THERE was a striking period of play in one of the county football semi-finals last weekend down the Páirc.
The team in possession had the ball around midfield out under the main stand and the same three or four players spent, what seemed like ages, popping the ball to each other from various angles and loops, all the time moving backwards with the ball and coming under more pressure to hold onto it as the opposition squeezed up.
Nothing particularly game-changing came from it, but it said something about how teams are being coached now and how particular skills are becoming natural (keeping possession in tight areas) and how others are maybe not being so effectively developed.
It was remarkable, especially, to see the players involved, how their vision never seemed to shift from that 20-metre patch of the field, how focused they were on simply holding possession (and how well able they were to do so), without any particular notion on how to move the ball beyond the opposition line to go about opening the field up and there was just something in the entire routine that came across as a typical handpassing possession training drill being played out in the middle of a county semi-final.
Double-header county semi-finals tend to be taken as bellwethers on the health of the game, accurate or not.
The Cork public won’t take a whole pile from last Sunday they didn’t know already.
There isn’t a waiting list of breakthrough stars for Ronan McCarthy to welcome into the inter-county scene.
Steven Sherlock certainly has the mentality to be a game-changer for the Barrs (and possibly more if given some time and consistency); it’s difficult to get across just how impressive it was to take on and nail a number of those second-half points from play and placed balls, with complete confidence, given the groans from the stands and general air of things not happening for him that accompanied every first-half miss.
Damien Cahalane could still do a job for Cork footballers across the defence and remains a natural kicker of ball.
Everyone already knows Haven aren’t beaten until they’re beaten.
Everyone knows, equally, that Cork football isn’t in a time of general excitement about players right now and the games just had that lack of real quality or conviction about them, a flat kind of atmosphere and tempo that made it difficult to engage with, even with two close finishes that ought to have been thrilling.
A leap for football in Cork will have to come from within, from taking the groups of footballers that are around and making them better rather than waiting on a group to emerge like Kerry have with their minor teams of the last five years.
It was interesting to hear James Horan last week talk about spending more time on the football pitch this time with Mayo, how he was hoping to off-load a lot of the admin work and actively seek to improve players himself with work on the training field.
Kerry’s new management team has been upgraded by the inclusion of Donie Buckley, a highly-regarded technical coach.
Cork have added Eddie Kirwan who did some seriously impressive work with Nemo, especially throughout a dominant spell a few years back and who will bring a fresh approach and perhaps shift focus to different patterns of play.
A few things here.
A coach can certainly influence and even create a style of play at inter-county yet there are obvious dangers in consensus or just circulating the same people.
If Donie Buckley goes into Kerry and reproduces what he did with Mayo (heavy emphasis on the art of tackling is one strong point from reports) then there are improvements being made but there’s also the worry that teams are all developing the same rhythms and ways of playing, of a lack of innovation or something different emerging with new ideas and voices.
It can happen locally by the way, where a group or generations of players even can become influenced by one particular way of playing.
Think of clubs like Aghada, Ilen Rovers, locally, who traditionally had very distinctive styles of football that were deliberately developed, or of the difference between, say, a Ned English-coached Duhallow team and a John Fintan Daly-coached Knocknagree team, both from the same part of the world but with very differing thoughts on how to move the ball most effectively.
It may be that individual player- and team-coaching offers the most potential for gains to lead onto results here.
Mayo footballers targeted shooting off their weaker side as something they needed work on and improved their ability to pick off points in big games over the course of a season a few years back.
It’d be interesting, for instance, to monitor a group of players exposed to inter-county coaching methods and training and games over the course of five years or so and be able to say, at the end of that time, whether they were demonstrably better footballers at the end of it.
Could the forwards kick points from distance more effectively?
Could a midfielder kick-pass the ball over 50 metres more accurately and consistently?
Could a defender stop a forward scoring in a one-v-one situation more efficiently?
Cork have overhauled their conditioning work in the last couple of seasons when it became apparent from GPS testing that the players just weren’t capable of running the same distances in games as top-level opposition; that work is ongoing.
The next challenge will be catching up on both the basics of making players better footballers and developing a style of football that becomes theirs.
The quality and availability of coaching and ideas will be tested.