RONAN McCARTHY was trying to explain away the devastation of another championship defeat for Cork football in the bowels of Croke Park last Saturday and even then it felt different.
Cork were out but it didn’t feel like the end, certainly after the never-ending sense of crisis and rock bottoms and lengthy post-mortems of recent summer exits. For one, there’s another game (and a really important one actually to maintain this momentum) to go. There are deep regrets, for sure, but long-running questions have been answered. Cork football found ways to go toe-to-toe with three of the best football teams in the country, to properly trouble them tactically and one-v-one, to score 3-10, 1-17 and 2-12 and be in each game with 10 minutes to go. Cork found a batch of bright young footballers who wouldn’t take a step back.
Cork found an attitude and spirit that came back from blows in each game and refused to collapse. Cork pressed, worked, ran and moved the ball like a proper modern Gaelic football team. And after so long of not knowing what they were meant to be, Cork found a style of playing the game that was theirs and owned it against the top three teams in the country.
This all feels like progress.
Of course, there is a difficult truth lurking, too, that can’t be completely avoided on a high of feelgood: Cork have still only beaten Limerick and Laois and when the game was there for the taking last weekend, it was Tyrone who had the big-game individuals and group experience to grab control and make sure they did everything necessary to win.
That’s added to a Munster final where Kerry just had more quality in the last quarter even a man down and all momentum with Cork and a Dublin game that Cork were in until that explosive last ten minutes. These were the game moments where Cork looked what they were, a willing and brave unit with some real standout form players but lacking some next-level quality and that elite mentality at this stage of development that wins super eight games.
Tyrone’s matchwinner last weekend was Mattie Donnelly, who’s spoken previously about a stage of his inter-county career where he was being taken off very early in games for ineffectiveness (when Tyrone got hammered in Killarney back in 2012, Donnelly and Ronan McNamee were gone by half-time) and who realised then the level of preparation and commitment that he needed to make the step up to.
This Tyrone side have taken on all the other top counties in Ulster finals and All-Ireland quarters, semis, finals this past few years, they’ve gotten to live these game situations out over and over again — it’s not an overnight process. Imagine what this experience will do for say Kevin Flahive who’s gone toe-to-toe with David Clifford, Donie Kingston, Paul Mannion and Donnelly this past six weeks, a few summers of experience hemmed into one run of games. Or Mark White, who’s looked out the field and seen the full press from Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone now and has an idea what that looks like for the memory bank.
There have been shared brutal punishments on really small lapses. Kevin O’Driscoll just got caught for a second by Michael McKernan’s run last weekend for the opening goal, as Mattie Taylor missed the movement inside by Niall Sludden and Thomas Clancy got pulled towards the ball rather than Cormac Costello’s run against Dublin.
There is still ground to make up on conditioning and it was striking how Cork were unable to sustain the collective physicality for entire games (repeat, against the very elite) – Ian Maguire’s run for the Luke Connolly goal was wonderfully purposeful but he was out on his feet trying to get back and stop Tiernan McCann’s late score. They can still give up runs of scores and conceding more than twenty points a game while not quite managing to score twenty is an obvious fix.
If there were references to over-attacking, let’s not forget this has been one of the great attractions to this Cork team, this willingness to commit completely to a play, to being brave on the field. Early on last Saturday as Cork moved the ball across to the left wing, a little channel of space opened ahead of the ball and Kevin Flahive tore forward into it without a second thought, just that it was space and it needed to be attacked — he was fouled for a pointed free.
James Loughrey looked like he couldn’t stop himself destroying Tyrone’s defensive line and his finish was brilliantly spiky. Even in the second half it was Liam O’Donovan and Sean White making that extra overlap forward down the right wing to assist Michael Hurley, relentlessly finding support runners to create positions. This abandon has given Cork an identity this summer; it ought be developed more than knocked.
Mostly it was that feeling of progress in Cork football here, where an experience that had been awfully grim and miserable for an age felt like it could be enjoyable again. We heard stories these past few years of players wondering whether they really needed the hassle of being involved with Cork football, of parents actually unsure if they wanted their kids exposed to the cloud around the team and there was this sense of a group just avoiding mistakes on the edge of collapse; that focus has shifted now to players wanting to be involved, expressing themselves, being positive on the pitch and making things happen.
Every match for Cork supporters this past few years has felt like a chore; this summer we’ve had five games of excitement and emotional engagement and you know, people actually looking forward to matches.
This kind of thing matters. The discussion around the Cork footballers has tilted, where what seemed a monthly ‘what’s happened Cork football?’ debate on the Sunday Game has changed to Sean Cavanagh or Tomas Ó Sé or Dick Clerkin remarking on the energy of the Cork wing-backs or the engine of Ian Maguire. The phrase Cork are a Division 3 team is used more for its ridiculousness now than a statement of fact.
This Cork group have redefined a little the idea of what Cork football is about – front-foot, positive, attacking, hard-running football. The U20s have shown what’s possible when there’s total belief in ability and yes, a few marquee forwards. 2019 feels like more of a beginning than an end.