THERE may have been a time when we turned our noses up a little at league titles being racked up in the middle of Conor Counihan’s reign but for now Cork football will take what it can get.
This new team grabbed a McGrath Cup on Saturday evening and if the title itself isn’t a big deal, in the circumstances of a strong Clare comeback and a young group that looked to have thrown away a game that seemed to be in the bag, well it was nicer to win it in the end than lose it.
Ronan McCarthy came away with plenty of interest and the players will have learned an awful lot from a really decently competitive game of football for this time of year.
Still, management and supporters go to McGrath Cups to get notes on players and systems of potential for the year and for the future.
Tactically, Cork didn’t go into anything overly complex right now.
Kick-outs were more or less past the 45 and looking to hit the middle eight rather than short.
The defence set up one-v-one and it was interesting to see that when the full-back line especially was in trouble during the second half, as Clare basically seemed to realise that every time they kicked the ball in it was going to result in a chance.
There was little thought of dropping anybody back or moving defenders around to help out and it was left to the individual defenders to figure out and learn from the experience. They did eventually move Jamie O’Sullivan back to full-back for the last quarter alright.
On the ball, the team seemed a little more direct and a little more focused on kicking the ball into the forwards as quickly as possible, especially in the first twenty minutes where Cork looked like a team that’d been told to get the ball into the spaces in front of the full-forward line early.
Mark Collins was used quite effectively as a target-man in at full-forward in those early stages – he’d certainly have the awareness of space to get into good positions in there – as Cork’s middle eight all kicked the ball first time when possible and created some good chances in the opening 25 minutes or so by stretching the pitch out and creating one-v-one situations for the forwards.
It was noticeable that when Cork needed to chase the game in that last quarter it tended to revert to a more strong running game again, linking more handpasses with the bodies closer together and kicking the ball into the forward line much less.
The main conversation after a January game tends to fall back to whether any newbies put their hands up and really as you’d expect from a mostly inexperienced team, there were good signs and plenty to work on, often with the same player.
Daniel O’Callaghan had a bright first half at midfield where he didn’t dominate the skies or anything but linked play well and dinked some good passes into the forwards when given space.
Sean White had a really influential opening quarter, all involvement and strong running and willingness to get on the ball.
Kevin Crowley made the first goal with a direct run down the middle from centre-forward, used the ball cleverly in spells when Cork had control of possession but couldn’t get on ball when the middle eight got overrun in the third quarter.
Michael Hurley was all jinks and speed and ended the game with four points from play.
Stephen Sherlock was probably the guy people were most interested in after last year’s senior championship as a possible new scoring forward.
Here he showed plenty for ball and if didn’t always happen for him (he missed chances and the ball going in didn’t stick every time), well he had that important knack for a scoring forward of keeping at it.
Sherlock ended with 2-3 overall - the first goal smashed into the roof of the net when he got in behind his man, the second a poacher’s one to win the game at the end, kicked a gorgeous free that started about five yards wide to groans from the crowd before swerving back over the bar, had another two goal chances that drew saves from the goalkeeper.
Positions one up to seven were very experimental yet again there were pluses and minuses.
The defence conceded 3-12 and did look open to giving up chances against a bright Clare forward line whenever the ball was kicked in – number 13 Eimhin Courtney was especially impressive and caused problems all game.
Mark White’s kick-outs look a proper find and even if a concentration lapse gave away the third goal it’ll be considered a project worth pursuing.
Ronan McCarthy's list of positions to fill has a big gap in the full-back line now after losing Shields and Cadogan but there’s more work to do in finding or developing some man-markers and creating a defensive unit will take priority now.
Cork will move on and it was interesting to note that when the cavalry was called for in Mallow as Clare took hold of the game in the second half it was a new generation of names – Ian Maguire, Sean Powter, Ruairí Deane all came in and altered the flow of the game at some level with a different kind of power and ability and confidence with the ball. Cork won.
Players and management will know a lot more about themselves and the long road ahead.
That’s about all you need from January.