IT'S a year or two ago now that we had a chat with someone involved with Cork underage football development squads and the conversation turned to the kind of player presenting at the academies at the time.
No shortage of half-backs or half-forwards was the abbreviated response and the longer explanation told of a huge amount of athletic, pacy ballplayers comfortable moving the ball through the middle third of the field (sort of in keeping with the demands of the modern game) but a real lack of specialists around the field – proper defenders, traditional midfielders, main scoring forwards.
It’s not necessarily unique to Cork, this development of players with the same skillset, yet while a county will nearly always come up with a talented scoring forward every few years and a capable midfielder a little less often, the defensive gap can become a problem.
The thought popped into our heads in the stand in Mallow again last weekend as the reality hit of heading into a year down basically the two defenders who’ve been the Cork football defence for the past decade, Michael Shields and Eoin Cadogan.
Shields was ever present more or less since his debut in 2006 (apart from time away in 2008 and 2016), Cadogan’s had some hurling time out but has had the most of seven or eight year as first choice and either way it’s an awfully long time since Cork hasn’t had one or both players with control over the full-back line.
We’ve spoken about Shields’ defensive excellence here previously but even that wasn’t his most natural function, at least not at the start anyway, and he generally looked like a half-back doing a really decent job of filling in at full-back because there was nobody else to do it.
Cadogan himself was always a driving wing-back on the underage teams that were successful at U21 especially.
And still it leaves a hole.
James Loughrey came to Cork as a footballing wing-back but has been squeezed into the manmarking role a lot in his few years.
Jamie O’Sullivan is still around and has actually gotten plenty of the tougher assignments in recent times.
Cork had two players with no experience at senior intercounty level inside there against Clare and a player who’s played most his football in the middle third and it was definitely a work in progress in scouting for potential rookies.
Clare scored 3-12 and really looked extremely dangerous from every sort of ball that went in – they were first to any second balls from breaks, they won a lot of the fifty-fifty ball sent in high or low, they made runs to the sides and got hit in the spaces – and basically looked capable of creating a shot at goal every time they had possession inside the Cork forty-five.
Add in a transitional phase at goalkeeper as well, where Ken O’Halloran has gone and there are four or five young keepers with little enough experience of intercounty level and nobody to really guide them through it and there just isn’t the possibility of a number one talking a new full-back line through a league campaign as they’ll have enough to do to settle themselves, sort kickouts and so on.
There are ongoing underlying issues here of course.
Cork teams haven’t shown the inclination or the ability to stop teams scoring for a while now and it makes things awfully hard if there’s always a possibility of giving up twenty points plus at any stage.
Cork conceded twenty-six points in Killarney last summer in a game that they never looked sure of how to stop Geaney and O’Donohue getting shots at goal even with bodies around them and there was lots of talk afterwards of getting tighter to men and working harder to put pressure on the ball; they conceded twenty-seven scores to Mayo and even if that included extra-time it still gave an indication on this incapacity to close a team’s attacking game down.
The year before Donegal scored 0-21 and the Donegal players have referenced it since as just an incredibly open game of football where the idea never occurred to anyone of shutting the space in front of goal down.
There’s little sign of this being an isolated thing either.
The U21s gave up 2-16 to Kerry last year (and the minors conceded 2-17 to Kerry, though that was probably average for that Kerry attack to be fair).
The senior county final last year ended 4-12 to 3-13, wickedly entertaining but hardly suggestive of teams blessed in the art of defence and the premier intermediate final had both teams combining for thirty-seven scores, 1-17 to 0-19.
There’s something in Cork football currently where high scoring is more common than not and it might be as much to do with lack of basic defensive work or nous as it is some kind of unstoppable attacking flair.
The interest now is in Ronan McCarthy’s and Cork’s ability to roll with this or change it.
McCarthy played corner-back himself for Cork and is considered the kind of coach who will look to work on and improve technical and positional skills of individual players.
There are a few possibilities here.
Perhaps Cork aren’t producing any of these players now, that the young lads coming through are all identikit footballers of a certain type that can do a job from 5-12 only and McCarthy and his coaching team will need to create a few projects where they can teach a number five to be a number two with gametime and training and exposure to top corner-forwards.
A trawl through the club and recent underage scene could turn up one or two raw natural defenders capable of doing a job on a Cillian O’Connor or a Paul Mannion or a Conor Sweeney.
A very defensive set-up with loads of bodies inside the forty-five to cover seems unlikely so anyone playing 2-4 in this team will have to be confident defending one-v-one situations.
Something to watch for the coming months.