The Christy O'Connor column: The Cork footballers got enough right to build from here

The Christy O'Connor column: The Cork footballers got enough right to build from here
Cork's Mark Collins and Colm Boyle of Mayo battle for possession. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

IN HIS ‘Cork 103’ match commentary on Saturday night in Limerick, Paudie Palmer was hoarse by the time the match went to extra-time.

With a couple of minutes to go in the second half of extra-time, Palmer sounded like he needed oxygen.

With Cork desperately trying to get the point they needed to save themselves, Palmer was almost apoplectic with excitement.

He is a Kerryman from Templenoe but the drama and excitement in Palmer’s tone and voice was clearly coming across to his local audience in Cork.

“Paul Kerrigan can’t run,” said Palmer as the clock drained down like a sand-timer. “He only has a leg and a half. But he has to run. He has to keep going.”

It was great radio but it sounded even better because nobody in Cork expected to hear Palmer get so pumped up about the Cork footballers. What’s more, it’s been a long time since anyone lost their voice commentating about this Cork team.

It was the team’s best performance since the drawn Munster final against Kerry in 2015. Nobody expected them to win that day. Fewer anticipated a performance of such sustained quality and intensity on Saturday but Cork finally produced what this group are capable off.

Throughout last week, the footballers were only an afterthought in the minds of the Cork public. The only real topic of discussion around the county was the opening of the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The silence towards the footballers was the loudest noise screaming in their ears but the group clearly decided that enough was enough.

Cork deserve huge credit. They kept fighting until they couldn’t fight anymore. Bodies were breaking down like a war-zone. Mayo’s experience really told in the second half of extra-time and, yet, Cork had two late chances from Michael Hurley and Sean White to force a replay.

The decisive period in that second half of extra-time came in a seven-minute spell. After a Kevin O’Driscoll wide, which would have put Cork two points up, Mayo owned the ball for the next seven minutes. They created seven attacks, they won four kickouts (three of which were Cork kickouts) while they eked out five shots from play.

They converted two of the first three while the fourth was a goal chance deflected out for a ’45 which Cillian O’Connor converted. The only attack Cork had in that seven-minute spell was the only time they had possession but Mayo turned them over and drove down the pitch for a counter-attack which eventually led to a point. And yet for all that Mayo dominance, they were still only clinging on at the end.

Mayo won by dominating possession but that is the only way Mayo can win games because, for all their scoring on Saturday, they still struggle to put teams away.

Mayo let control of the game slip in the second half of normal time but it still says a great deal about Cork’s performance that it took an untypical Mayo shooting display to eventually gun them down. In normal time, Mayo’s conversion rate was off the charts, 81%, nailing 21 of 26 scoring chances. They only converted six from 12 chances in extra-time but, while extra-time was an obvious factor, it was the first time that Mayo hit 27 points in a championship match against a top 12 team.

Cork weren’t as economical or clinical, converting 22 from 39 scoring chances, but 2-20 is still an impressive score, even if it was over 90 plus minutes. Cork’s running game was always going to be their best chance of opening up Mayo.

They created five goalscoring chances against Kerry and took none, and while they created five goalscoring chances again on Saturday, and took two, they could, and probably should have raised five green flags.

Mayo’s greater conditioning and experience eventually told, especially with their firm grip on possession.

Aidan O'Shea with supporters after the match. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Aidan O'Shea with supporters after the match. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Aidan O’Shea, Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Cillian O’Connor, Tom Parsons and Diarmuid O’Connor — had a colossal 189 possessions. Cillian O’Connor shot six points from play but Mayo still had ten different scorers from play.

The early tone was set by Donncha O’Connor, who was lethal and productive from just a tiny handful of possessions, but Sean Powter was Cork’s real driving force, always punching holes in the Mayo defence, always driving forward.

Cillian O’Connor deserved man-of-the-match but Powter ran him close with 22 plays, his goal being the highlight of his performance.

Cork mostly press the middle of the field, as opposed to the scoring zone, which did leave Mayo with more time and space to shoot, a licence they wouldn’t get with other teams, but Cork still got a lot right.

Their own kickout was an issue against Kerry but Ryan Price’s kickouts worked well. Mayo did win four Cork kickouts in extra-time but Cork only lost three of their own kickouts in normal time.

Cork had solid performers all over the field. Ian Maguire, Eoin Cadogan, John O’Rourke, Mark Collins and Tomas Clancy had a combined 110 possessions.

Possessions aren’t always an accurate gauge of performance but many of those were big plays.

Paul Kerrigan showed great leadership, kicking three points and having a handful of assists from 23 plays. Cork’s bench also made an impact at stages; Colm O’Neill, Ruari Deane, Michael Hurley and Luke Connolly.

In the end, Peadar Healy deserved this performance on his last day as manager after two difficult years. Making the right appointment now as his replacement is absolutely critical but Saturday should be seen as a starting point to fulfilling the potential in this Cork squad.

The image of Powter being carried off in extra-time with cramp was an apt metaphor for his display, and the bravery Cork showed all evening.

There was real honour in the way Cork went down but that should be the baseline standard of intensity, commitment and effort required — and demanded — from now on.

And if Cork can reach, and maintain, that level of consistency, then they can really go somewhere in the future..

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