SO, THAT positivity stage didn’t last long.
The Cork football cycle of hope and despair (ok, mainly despair) of the last several years has been condensed into the last month.
A performance of real purpose against Tipp suggested something of substance, a couple of weeks of promising talk and murmurings from people like Paddy Kelly and Billy Morgan and Jim McGuinness that this might be different had expectations of a proper game with Kerry for the first time in ages.
And then another horribly deflating night down the Páirc where Cork looked as far from the skills and movements and pace of Kerry as at any time in the last decade. Cue the usual talk of crisis and low points and blame of management/players/county board.
This all feels fairly familiar, Cork trying to rescue their season after a Kerry lesson but there’s something else there in the background with the Super 8s offering a shot at redemption or a possibility of embarrassment depending on your viewpoint.
Honestly, this is an actual thing this last week or two, where a certain element of Cork support is wondering if a trip to Donegal and a visit from the Dubs is really in the best interests of this Cork team at this stage of development.
And yet it must offer the best chance of taking the necessary steps surely.
Ronan McCarthy has been working on a fairly basic plan to build a team in year one, without a really complex system to hide behind and based on running hard in numbers, defending aggressively and just committing to positive football as much as possible.
Cork had enough belief and individual form for Tipp but there wasn’t enough depth built up or quality to sustain the pressure of a top team asking more probing questions.
Cork aren’t ready this year for Kerry or Dublin but for players like say Sam Ryan, Kevin Flahive, Kevin Crowley, Cian Kiely, Sean and Mark White, the experience of three extra games against the best teams in the country would be crucial for improvements and to help locate the more consistent level of performances management and players reference constantly.
Cork need game time to find themselves now more than starting from scratch again next spring.
The list of problems isn’t new and it’s not necessarily an obvious solution either, where one player or tactic can fix it all in two weeks.
The defence still concedes too much to the better teams and there was something particularly galling about the ease Kerry racked up chance after chance the last time - it’s almost impossible for Cork to win any game if their opponents break the 20-point mark consistently. Kerry have done it several times and so have Tipp, Mayo, Donegal, Kildare in the last few years in championship alone.
If the defence was reasonably sharp and aggressive in Thurles, Kerry were consistently able to kick-pass balls in front of their inside-forward line to create one-v-ones, or create spaces in front of Cork’s goal for runners like Paul Murphy and Sean O’Shea to arrive and take shots.
Cork must use the personnel they have to become cleverer at defending the scoring zones, at managing one-v-one situations more effectively or else at ensuring they don’t happen.
Tyrone will offer a different challenge of angled runners from deep and counter-attacks and it might take some time for Cork to adapt.
Stopping Peter Harte dictate from that middle third and Mattie Donnelly getting ball in certain positions will be important.
Cork will target keeping Tyrone under 15 or 16 scores. Possession from kick-outs has been an ongoing issue and Kerry’s clear targeting press exposed a Cork kick-out that’s only in the early stages of development with a promising new keeper.
The Ulster final showed the modern and complex tactical battleground of the kick-out and both Mayo’s and Clare’s defeats last weekend basically both came about when they started having problems on their own restarts.
Two things. If Cork want Mark White to boom it long, they’ll need to be far faster to the breaking ball.
If they want the short option, they’ll have to make sure runners don’t get isolated in ones and twos in possession.
Tyrone may press or more likely allow Cork possession and attack the ball as they come up the field.
And here’s where Cork have the winning and losing of the game, that middle section of collisions and bodies and Cork’s ability to move the ball beyond the traps and the tackles and into the hands of Luke Connolly and the Hurleys, (minus Colm O’Neill which immediately brings Cork’s target score down a few points).
Cork weren’t able to figure out Kerry’s block and there were times in the middle of that first half especially where passes were given and solos were taken for the sake of doing something simply because they weren’t sure where to find the running lanes for Ian Maguire or Ruairi Deane like they had against Tipp.
Tyrone’s defensive system isn’t watertight (19 scores conceded to Monaghan and Meath) but it’ll ask questions of Cork’s ball movement and spaces won’t be easy to find for runners.
Again there’s more pressure on Luke Connolly to offer most of a match-winning tally and Cork will need contributions from around midfield (Brian O’Driscoll’s shooting from long-range could be crucial) and half-back even to put together the necessary score.
If there was any bright point v Kerry it was Ruairi Deane’s continued emergence as a serious influence with two-goal assists and again he’ll have to be a key mover of ball for Cork.
Goals will be game-changing as Cork look unlikely to find the 19/20 point mark otherwise.
More than anything, Cork must decide what sort of team they want to be now.
The feelgood conviction v Tipp was lost in the Munster final where there was just this clear doubt in themselves like they remembered their place again mid-game and stopped committing completely to each run or pass or tackle.
A performance is never a given and is no longer a guarantee of success either. This narrative of a Cork underperformance against Kerry isn’t necessarily the case, it may be just where Cork are right now. Cork could play quite well and lose but are very unlikely to play badly and win.
Ronan McCarthy will want 8/10 performances from most lines on the field. A bit of controlled madness and intensity might get that extra 10%.
It’s pretty simple. Win and the season and beyond opens up.
Lose, Cork spend another summer watching all the fun and miles from where they wanted to be.