The GAA's best forwards have a way of reminding us why they're irreplaceable 

The GAA's best forwards have a way of reminding us why they're irreplaceable 
Cork's Patrick Horgan was back to his best against Tipp. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan

The Barry O'Donovan GAA column

WHEN Cork broke out of defence with the ball in injury-time last Sunday and the game with Tipp very much in the balance it didn’t take all that long to see exactly how they planned on working the winning score. 

Space opened up in the right corner-forward position to bounce a ball into and if it was a little surprising that Tipp hadn’t closed off that particular route given the difficulty it’d be causing, well, it said plenty that when Cork needed a score most they headed straight for Patrick Horgan. 

He took possession sharply, did that little shimmy to make room and turned inside to wallop the winning point off his left. It was interesting as there’s been talk and little movements in the last while that’ve suggested Horgan’s time as a core player might be under threat, that Cork might somehow not necessarily need his particular skillset any longer. 

Yet if Cork have been developing a long-term plan that doesn’t involve him, it didn’t show last weekend. A 15-point performance against an All-Ireland champion team was a pretty decent way to respond and if there’s always tended to be questions about what Horgan doesn’t bring to the table they sort of ignore a few key points about what he does bring. 

One, he brings scores, that ability to consistently tot up big numbers and it’s impossible to overestimate just how difficult it can be to replicate that simple scoring power. Two, evidently he’s not ready to hand over that job just yet. Three, do Cork have someone quite ready to take it over even if Horgan had to be replaced?

Patrick Horgan of Cork is congratulated by manager Kieran Kingston after scoring the winning point. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Patrick Horgan of Cork is congratulated by manager Kieran Kingston after scoring the winning point. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

It can be strange sometimes how overlooked or taken for granted the scorer-in-chief’s role is and it doesn’t always follow that any scoring forward can make that step from being expected to contribute three or four scores a game to your team relying on nine or ten scores every day out. Horgan’s been doing this for an age now and knows the sort of mentality and hunger needed to produce match-winning scores and match-winning tallies. 

Conor Lehane hit 0-10 against Kilkenny a few weeks back which seemed to indicate a certain changing of the guard but the last time a Cork forward got 10 scores in a league or championship game whose name wasn’t Patrick Horgan? Ben O’Connor against Tipp in summer 2009. 

In the meantime Horgan’s hit 10 scores or more in 21 league and championship games for Cork. Yes we know Horgan takes the frees and that’s a guaranteed starting point but that’s still an awful lot of days where he put his hand up and kept up his side of the scoring agreement. 

Cork managements would have had winning targets in mind for those games and would have needed a guarantee of a certain amount of scores from Horgan; he’s brought that and it seems an unrealistic stretch to think those scores could be just replaced with no fuss or pain. Cork could find any number of hurlers who’ll hook block and tackle more effectively and another shot of good hurlers who’ll do their bit being creative with the ball and perhaps be more involved in general play. 

But someone willing to be the go-to guy and who’ll be able for the extra attention and then will have the ability to get those scores out on the field? Not all that common. Cork don’t have other hurlers with Patrick Horgan’s striking for scores and ball skills.

By the way, we can kind of include Colm O’Neill and the Cork footballers in this discussion. There’ve been similar enough murmurs in the last year or two about whether maybe Cork can be more balanced in attack without O’Neill and then they play games without him, struggle badly to score and he does something silly like come on and kick five points (maybe three of which nobody else on the field would be capable of) and we all remember why it wasn’t such a good idea in the first place. 

Cork look more like scoring the goals and points necessary to beat teams at any level when O’Neill is on the field and similar to Horgan, that’s got to be a priority in discussions about what various forwards bring to the team in certain positions.

There’s this tendency to apportion blame more willingly to these players when things go wrong and that can skewer reality too. Cork’s bad days have tended to coincide with Horgan’s but though one doesn’t necessarily follow the other, it’s hardly unusual either. 

An off-day for Cork can mean very little controlled possession, no fluency or confidence in touch, a pile of long balls bombed thoughtlessly into the forwards to fight for and that’s more or less the exact conditions to not get the best out of Horgan. 

Ditto O’Neill with Cork footballers, whose attacking malfunctions tend to rob him of any decent possession in score-getting positions. If you’ve a guy like Patrick Horgan on the team who can rack up a 0-12 and he ends up with say, 0-4 (or in O’Neill’s case, a player who’s always capable of hitting a 1-6 but ends up with 0-2), then it’s probably more about the team and management finding solutions to getting him those extra possessions and scores rather than the notion they’d be better off trying without them. 

If anything Horgan and O’Neill have been pretty unlucky to be the scoring forwards for two teams who’ve struggled for form and to create a lot of scoring chances in the last five or six years. Imagine the wreck Horgan might have done in the mid-noughties for example or the scores O’Neill might have helped himself to in a less defensive footballing era. 

There will of course come a time when Cork need to move on. 

Last weekend was a nice, not-so-gentle reminder that they’re still the most proven scoring machines out there, for what that’s worth.

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