THOSE looking for some kind of confirmation on where exactly Cork football is perceived to stand in the overall scheme of things have been fairly bashed over the head these last few weeks.
The press box post Munster final hummed with one long conversation on how bad exactly Cork had been. The few days afterwards had pretty much every football columnist offering the usual where’s it all gone wrong analysis.
The Sunday Game last week ranked Cork somewhere in the bottom three of the teams remaining and referred to Mayo getting to Croke Park as if it’s a done deal.
The big news in Cork GAA this week is the opening of the new Páirc and if it felt like a Cork football game could have been pushed more for the potential unveiling, it’s hard to get away from the sense that the hurlers explosion of feelgood has sort of magnified the absence of that from the footballers, or that far more Cork GAA people will be down the Pairc than in Limerick this weekend.
Cork have managed to enter this last 12 while seeming an awful distance from the quarter-finals and two basic questions raise their hands.
One, do this Cork group have a performance leap in them right now after everything? Two, would that be enough against a team that almost won last year’s All-Ireland?
Ask around and the most common answers will be no and no.
Cork’s performances this summer have hit just about reasonable levels in basically the last match-winning minutes against Waterford, the second half against Tipp and part of the second quarter in Killarney and it’d seem sort of unrealistic to factor in some rolling-back-the-years-to-2012 display here.
They’ll target improvements in every aspect of play as a starting point.
The defence didn’t seem that bad individually against Kerry yet still conceded 1-23, got the run around from Geaney/ O’Donoghue/ Kerry’s overall movement and if the plan was clearly to get bodies back there needs to be a far more effective definition of jobs – how to fill the spaces in front of Cillian O’Connor, how the middle eight defend without the ball – as Kerry were allowed far too much space to pick passes and get shots away inside Cork’s forty-five.
Aidan O’Shea can’t be allowed dominate the skies and collisions completely; if he’s in the top three for man of the match, Cork will likely lose.
The goalkeeper and midfield have to find a way of getting possession from kick-outs when short options are closed off; Cork lost nine from fourteen mid-range kicks v Kerry.
The personnel in the forward line has to be restructured with a mind to working towards the 20-point total that’ll surely be needed, a forward line that hasn’t found a consistent balance and may take convincing now that it’s in them.
Cork scored 0-6 from 16 shots at goal in Killarney when it tended to be either the wrong person taking shots or from the wrong place.
It’s hard to imagine Cork finding those scores without Colm O’Neill hitting form and yet Cork haven’t found a way of making chances for him every game.
The Peter Kelleher plan hasn’t fully worked and the likes of John O’Rourke, Mark Collins and Luke Connolly haven’t been able to put a run of influential games together.
Cork ran the ball effectively against Tipp but couldn’t get the same numbers running together against Kerry to work the ball into the scoring zones.
Clare ran through Mayo at times in Ennis early on but they’ve only conceded one goal in four games and never more than 15 scores.
A season flip in form doesn’t happen often or easily.
Perfecting a defined system of play in two or three weeks isn’t possible (Jim McGuinness spoke this week of Tyrone’s process taking years) and if one or two players might turn a performance around, an entire group hitting All-Ireland semi-final contenders form from nowhere doesn’t really happen.
The best chance appears to be attitude, to basically bring thunder and lightning in a nothing-to-lose sort of way (like say, Down v Monaghan) and hope that belief can be gathered and enough individual moments of quality can be located.
Think Sean Powter’s intensity and aggression in the first half down in Kerry, Ian Maguire’s energy and work-rate in the second half with Tipp and the first half of the Munster final, Donncha’s bite when he came on last time, the general stubbornness of the second half step-up v Tipp.
A turnaround is more likely to come from a collective mental freedom than any sudden tactical breakthrough.
Cork probably need to bring some form of chaos to the game and hope they’re left standing at the end as outthinking or outplaying a further along Mayo might not work and Cork might just throw something very different into the mix in some area of the field to alter the dynamic.
A competitive performance that leads to a narrow defeat isn’t really going to cut it even if you can find some reason for hope of that.
Mayo offered chances to Galway (who took them), Derry and Clare this year but only Kerry or Dublin have knocked them out of the championship in the last four summers.
Mayo don’t have the Geaney/ O’Donoghue genius in attack but they do have All-Stars dotted through every area.
Cork would have to take goal chances (more than one probably) at the right times, avoid any complete malfunction in defence or midfield and hope for off days from O’Shea and O’Connor.
Cork actually played quite well in losing to Mayo in 2014 for spells and were decent last year for the bones of an hour against Donegal but just didn’t have enough conditioning to sustain the push or enough quality to finish opponents off.
Cork found ways to beat Waterford and Tipp this summer that weren’t enough to trouble Kerry and wouldn’t be enough to beat Mayo either. Cork need their most complete performance in some time here.
The talk and hope goes on for this one dangerous kick in Cork.
There won’t be another chance to find out.