Nailed by some tiny margins and ruthless Red Hand warriors

Nailed by some tiny margins and ruthless Red Hand warriors
Kevin Flahive shows frustration late on. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

ANOTHER cruel lesson in the winning of football games at this level. 

When Mark Collins kicked a wide with 42 minutes on the clock it seemed insignificant as Cork were five points up at the time; the next time Cork attacked barely four minutes later they were two points down and chasing a game they’d never really have control of again. 

Last week Cork got nailed by Dublin’s ruthlessness and this was just as unforgiving. Ronan McCarthy’s team were wonderfully brave and ambitious again for long spells but when Tyrone upped the intensity and the game became about knowhow at a different speed of play, some small decisions and details made the difference.

Tyrone moved Mattie Donnelly to the full-forward line and Cork never got a handle on his physicality there – he was absolutely involved in almost every Tyrone score in that second half, breaking tackles and creating angles that Cork had been shutting down before that. 

The four-minute burst of 2-1 was devastating. Donnelly’s run where he actually took players on opened up the centre of Cork’s defence for the first time to set up the goal. Then Sean White got turned over and Donnelly got fouled for a pointed free. 

Tyrone won the long kick-out and seeming to recognise that Cork were disoriented, ran at pace with numbers at the defence - Mattie Taylor lost Niall Sludden’s run and Tyrone had a penalty. It was a devastating lesson in minimising the damage from those vulnerable spells. 

Cork came again but lacked that management of the game at either end of the pitch. Tyrone looked dangerous in the one-v-ones and capable of creating chances whenever they attacked, mainly through Donnelly’s ability to go past players. 

Cork made chances and scored – Michael Hurley’s four points from play a serious influence – but just missed that killer instinct to grab the game with a big score again. Luke Connolly’s goal chance (and it did look like he had to go for it in the way he did) was almost that spark and Cork got in down the sides a few times where a goal position looked possible but they just lacked that recognition or pass to open it up. 

At one stage Mattie Taylor got turned over, Tyrone broke for Donnelly to get fouled for a free. Later Paul Kerrigan tried a reverse pass that lost possession, Tyrone broke for a Donnelly point from play. 

It’s rough but these are the tiny margins.

It’s tougher as Cork did so much right and for an age here it looked like they would be taking that next developmental step of a statement win against a top team. They controlled the game in that opening half, owned the ball (four Cork players had more 20 possessions by half-time), and mixed the speed of plays perfectly between patience and bursts of abandon when necessary. 

In ways this was even more impressive than the complete all-out attack of the Dublin game, a level of control and still the willingness of key players to attack the spaces when the chance presented. The opening goal had that awareness of space and pure speed. Mattie Taylor’s dinked direct pass into Brian Hurley and Ian Maguire’s run down the middle of Tyrone’s defence before they could get set, before Luke Connolly’s cool finish. 

After that Cork held the ball for long, long spells of moving back and across the field looking for gaps. For Cork’s second point there were 22 passes in the move and a timed run into space for Kevin O’Driscoll to assist Mattie Taylor to kick the score. 

Cork’s second goal had everything that was good about Cork in the half. Ian Maguire cut off a Tyrone pass for a turnover deep in Cork’s 45, Cork moved the ball cleverly up and across the pitch for 23 passes and eventually found the space in behind Tyrone’s defensive line, Ruairí Deane sprinted and offloaded brilliantly and James Loughrey, who’d been probing with intent all through the play, finished confidently. 

Maguire was dominant in the collisions. Cork stepped off Tyrone’s kick-out in that opening half, shut down the central area with bodies (Stephen Cronin swept effectively in front of McShane) and dominated territory. It genuinely looked like a big-game dominant performance as Cork bossed the middle third, Tyrone struggled completely to lay a hand on them and it was possible to believe Cork could do whatever they wanted.

Even for the opening score of the second half, Cork put together 36 passes and Sean White – the game’s chief playmaker at that stage – bombed into space with a one-two to kick a point. If we’re looking for faults you could say that there was possibly a goal on here and again, where everything gets analysed as the margins are small it’ll get put on the lessons learnt list to perhaps be more clinical in certain positions. 

Cork couldn’t quite get the ball to Brian Hurley again after that very first play and that he and Collins couldn’t score from play will be another one for review. Once that pattern of the game shifted, Tyrone pressed man-v-man and Cork couldn’t control the ball or the spaces anymore. 

Cork will be better for the experience of dealing with the different flows of games against these teams in the final quarter, where every ball lost seems more amplified and every mistake gets punished.

So, two weeks in a row that Cork looked a top four team in the eye and saw little to fear – Tyrone were extended fully – and still there was a sense of regret and a chance missed in the end. Time will allow thoughts of definite progress and the right direction (after last year, this performance level seemed actually impossible) and Cork know what it takes to win games here now. 

That they couldn’t manage it will hurt for a while.

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