THE Cork footballers won. That was the key thing.
As the ball fizzed around the Cork goalmouth area in the last seconds of this league game in Thurles Saturday evening and the footballers in red had basically their whole team on the line desperately holding onto their three-point lead, there was a sense that finding a way to win mattered more than the two league points here.
They dug it out in the end, deserved reward for a performance of hard work and grit and application more than any kind of pretty football. At one stage near the end, Brian Fox ghosted past Ian Maguire at midfield but Maguire found something left in his legs to work back and get a hand in to turn the ball over; the Cork captain was taken off directly afterwards, completely spent, but he’d done what was necessary to win.
It felt like that kind of defiance. Cork will face more difficult questions ahead yet there was something in their willingness here and the reaction at the final whistle indicated plenty meaning to this group of players and management.
All week the calls had been for Cork to commit more numbers to attacking play and they did here, if largely in response to Tipperary’s tactical set-up. It took less than two minutes of play for Tipp to pull 13 players into their own half, essentially handing the ball and territory to Cork while trying to play on the counterattack and it created the main pattern of play where Cork enjoyed (though this may be too strong a word) long spells of possession around the middle third trying to figure out a way through the massed defence.
Ronan McCarthy’s team didn’t always find the correct decision and there were blocked shots and spilt turnovers and attempted kick-passes intercepted by the sweepers and there were lots of occasions where Cork struggled with the balance between overly safe passing and actively looking to move the ball forward into the scoring zones. But they kept plugging away and eventually created a space for a runner or the right kick-pass.
Ruairí Deane and Ian Maguire ran and ran into the tight spaces searching for little gaps and for one score they combined well to get Maguire in on goal only to be fouled, Connolly pointing the free. Deane carried the ball well to set Michael Hurley up for a really nice first-time strike over his shoulder.
Cork weren’t particularly sparkling or fluid but they definitely had more purpose and control than Tipp and the forwards never stopped looking for a way to create a chance. Deane ran all night long looking for open space and his goal summed that up, as he burst into the gaps left by Tipp chasing the game and blasted a match-winning strike when a safer point was on. There was an element of being rewarded for bravery when Cork did commit to attacks.
Sean Powter’s part in the goal, where he floated a pass into a place that was either going to create a goalscoring chance or lose the ball, showed gumption and vision at a game-changing time of the game. Luke Connolly missed a few shots at goal again but never went missing, had his usual moments of quality that nobody else was capable of - one crossfield pass from the right wing the other side of the Tipp defender into Michael Hurley’s chest that created a scored free was particularly special - and kicked a lovely score on the run as well.
And Eoghan McSweeney was an interesting presence here, involved a lot around the half-forward line and instinctively looking to move the ball directly with his foot as much as possible. He kicked a good score from outside the 45, had another kick from distance rebound off the crossbar, linked well to be involved with a couple of scores, looked most likely to hit the full-forward line with good bouncing ball and should be a serious option, especially when he shrugs off that early tentativeness and allows his natural game flow at this level.
For one score in the second half, Cork played keep-ball for an age back and forth until eventually Sam Ryan made a burst forward and got fouled and it was that kind of night in the end where everyone contributed little bits until they all added up to a win. Small details made a difference. Cork supported the ball more and didn't get isolated in possession.
It wasn’t really a night for tactical lessons. Cork did set-up with Mark Collins and Michael Hurley as an inside duo (with Luke Connolly and Eoghan McSweeney as a kind of half-forward line) with an idea of hitting the spaces more directly but that sort of fizzled out as the game developed into something different.
Cork kept one man marking Conor Sweeney with a spare defender closing off the spaces in front. Tipp were extremely limited in attacking alternatives beyond their go-to forward and the odd runner finding a gap down the middle.
And generally everyone else filled the middle third.
You couldn’t say there was a way of playing located or anything hugely meaningful for long-term but the group was completely engaged and united and Ronan McCarthy will have liked the mentality to attack the game.
The players got to experience grinding out a win as a group and will move on with more hope and confidence and two more points than they began the weekend. That’ll do for now.