Can the Cork footballers' confidence carry them past Red Hand?

Can the Cork footballers' confidence carry them past Red Hand?
Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

IT’S at times like these that we do well to recall where Cork football is coming from.

Where a few months ago there were reasonable references to being the fourth best team in Munster and an ex-player visibly squirmed at the thought of making the Super Eights and the embarrassment that might take place against the Dubs especially.

Cork went at it with Dublin last weekend, caused problems for an hour and any narrative that suggests complete control from the All-Ireland champions might watch the moment where Luke Connolly floated a ball towards Ruairí Deane inside Dublin’s goal area with the score 2-14 to 1-14 on 58 minutes and wonder about a Cork goal to tie the game.

Dublin would have responded and kicked on as they do almost certainly. But it’s a game Cork were fully in and even if it was good to hear Ronan McCarthy refuse the offer that Cork deserved more, you can’t deny the progress.

A second watch this week unlocked no great mysteries. Mark Collins was more influential, if less obviously, than we remembered live and Brian Hurley was on the verge of exploding.

Mark White’s kick-out for the fourth goal seemed difficult to explain but surely came in part from the lengthy wait due for subs – the ball went dead at 63.32 on the clock, the kick-out came at 65.17. Dublin won though because they eventually clicked into that gear that comes with four All-Irelands and because they’re better than Cork, because they have the best goalkeeper of a generation, the best attacking half-back, the best midfielder, the best link player and at least two of the top five scoring forwards in the country.

That’s a sizeable gap that needs making up and perhaps the most remarkable story here is not that Dublin had that lethal streak in them when needed, but that Cork managed to draw it out, that Cork were still there trading punches with ten minutes left and their way held firm under the most intense pressure.

You could choose a focus here and it’s possible to be excited AND recognise need for improvement in some details. It’s impossible to watch the game without realising so many of Dublin’s scores came from one player finding that gap, the ripple effect of one player being beaten opened up spaces in Cork’s defence, an obvious direct result (and potential fault) of going man-v-man without cover. Dublin’s first goal came from Jack McCaffrey’s burst.

Their killer third goal again was a McCaffrey burst and then Con O’Callaghan’s awareness of a chance and ruthlessness. O’Callaghan broke away from James Loughrey for a couple of scores. Brian Fenton and MD McAuley made a few bursts down the middle to create points.

For one Dublin point in the first half they passed the ball around for an age, probing for a weakness until eventually Brian Howard broke Mattie Taylor’s tackle and opened up room for Brian Fenton to run down the centre and kick a point. Cork played with fire by committing to bomb forward openly and by committing to one-v-one defensive set-up and eventually they got scorched. Was it brave or naive?

There was a play just after half-time where Liam O’Donovan passed to Mattie Taylor who attempted a pass to James Loughrey ahead of the ball, all inside the Dublin 45, a neat summing up of Cork’s relentless will to attack. The move broke down and Tom Clancy was left isolated against Cormac Costello (it all worked out) and if it was a little rash it made a statement also that Cork weren’t for changing.

It’s the main core principle of this Cork style now to go for games with that mentality and it was striking to watch players all over the field attack the ball last Saturday in the knowledge that one error in timing could destroy it all. The first 15 minutes was impressive in that it was possible to see a pattern of play when attacking, where Cork were aware of how they wanted to open Dublin up and succeeded in getting Paul Kerrigan especially in positions to create constantly. Examples being Cork’s third point where Mark Collins drew Cian O’Sullivan before offloading to Kerrigan in the pocket or Cork’s fifth point where Kerrigan was involved time and again in shifting the ball slightly outside Dublin’s defensive line before getting into position for the shot.

The support runs though never stopped and you can see in almost every attack, O’Donovan-Taylor-Maguire all getting ahead of the ball from that middle third. It’s risky but then that’s a huge part of Dublin and modern football too. For one Dublin kick-out, Philly McMahon set off down the middle before Brian Fenton has even won possession – if Cork won the ball McMahon was totally out of the game, but Dublin won the ball and McMahon scored a point.

Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo
Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Individual form and confidence is higher than we can remember in some time, where that weighty cloud has lifted and players are actively improving. Deane and Collins-Hurley have been high profile formlines; the emergence of Flahive, O’Donovan, Taylor, Sean White has given an energy; Loughrey and Kerrigan haven’t been this effective for an age; Luke Connolly looks to have come out of the other side of a confidence block.

It’s hard to find any player who isn’t better now than he was a few months ago.

Cork won as many turnovers as Dublin, won 18/27 of their own kick-outs (mostly long), created one less scoring chance from play – this is all progress.

In some ways Dublin were the most suited team for Cork, an open game of football with little structure. Tyrone will be Tyrone, all bodies and tackling intensity and cleverness with and without the ball, asking very different questions about how Cork want to win this in trying to open a shutdown team and stopping the angles of passing and running of Mickey Harte’s side.

Cork don’t have a Peter Harte or maybe a Matthew Donnelly. They’ll need to be patient in possession, to take scores from distance and to find runners in the spaces where it’ll be awfully tough to get ball to Colllins-Hurley-Connolly. Mostly the interesting factor is Cork’s willingness and ability to follow on here, whether it’s possible to find the balance at this stage with this obsession to drive forward and awareness of being open at the back, especially against a team that wants exactly this. Do Cork need to win for the year to be seen properly?

Is it even possible or realistic? Tyrone have ambitions for an All-Ireland and are there with Donegal and Kerry in the top four teams.

Cork’s ambitions have been more humble but it’ll be interesting to see how far this attacking wave can take them now and whether they can evolve it to a different challenge.

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