WHEN Colm O’Neill popped over an equalising free with a few minutes remaining of this game Saturday evening and Cork pressed up on the Clare kick-out the expectation in the air was that the home team might push on and find a way to win.
Instead Gary Brennan won the kickout, Clare moved the ball sharply up the field and created the go-ahead score with conviction when the game was there to be won.
And that seemed about right in the end. Clare were a bit more fluent and coherent through the lines for a lot of the night and seemed a little more sure of how they attacked and defended as a team.
Cork were patchy, weren’t quite clinical enough with decisions or execution in front of goal and lacked the purpose as a unit of a Clare team that’s been together a lot longer. Colm Colllins is in year five and you could tell the difference between that and a group that’s in month three of development.
That’s two years in a row Clare have beaten Cork in the league and the reality of where Cork are building from now is fairly simple - Cork will lose these games as much as they’ll win them.
Ronan McCarthy is known as a positive manager and there’ll be a refocus on the basics again and just looking for small gains all over the field.
Going man-v-man around the field has made Cork vulnerable at times to one runner breaking the tackle to open the whole defence from deep and Clare got a few one-v-ones out of that in the first half here. Cork had trouble with Jamie Malone’s runs from deep all night especially and he ended up with three scores from play.
The defence wasn’t torn asunder at any stage but Clare still managed to find spaces and make room to get shots on goal a little too easily at times and Cork rarely looked in complete control back there, especially throughout the second half as the game got stretched and open.
At one stage of the second half David Tubridy ran down the left wing but had no option inside so turned and kicked the ball back the field, Clare recycled the ball around the other side to work a composed score and Cork just weren’t able to stop it happening. If anyone put a marker down from 1-7 it was Mark White in goal, with neat and tidy kickouts and becoming more confident all the time in his handling.
The attacking game looked very much a work in progress, without the sense of link-up play or patterns of movement that come with time on the pitch together. Players tried things, sometimes they came off and sometimes they didn’t and there isn’t yet any forward in match-winning mode to drag the team with them.
Colm O’Neill snapped a few lovely scores, Mark Collins roamed a bit further from goal than he’s been doing and kicked one peach and John O’Rourke had two points from play, one from a smart dummy hop. And yet all of them missed really kickable scores, O’Neill’s two frees second half especially, though they were into a tricky wind, or took on shots that weren’t really the right option or struggled to effect the game consistently.
The running game only got going in spurts and basically Cork’s defenders had enough to be doing to manage their own patch to be bombing forward in support. Clare closed the spaces pretty well, put pressure on the man on the ball in numbers inside their own half and Cork were reliant again on Ian Maguire’s ability to punch holes when running with the ball from midfield.
It was interesting to watch Maguire’s battles at midfield with Gary Brennan actually. Maguire was the most involved Cork player on the field, constantly trying to get something going, looking for ball and taking a man on to open up a gap and basically just taking responsibility.
He kicked a decent point after one support run at speed down the right. He set up O’Rourke for a score with another hard run down the left.
He won a vital throw-in on Cork’s 21 to bail out his goalkeeper and it seemed like Maguire was actively looking to kick the ball more as well as he banged in a few neat foot-passes to his forwards.
And yet Brennan was a massive influence on the game, kicked three scores from play, moved the ball well and made that late fetch from a kick-out at a huge time. You couldn’t quite say it summed the game up but it did offer another little suggestion on Clare’s ability to be a bit more effective and have that know-how at the important times.
Another learning night for Cork and Ronan McCarthy’s management in a one-step-up-one-step-back sort of league campaign. That’s Tipp, Cavan and Clare who’ve come to Cork and won now and if there’s anything in the poor home form it might suggest this lack of confidence to really go and own a game with expectations against the sort of nothing-to-lose mentality that comes away from home.
Cork could have won this with more nous but don’t have the absolute quality or firepower at the moment to take games against teams further along the line than them. Cork losing to Clare isn’t a surprise or a dark moment, more a simple fact of where things are.