Huge turnover of players has left Cork struggling to find an identity

Huge turnover of players has left Cork struggling to find an identity
Cork captain Ian Maguire, right, and team-mate Kevin Crowley on their way into the team dressing room at Thurles. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

LAST May, the Cork footballers went to Thurles for a Munster SFC semi-final against Tipperary and there wasn’t a huge amount of expectation.

You could have had a bet on Ronan McCarthy’s side at slightly worse than evens that evening, almost unthinkable for a Rebels provincial clash against someone other than Kerry, but it illustrated how the landscape had changed. After all, Tipp had triumphed by six points when the counties had met in the league a few months earlier.

That evening, Cork managed to respond to the pressure they were under by winning impressively, though subsequent performances against Kerry and Tyrone meant that the Tipp game was overlooked.

Add in four games without a win at the start of this year’s league and Cork travelled to Thurles on Saturday carrying a six-game stretch without victory, with 14 league and championship games since the beginning of 2018 having only yielded four wins.

With McCarthy’s team bottom of Division 2 and Tipp one of the two sides directly above them on three points, another defeat would have all but confirmed relegation to the third tier. Thankfully, Cork were able to pull out a performance, as they did ten months ago, to give themselves a glimmer of hope. They may still be relegated, but at least they have stopped the rot and the importance of that confidence-boost can’t be overestimated.

In a team where there has been such a turnover of players over the past half-decade, the identity of the panel has been muddied, if not lost. Saturday’s win will have provided some level of belief and reassurance that they hadn’t all become bad players.

Mark Collins holds off Jimmy Feehan of Tipp. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Mark Collins holds off Jimmy Feehan of Tipp. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

The task now is try to build on that in their next outing, at home to Donegal on Saturday week. It will be a tougher task as Declan Bonner’s side are chasing promotion, but Cork can face into it with renewed hope.

To many, Donegal represent the change in football seen since the beginning of this decade, where ‘avoid defeat at all costs’ has become the tactic du jour. They aren’t as extreme as that anymore, to be fair, but perception counts for a lot.

Last weeks, the events of the Ulster post-primary Brock Cup (U15½AFC) between St Patrick’s of Maghera and Newry’s Abbey CBS, provided a new low for many observers. However, there is a chance that widespread dissemination of the footage of the game will be a clarion call.

St Patrick’s won the game, by 0-2 to 0-1 and that’s not misprint for 0-12 to 0-11. Abbey delved into the ultra-defensive playbook and added a few more layers, with 15 players behind the ball almost for the entirety of the game.

Cahair O’Kane of the Irish News tweeted a video snippet from the game and the wails of protest were long and loud, leading one to hope that this can be a turning point for the trend of negative football. The teenagers carrying out the gameplan shouldn’t be the focus of the ire and don’t seem to be. Presumably, they just want to go out and play some ball, but you’d have to wonder about the mindset of a management that would go to such lengths at such an age-grade.

People will say that Jim McGuinness invented defensive football, but let’s not pretend that Gaelic football was a utopia before that. The Cork team that won the All-Ireland in 2010 were criticised for too much lateral play, the reason for that being that opponents’ massed ranks were too difficult to break down.

What McGuinness did was take things to a more organised level at the back, but he also developed a counter-attacking game. While Donegal didn’t give away much as they won the 2012 All-Ireland, they did still score more than each of their opponents and it’s hard to argue with the means when the end is a first All-Ireland in 20 years.

Things have moved on, though, Dublin are the best team around now and it’s a pity that more don’t try to ape their attacking approach.

Instead, the safety-first style still pervades, but without the counter-attacking nous. The bottom line, at least, is that St Patrick’s won that Brock Cup game and, despite the tactics, Abbey still lost, the fear of which led them to employ such tactics. Proof, perhaps, that the good will always win out in the end.

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