WHEN the referee blew the half-time whistle at Páirc Uí Rinn last Saturday evening it took a moment to register the noise coming from the stands and terraces.
It was applause, a sustained appreciation from the Cork supporters and if Cork had been sparkling in racking up 3-8 and the overall reaction felt correct it also seemed a little out of the ordinary for Cork football. It was a striking contrast in particular to the last championship game there a couple of years ago where Cork had a point on the board at half-time against Tipp and the whole world seemed to be commenting on their humiliation.
Behind the terrace a group of Cork football people snuck out the gate to general hilarity, referring to the need for a toilet. Spoiler: they knew the game was over and were heading to watch the Champions League final.
There was just a sense of enjoyment we haven’t had in an age, it’s been that sort of week and if it may not last longer than say, oh, June 22, we’ll take what we can get right now.
It wasn’t just the senior game though and that was significant. Last Wednesday night the Cork U20s took on the Kerry U20s in every sense of the word in a tournament game on a cracking night of football in West Cork.
It was tempting to believe for a short spell in the perception of Kerry superiority – there was Jack O’Connor leading the side with his history and the really impressive physical condition of Kerry players who’d won minor titles recently – and for 10 minutes or so it looked like playing out the way of most recent Cork-Kerry clashes at all grades. And then, well, Cork stepped up with basic work-rate and attitude to contest everything, they moved the ball purposefully and quickly and cleverly, just like they were supposed to.
There were individual performances (Cathal O’Mahony’s kicking was just perfection) and field-lengths moves for scores, with kickpassing and handpassing when either was the right thing to do. Mostly it was just lovely to see a group of Cork players believe they were capable of taking Kerry on in one-v-one battles and as a unit and it was a decent boost for a good section of Cork football support to see it happen as well, to not go away from a Cork-Kerry game feeling hopelessly inferior.
A huge crowd turned out and had a good time watching Cork footballers, left with a nice bit of hope and confidence for the future and the players got to experience a proper atmosphere too. Who’d have guessed by the way that a club grounds full to the brim with curious locals might create a more fulfilling experience than a couple of hundred half-interested people in a mostly empty Páirc.
It turned out people do still care if they’re given the opportunity and the occasion.
A few bits jumped out from the senior game. After Limerick hit the post within 10 seconds, Cork won possession and a pile of red jerseys took off at proper velocity, like flat out sprinting both with and without the ball towards the opposition goal. It was part mad reaction to the let-off and clearly part of their instruction too though, that they needed to play with a kind of half-controlled and half-manic speed that Limerick wouldn’t be able to cope with.
Brian Hurley showing that ability to get away from defenders we hadn’t seen for a while and those clever punchy finishes low into the ground was fun. Ruairí Deane seemed to be playing at a different level of physicality to everyone else, exploding past players for fun basically whenever he wanted, opening up the defence with kickpasses and long runs with that twisty style of changing the angle of possession.
Mostly though it was just the relentless attacking from Cork, players giving the ball and then making those hard 100% runs in support – Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor as the two half-backs did this particularly often, opening up the width of the opposition defence by sprinting up the outside of the player on the ball down the two sidelines.
When Deane scored his goal it was Killian O’Hanlon who’d made a massive dash from midfield to get closest to him in support. These are good indicators of a team who wants to move the ball purposefully and doesn’t want to get bogged down in a slow style of attacking.
Actually it wasn’t difficult to trace a line through the U20s to the seniors and spot what works and what needs more work. Ball movement we’ve mentioned as a positive development.
It was interesting also to see Cork sides defend aggressively one-v-one in areas of the field they may previously have defended zonally, in attacking ball and trying to win it first or off a break or disrupt clean possession or at the very least minimise time and space for the forwards to pick out options. Cork’s defenders in the U20 and senior games contested ball kicked in as often as possible.
The U20s weren’t watertight at the back and the seniors will come up against more talented attacks. We’ll come back to whether the idea of going one-v-one with Kerry’s inside-forward line is a plan worth pursuing.
But both managements spoke of work-rate and honesty as starting points and were happy with the willingness to run hard and commit themselves to what was asked, that a player not able to leave everything on the field wouldn’t be tolerated. It might be possible to create something out of the simplicity of running more and harder, to forge some idea of what Cork football could be about and go with it as a turning point as much as a system of play or generational talents.
Cork need the confidence that wins and performances bring but they need belief as well that Cork football can be more than crisis. A few more weeks like this last one won’t do any harm.