IF ANYONE wanted a reminder of just how good Brian Hurley was pre-injury, you could pick any from a batch of games in 2014/15 and check out the trail of destruction.
There was the time he picked Kerry apart down in Tralee for seven points from play in the league.
The five points from play in thirty minutes of a national league semi-final against a Dublin full-back line of Cooper-O’Carroll-McMahon.
The explosive 1-3 from play in a summer qualifier against Mayo in Croke Park.
The time himself and Colm O’Neill ran a Donegal defence ragged for three goals in another league semi-final.
That’s basically all of the elite teams from that era that weren’t able to cope and it’s hardly coincidental that Cork’s scoring power over the last few years has fallen off at a time that Hurley’s been unavailable or not back at that level.
There are a lot of unknowns for Cork this summer and if the defence has been a concern for the longest time now, the attacking unit hasn’t exactly been functioning reliably either.
For starters it’s year one without both the most talented and the most outstanding Cork forwards of a decade and if they were hardly reliable contributors by last summer they were always there at least (Colm O’Neill did score the match-changing goal v Tipp last year, Donncha O’Connor still controlled the game against Mayo the previous year for 30 minutes); now there’s no fallback.
Cork need a serious step up from one or two scorers in particular and it’s hard to think of any forward unit that can expect to win games without two forwards who can put up 8-10 points between them most days out.
There is potential for take-off.
Someone like Michael Hurley has threatened without fully convincing.
He had a lively two-point cameo against Mayo in 2017 but his only score in last year’s championship against Tyrone probably summed up this feeling of being on the verge of breakthrough, a lively little run that almost worked a goal but was deflected over.
In the league this spring he had 0-12 in five starts, from the game against Kildare where he looked unplayable, jinking through the spaces to kick five points from play against a massed defence, to the games with Clare and Meath where Cork really struggled to get him in the game at all.
Even up in Tipp there was little meaningful possession but Hurley still stole two points in really confined spaces.
Steven Sherlock hasn’t moved from club level scoring to inter-county level scoring yet.
Luke Connolly is the one Cork forward with potential to draw gasps — one crossfield pass into Michael Hurley’s chest up in Thurles was jaw-droppingly good — and groans (some of the frees missed v Kildare/Clare were frustrating and he’s taken off against Meath after coughing up possession).
As he trudged off that day his confidence looked shot but then he returned with swagger in Tipp.
His 0-10 v Tipp (five scores from play) last year on night one of championship wasn’t quite followed up on and there remains this wondering about whether the flair can be balanced with the reliability for scores.
Eoghan McSweeney has stepped up as a bolter, a long-range point shooter Cork have lacked (he scored 0-7 in the league but looked more dangerous as his willingness to take shots on increased) but it may be a big ask for three points from play every day in his rookie year.
Paul Kerrigan plays a different role for Cork now and can’t be expected to chip in with three or four scores a game and the likes of John O’Rourke and Sean White have tended to get a score or two every few games (midfield isn’t a help, Ian Maguire has one score in the last three years of championship).
The most intriguing possibility might well be the emergence of Brian Hurley 2.0.
Last year was probably just too much too soon and if the spring had more signs that he might not be able to rediscover the same spark as before, there was something to latch onto in the last league game in Armagh.
His goals that day were more about mentality and confidence for Hurley than overall importance, the second one especially showed a little of the old explosive burst and finished without any doubt whatsoever.
Brian Hurley who could rack up a 1-5 or 0-7 could push Cork into positions that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
The goals against Armagh were noteworthy for another reason: Cork’s main route for score creation (especially goals).
All three came from support runners from deep punching holes and the third was a perfect example of the quick movement of ball, fast hands and running angles to open a defence.
The goal against Donegal came from a Ruairi Deane burst down the inside-left channel.
Same with the goal v Tipp. Think back to last year and the early goals v Kerry, Deane’s power and runs from deep creating those situations. There are a few aspects of interest here.
One, Cork are unlikely to be a side who’ll score 18 or 19 points as the year goes on so they’ll need goals to beat anybody worthwhile.
Two, how they commit numbers to attack and transition from defensive situations to create chances is key.
It was a real problem last year once Kerry and Tyrone closed the running spaces Tipp had allowed.
The early parts of the league were a struggle (the Kildare, Meath and Clare games where Cork scored 0-10, 1-9 and 1-10) as Cork couldn’t get players in support of the ball, players got isolated in possession in attacking areas and shooters weren’t got on ball enough.
Using Mark Collins as a ball-winner inside is a potential plan B, where his ability to bring others into play (especially clubmates) could work and he also has two or three scores a game in his locker, but in the absence of a creative player like say Peter Harte, Cork are most likely to rely on runners to bring the ball into the scoring zones.
If Cork are to win big games they’ll need to find ways to get close to 20 points plus through the summer.
They’ll need to find the right patterns of attack and one or two forwards to hit season-defining form.
Scores can open the summer for Cork.