The Cork footballers need the type of mean defence that shut out Tyrone in 2009

The Cork footballers need the type of mean defence that shut out Tyrone in 2009
Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IT wasn’t a goal that won or lost the game but it did define it in ways. 

When Mark White placed the ball for his first kick-out in the Munster final after four minutes it was obvious Kerry had done a full press into Cork’s spaces. From behind the goal you can see Stephen O’Brien cleverly drifting to the left wing into the space vacated by Sean White who’s galloped out under the break. 

Stephen Cronin, caught in the middle of defence between not wanting to leave the centre open but aware of O’Brien free as well, can be seen pointing at O’Brien and then slowly edging towards his direction. By the time David Moran has caught the kick-out and seen O’Brien in space, it’s too late. O’Brien rolled over Cronin and slammed a goal that set the tone. 

One former Cork defender, who’s played in Cork/Kerry games, sent a message that called it a crazy goal to concede with a mix of naivety and lack of physicality. And perhaps cynicism too.

It wasn’t the only time in the game that Cork’s defence was opened too easily. Paul Murphy sauntered down the middle a couple of times from deep to kick two points. 

David Clifford was allowed in one-v-one situations over and over. Kerry found Paul Geaney, their most dangerous attacker, in 20 yards of space from a sideline kick to score a point. Kerry bypassed the Cork sweeper with various forms of 40-yard kick-passes that hopped perfectly in front of their forwards. 

At one stage Kerry won a Cork kick-out and took eight Cork players out of the play with two kick-passes to their inside-forward line. Cork coughed up 3-18 in the end. In truth, it could have been more, Kerry had 39 shots at Cork’s goal.

It’s been an ongoing thing and Cork have never quite figured out how best to solve it. Back in 2013 Cork tried to develop a sweeper-type game from Mark Collins with varying success. In 2014 Cork got hit for 0-24 by Kerry and went into full lockdown mode but that wasn’t really a long-term solution and by 2015 they were coughing up big scores to Dublin in the league and Kildare in championship. 

The last few years have been pockmarked with some huge concessions (Roscommon in the league, 3-15 to Tipp, 0-21 to Donegal in a game their players called the most open in years, another 1-23 to Kerry and then 0-27 to Mayo) and Cork just haven’t found a way of getting bodies back in defensive areas to perform a job or the blend of defensive personnel to shut down opposition marquee forwards especially.

There are deficiencies at the root of it. 

It seems like a long time now since Cork footballers brought through a specialist man-marker who could be left alone inside against a James O’Donoghue or Paul Mannion or Andy Moran with confidence. We spoke with Ken O’Halloran a while back and he identified a real problem in Cork over the years in knowing how to deal with runners from deep, with teams overloading certain areas, Cork getting overrun and shipping big scores. 

Some will mention an absence of cuteness or edge, basically, defenders who’ll do anything to stop a forward winning ball or scoring. It might not be a coincidence that Cork’s local senior championship especially seems to routinely throw out extremely high-scoring games. The county final of 4-12 to 3-13 for example.

There’s time in this though, where players need experience and games against top forwards to develop. Look at Cork from the last time Cork played Tyrone in 2009: Quirke, Carey (in his debut season), Shields, Lynch, O’Leary, Canty, Miskella. That’s a lot of defensive years and knowledge. 

Noel O'Leary, Graham canty and Anthony Lynch stop Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Noel O'Leary, Graham canty and Anthony Lynch stop Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Now look at the Kerry game a fortnight ago. A goalkeeper and two corner-backs in their rookie seasons. Two more defenders with four and six championship starts in total. 

Sean White, playing as a kind of roving half-forward/half-back, in his first season starting games. Cian Kiely coming in this weekend for his debut start. There’s a pile of defensive knowhow to catch up on, just on having the tools and the confidence to deal with fairly unforgiving elite forward lines. Kerry didn’t have much pity and neither will Dubs or Donegal if Cork progress. 

High on the priority list for Ronan McCarthy will have been bringing down Cork’s average scores conceded by whatever means necessary and if he’s unlikely to park the bus now, he will look for Cork to make more contact and be tighter in individual battles, in hunting the player on the ball more aggressively, which they did quite well against Tipp in fairness. 

Cork did bring bodies back into the middle third against Kerry but they were bypassed too easily and the sweeper wasn’t allowed influence the game by Kerry’s clever ball movement. Cork are still looking for answers and it’ll be awfully tough to progress without solving this puzzle.

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