this freedom to develop.
It’s expected that forwards will take on shots and defenders will attack balls as long as it’s all done with commitment and for the good of the team.
It’s been interesting to hear players talk of targeting All-Ireland finals and wins with no inhibitions. And to hear their manager Keith Ricken go against the easy suggestion of bringing his players back down to earth after the Munster final with the thought that ambition and confidence are exactly what a young Cork football team needs.
If there was a temptation to accept the narrative of a superior Kerry down in Clon in the John Kerins Tournament it didn’t take long at all to establish an alternative, where Cork were aggressive in defending and willing to commit to attacks, moving the ball directly and sharply, capable of taking Kerry on all over the field, wanting to in fact.
Pick any heap of scores that show a willingness to make things happen. Blake Murphy’s flick of intent and really underestimated skillful finish for the goal against Kerry in that Munster final. Jack Murphy creating a gap rather than seeing a gap for his goal against Tyrone last weekend.
The third goal against Kerry, where Sean Meehan aggressively attacked a ball in the very last minute rather than allow easy possession and Damien Gore passed up a handy point to recognise the offload and then O’Mahony went for the ruthless option.
If it looked like the 5-23 against Waterford was a blow-out against a weaker side, they’ve followed up with 3-16 and 2-17 against Kerry and Tyrone.
In one recent training session I watched this group do an activity where they spread the whole length of the pitch in groups and worked on kicking the ball through the lines, constantly moving into different areas to receive and give the kickpass and focusing on heads-up, direct movement of ball.
It’d be impossible not to see the impact of this training focus in their play on the field.
This has come from somewhere different as well. This isn’t a team of stars with expectation all the way up the ages.
Kerry have won so many minor titles that it seemed natural that dominance would shift upward but this still hasn’t felt like an accidental mix or opportunistic once-off.
Cork trained cleverly since February with this new management team and it’s been possible both to make out a clearly highly-coached group and a set of players who’ve been allowed find their own ways.
This Cork team has become an experiment of sorts on what be achieved in the right environment, offering hints to questions we thought we already knew the answers to.
Yes, there are coaches out there who can develop a Cork team playing front-foot, positive football and who can convince a group of Cork players it’s possible to compete with any other county – the inspiration and man-management of Keith Ricken can be seen in everything, as can Maurice Moore’s influence on the style of football.
Yes, there are players in Cork who have the mentality and ability to make that step-up and yes, Cork can learn to kick-pass and move the ball fluently into the scoring areas.
We’ll see if they can take that final step now on what’s been the most interesting Cork football summer for ages.
We’ve all spent so long focused on what Cork can’t do that perhaps it’s time to allow some excitement and belief again for a group who haven’t recognised any limits in what they can achieve.