Old guard still leading the way for Rebel footballers which doesn't hint a brighter future

Old guard still leading the way for Rebel footballers which doesn't hint a brighter future

Alan O’Connor of Cork supported by Ian McGuire in action against Odhran MacNiallais and Rory Kavanagh of Donegal. The veterans led the way last Saturday. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

The Barry O'Donovan Column

IF a lack of clarity and a general sense of not really knowing what’s coming next has tended to go hand in hand with following the Cork footballers this last number of years, still they manage to surprise us.

Something we were reasonably sure of driving to Dungarvan? Cork would win pretty handily and there was zero chance of a defeat.

Something we expected? They’d probably give a performance.

Things we were extremely sure of coming home from Dungarvan a short few hours later? Cork players and management were about to ship an awful lot of criticism (again) and this wasn’t the night to shift the narrative from this nagging negativity to any sense of belief in this group.

Turns out we only got one of those thoughts anywhere near right and if a lot of the same voices are saying a lot of the same things that get rolled out for every Cork football crisis, it’s not clear that a lot of the analysis really gets the point yet.

For one example, the U21 record seems too easy an argument and a bit of an irrelevance at this stage; the pathway of success from U21 to senior is never obvious and tradition at senior is still more of a factor. When you hear Billy Morgan, a man who knows more about Cork football than just about anyone, on sportsjoe.ie not quite able to put his finger on the problem, you know it’s a tricky one.

The big issues (structures and boards and management) aren’t for mid-summer and can’t be agreed anyway. The smaller in-game details lack consistency of vision mostly and there were maybe two moments in the entire game last weekend where we were completely and 100% certain what was about to happen.

Cork's Donncha O'Connor after the defeat by Kildare in 2015. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Cork's Donncha O'Connor after the defeat by Kildare in 2015. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

One, when Donncha O’Connor got the ball he was going to shoot. You could almost tell as soon as you saw him standing on the sideline waiting to come on that he was going to have an impact and that things were going to be alright now.

It’s a remarkable thing to be able to affect a championship game in that way. We recall a similar feeling when O’Connor came into a game against Mayo in 2014, changed the flow, scored 1-3 and almost won the game for Cork and it’s pretty impressive that the guy is still able to do this.

First ball that was kicked into the right-corner forward position O’Connor took possession in a bit of space and if there were other options – it wasn’t the most obvious natural shooting position on the field, there were runners to take a simple handpass – there was no sense whatsoever that these other options came into his head for even a second. O’Connor turned and shot in the same movement and the ball thumped against the far post and yet the statement had been set down that he was going to take on whatever shots presented themselves.

Not long afterwards Paul Kerrigan dropped a pass into O’Connor’s hands in the same position out on the right wing. O’Connor took his time, settled himself back onto his left foot and curled a lovely shot over the bar.

He added a free and another point from play and really just brought a sense of purpose to a Cork attack that hadn’t looked very purposeful very often, added a target-man inside who had the movement to create space to be hit with ball and then everything he did with the ball in his hands was full of that assurance, that I-got-this-under-control feeling.

The second time we were sure? At some stage as the game became stretched in the last quarter the referee gave a hop ball near the main stand.

Alan O’Connor stood in for Cork with one of the Waterford midfielders, I think it was Michael Curry. For one second the two players stood together and there was just no doubt whatsoever in that moment that Alan O’Connor would do whatever was necessary to get his hands on the ball.

The ref threw the ball in, O’Connor shifted his opponent off balance and caught the ball with his free hand to win possession, the Cork crowd roared approval and Cork moved onwards with the ball at a crucial time.

The funny thing was there was another hop ball very shortly afterwards in just the same position - again O’Connor lined up and again it was immediately obvious that he’d win the ball and again he won the ball in exactly the same way to an even bigger roar of approval.

The thought struck that if there was any Cork player you’d back to win a battle for possession in any circumstances it’d probably be Alan O’Connor (Darragh Ó Sé seemed to have a similar ability to always win a hop ball) and it was only part of a really impressive cameo performance.

Maybe 20 seconds after O’Connor came in for Aidan Walsh, the Waterford goalkeeper had a kick-out and perhaps not yet realising the change Cork had made, he kicked the ball out long and right down the middle.

You could see the ball landing into O’Connor’s hands from way off, he cleaned out the opposition and Waterford had another reason for really not wanting to go long from kick-outs. Anytime they did he was dominant.

He turned over ball with aggressive tackling and retrieval. At one point towards the end, after another important collision was won O’Connor started to roar something at a nearby teammate. He then moved on to another Cork player and then another, booming the same defiant roar each time and if it wasn’t quite possible from the stands to hear what he was shouting, the gist was clear – we do not lose today.

The lessons from the struggle in Dungarvan can be looked at again pre-Tipp but the details mightn’t be the most enlightening anyway. It’s just about possible that Cork hadn’t been overly concerned with the intricacies of the Waterford tactical challenge and had expected to roll through without being so stretched.

There’s a suggestion that a reliance on two warriors like Donncha and Alan O’Connor for certainty at this stage isn’t the greatest sign in the world for what’s to come. For now, Cork football will take all the conviction it can get.

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