Cork have come across as stale and behind the curve a little in how football has developed

Cork have come across as stale and behind the curve a little in how football has developed
Niall Morgan of Tyrone in action against Donnacha O'Connor last summer. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

A FORMER Cork footballer told a story once of arriving into Kent Station after the All-Ireland semi-final in 2007.

Cork had just beaten Meath to reach the All-Ireland final and when a round of applause broke out to greet the team’s achievements as they got off the train, a few of the players actually looked around to check on the recipients of the cheering and clapping.

A selector pointed out it was meant for them and if that example mainly gets across the general idea that being a Cork footballer has only been a completely joyful experience in small snapshots of time, it’s also a reminder of how far away Cork feel from that now in the grander scheme of things.

The buzz of that win in Thurles last May lasted barely a fortnight and the best thing that can be said about expectations now is that there are no delusions.

When Graham Canty mentioned last week about being a mid-table Division 2 team nobody really argued (one Sunday newspaper didn’t even mention Cork in their league preview of the division last weekend) and the simple fact is that results do tell the full story here. Cork conceded 6-38 in their last two championship games.

They’ve been beaten three of the last four games they’ve played Clare. One player who was in the dressing-room after Tyrone last year described it as pure devastation.

This is a low base Cork are starting off here.

If there was one item of hope from that Tyrone hammering last summer it was Ronan McCarthy’s reference to knowing what needed to be done now, like the reality check of that two weeks had allowed a clear head and it’ll certainly be of interest to see exactly how this new beginning plays out.

Cork manager Ronan McCarthy. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cork manager Ronan McCarthy. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

McCarthy had attacked the job with positivity last spring and yet it’s hard to think Cork are likely to unveil some form of free-flowing total football system to take on the country here.

There are obvious areas to target.

A large group of players were given a training programme by mid-summer which suggests that catch-up work was necessary to bring the players to the conditioning levels needed to compete; even if fitness can become a terrible easy excuse for any collapse, it was striking certainly to see players seemingly out on their feet after fifteen minutes of the Tyrone game, unable to cope with the speed and intensity of an elite side.

Coaching help has been added. Eddie Kirwan had a really good reputation as a skills coach under Ephie Fitzgerald at Nemo and should add progressive ideas and fresh ways of thinking.

Jason Ryan has some role in the background and these backroom additions were generally an acknowledgement that something new was needed from a coaching and tactical side of things.

Cork have come across as stale and behind the curve a little in how the game has developed in terms of defending and attacking as a team and there were aspects of play against the better teams especially where it was difficult to figure out any hints of work done on the training ground — the spaces available to Kerry and Tyrone in front of the full-back line, the ease with which the running game broke down when denied spaces.

It’d be a surprise (a disappointment for sure) to not see some obvious tactical setups that make Cork a different prospect this spring with a view to summer.

Players have left the squad.

A fair bunch of newbies have joined from various minor, U21 and junior intercounty teams of the last four or five years and Cork might hope to find at least one breakthrough starter in defence and attack by the time the league is over.

The to-do list is a long one and it’s possible to imagine Ronan McCarthy’s notes from the season review being pretty extensive.

The defensive thing has, of course, dragged on for an age now without being fixed and if Cork seemed to solve one problem position last summer (Mark White looked like a goalkeeper who’ll be around for a while) then they still didn’t nail down an effective 2-7 or a system that looked capable of stopping other teams opening them up.

There still isn’t a corner-back naturally suited for a marquee forward marking job and a defensive system that looked open and vulnerable and that too easily gave up one-v-ones to forwards against Tipp and Clare in the league got completely ripped up by the movement and scoring ability of top-class forward lines.

Being difficult to score against would seem a starting point and if high scores are a trend now and necessary to win any big game, Cork will surely try and keep games from getting away from them.

Expect bodies back to clog the scoring zones and more defensive awareness for starters (don’t expect too many shootouts).

Another reason for this is the scoring issue and the reality that Cork are down two of the most natural scoring forwards they’ve had in the last 20 years with Donncha and Colm O’Neill gone. Donncha wasn’t really a factor recently but it’s sobering to think that Cork have to find a way of replacing Colm O’Neill’s scores — last year alone, the 1-6 v Meath in the league, the game-changing goal v Tipp in championship.

The Tipp game (and the first 10 minutes v Kerry) offered a template for how the running game might work with a bunch of athletes in that middle eight, how the explosiveness of Ruairí Deane and Ian Maguire (plus Sean Powter when he’s back) might open spaces and create chances for Luke Connolly and others to finish.

Ronan McCarthy must find a way of getting enough scorers on the field and getting enough ball to them consistently.

So, it sounds simple for the league. Defend better. Attack more effectively. Win more games.

For all the recent talk of five-year plans and rediscovering Corkness, the work of finding something worthwhile in Cork football won’t wait.

If there’s reconnecting to be done with Cork GAA and its footballers, it’s likely to be in positive performances and a sense of something to buy into for players and supporters, in simply winning games again in the sort of way people want to watch.

There’s still talk of enough players being in the county given the right conditions but the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals with the likes of Kerry and Dublin will only follow if the performances and form lines are laid down against the Division 2 counties first.

We’ve seen with the Jose Mourinho/Ole Solskjaer swap in recent weeks how some momentum and feelgood can alter a mood completely and Cork are in desperate need of that kind of confidence and belief.

That pre-season hope is back but that’s drifted quickly before.

Time to find out how real it is this time.

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