IT may be possible to trace the change in circumstances in Cork football through the priorities assigned to incoming Cork managers over the last decade.
It’s 10 years now since Conor Counihan came into the job with the task of bringing a team that’d just lost an All-Ireland final that last step (remember that first game in Limerick, two late goals to get out of jail).
Brian Cuthbert arrived as a more progressive coach to stay in touch with the tactical development of the game. Peadar Healy was a back-to-basics idea to try and become competitive again.
Ronan McCarthy’s to-do list has been straight-forward enough, to find a way to get a team performing and winning again and transfer as much positivity and conviction into this Cork football group as possible.
The real work starts now.
There is more the sense of a reboot than a revolution though, of trying to find something extra in the mentality and focus of the group. Cork haven’t radically overhauled the players or implemented a complicated system and the manager will focus on the smaller factors here.
After the Mayo defeat last July McCarthy had an analysis column in the Examiner where he referenced details like aggression in defence, shot selection in attack and interplay of runners and ball-carriers when in possession, the sort of emphasis he’d have been working on all spring more than any major tactical shift.
Still there are ways Cork need to make their own, decisions on how this team wants to play ball in defence and attack.
There wasn’t any great feeling throughout the league of a team that was fully in tune with what it was meant to be doing or in the development of defined patterns.
It’s still not entirely clear what Cork’s Plan A is and you couldn’t attribute a description to Cork as easily as you could say Galway are counterattacking or that Monaghan have a certain way about them (teams who are in fairness further along the management road).
The middle eight has been filled with strong athletic runners, all capable of punching a hole in a defensive line and gives some kind of hint to the style of play that’s most likely to flow naturally.
Defence has been an ongoing issue. Last year Cork conceded 1-23 to Kerry and 0-27 to Mayo.
Donegal players have commented on the game in 2016 and how ridiculously open it was. Ken O’Halloran spoke this week about how he felt Cork had been too traditional in defence in recent times, not willing enough to shut a game down.
One of the constants with McCarthy so far has been a dislike for masses of bodies in defence and an eagerness to put trust in the individual defender’s ability to deal with 1v1s with old-fashioned defending. The worry from the league was that the two games Cork came against real firepower they conceded 3-16 (Tipp) and 1-17 (Roscommon).
That half-back line is really made more for strong forward running than protection. The search for new corner-backs has turned up Kevin Flahive and a Quinlivan-Sweeney-McGrath attack will be a proper challenge, even before any potential match up with Geaney-O’Donoghue-Clifford.
Tipp won’t be shy about booting ball into that full-forward line and there will be flutters whenever that happens. Ask anyone who’s worked with Ronan McCarthy and they’ll probably tell you he’s more likely to focus on attacking than defence and again there wasn’t an immediately obvious leap or eureka moment during the league.
Cork will have been working on developing that fluency in ball movement as a team, so that players are running in twos and threes and at angles to work shooting chances or tackle-breaking lines.
In the Clare game and Cavan games especially there was a tendency for say Ian Maguire or Ruairi Deane to take off past one tackle but find themselves isolated from any support and unable to move the ball further.
Cork have lost Sean Powter’s explosive ballcarrying and Paul Kerrigan’s timing to arrive on the shoulder to create chances.
Colm O’Neill hardly made an impact last summer (0-3 scoring total in a bitty championship) but you feel there’s more to unlock there - in the league opener against Tipp he came on, scored a goal, created a goal chance, and scored a point within 10 minutes. O’Neill’s been scoreless from play the last two years against Tipp but if Cork are looking to hit the 20-point mark here that might be needed to win that can’t happen again.
Luke Connolly is after a leap season with Nemo, a breakthrough year with Cork and a free creative role across the attack might just suit him, allowing him go wherever possible to get on ball and do damage and go for goals if he’s in the relaxed game-changing mode he plays with for Nemo. Nailing frees from both sides will be a given but expect goals from these two if Cork are flowing.
It’s an interesting sort of conundrum, what exactly is the expectation here?
Cork aren’t at the stage of development where a result is the only thing, where they’ve done the time and just need to make a breakthrough win (we might say different for a Munster final with Kerry).
Yet it doesn’t seem right to say they’ve got credit worked up for a decent-yet-losing performance either, not when that would reemphasise the normality of losing to Tipp and take a hammer to any feeling of confidence for the summer.
It might just be that Cork need both here, a performance and a win in the right way. It’s been an awful long time since Cork played well, like in a thrilling or satisfying way where you leave the stadium post-match contented, against a team of significance and won (honestly, maybe 2012?).
A loss won’t be defining for Ronan McCarthy but it would damage any sense of progression. A win would shift the dynamic and lift the gloom somewhat.
A performance and a win will be the target.
This new era has to start somewhere.