IF anything summed up the slightly bonkers rollercoaster of the Cork football experience it may have been a few Saturdays ago where we got the full monty from bad to ugly to pretty good in basically a couple of hours.
By half-time of the Tipp game Colm O’Rourke had called it embarrassing, Matt Cooper had tweeted his humiliation, more or less every person I know who watches Cork football had communicated their discomfort and it seemed fairly plain just how badly the whole thing was falling apart. And yet, less than forty minutes later we’d gotten glimpses of what can happen when a group of players discover something. Michael Shields referred afterwards to the reaction as being the most important thing and in this case, it was a bunch finding resolve and deciding they weren’t going to be that team who loses again and who found a way to win.
The most impressive aspect? Cork’s refusal to collapse when it might have been easy to do so, twice especially in the second half. The response at 0-6 to 0-1 early in the second period where the feeling in the ground had basically shifted to resignation and the players instead turned the dial up, started moving the ball with more conviction and created chances to grab the game back. The response when that late Tipp goal went in, from Michael Shields kickpass to Barry O’Driscoll’s run into space, Mark Collins run at pace and willingness to commit again, James Loughrey’s energy to create the extra man, all suggested a team that hasn’t given up on itself.
On that day it meant an awful lot to Cork footballers and Cork football; whether it was meaningful in the longer-term we’re about to find out. The dynamic has shifted now. Waterford and Tipp became games Cork just couldn’t allow themselves lose and the mentality must be moved from fear of losing to actually convincing themselves a win is possible down in Kerry.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side isn’t a team that inspires total awe but it’s well capable of inflicting a heavy loss all the same and Peadar Healy and the players must find that balance now in attitude between having a go and losing the run of themselves. Shields also referred to a control in the second half of the Tipp game and Cork did find that mix of abandon to commit numbers forward who really desired to influence the ball positively and calmness to take the right option in using the ball or shooting at goal at the correct time.
Jim McGuinness explained how Down managed to bring bodies into defence but still commit totally to attacking when they needed to against Monaghan. Almost all of the scores in the second half for Cork involved a runner breaking a tackle or taking a Tipp player out of the game. Cork snatched at chances and positions in the first half but in the second half they were far cooler in making decisions – that move for the winning goal we’ve already mentioned could easily have broken down on any of four or five occasions without calm heads.
Mentally though Cork have to find that edge where they’re able to dictate the collisions as if they get bullied down in Killarney it’s unlikely to end well.
There are key areas, though many are linked to mentality and attitude of both teams as well. Kerry might feel Cork haven’t been tested yet on their own kick-outs (both Waterford and Tipp backed off generally) and choose to push numbers up to put pressure on the goalkeeper and any defenders in possession deep in their own half – the use of Alan O’Connor as a ball-winner becomes key for this kind of scenario. Cork have decisions to make on the Paul Geaney-James O’Donoghue situation, firstly who those two man-markers are and secondly whether that’s really a two-man job.
Nightmare scenario, by the way, is a repeat of Tipperary’s first two points of the second half a few weeks ago where their inside-forwards were isolated two-v-two in a lot of space. Cork’s defenders will need to be brave – both Kevin Crowley and Jamie O’Sullivan attacked ball well subsequently to win possession from ball kicked in – but Cork won’t want their defence to need to make those decisions too often either.
The make-up of Cork’s middle eight will tell us a lot about the approach and their ability to influence the game will massively affect the performance. Kerry’s middle section has been the only one with the athleticism and football to go toe-to-toe with Dublin. When Cork flowed in the second half that rhythm originated from the ability to run with the ball of the likes of Loughrey and Collins.
You’d imagine the instructions to Sean Powter were extremely limited – something along the lines of get on the ball and run very fast – and his use and the timing of it will be interesting on Sunday. Do Cork trust him enough to start down in Killarney? Is there really space for him and say Barry O’Driscoll, who has history of doing wreck on Kerry and who added real quality and purpose to the attacking movements against Tipp – he looked to take men on, scored a decent point, was involved in the goal. The scores must come more freely and it’d be very odd if the 1-12 and 1-10 Cork has managed so far was enough here.
Colm O’Neill again hit zero from play against Tipp, he had 1-6 in Killarney two years ago. Luke Connolly’s 1-2 is a real bonus but might not be realistic each day out yet. Paul Kerrigan’s three or four scores and leadership each day out has become a real force.
Look, the facts don’t really lie. We all know it’s ages since Cork won in Killarney. They haven’t beaten Kerry in summer since 2012. Kerry have an All-Ireland in their sights and Cork struggled past Waterford little over a month ago. It’s hard to recall a more unfancied Cork team going to face Kerry and the majority of possibilities you can concoct in your head involve a Kerry win; even a decent performance from Cork has no guarantee of victory (2015 and 2010 tells us that).
Yet it’s hard to recall a Cork team who’ve needed a win like this more and we’ve seen with the hurlers or even Down last weekend how a game can open up a summer. Playing with freedom and attitude needs to be step one, the rest can follow.