WAY back in spring 2005 Cork footballers had a tight tough league game with Tyrone in Páirc Uí Rinn.
Stephen O’Neill gave an exhibition the same day, but the day sticks out mainly because of sitting in front of a Cork supporter who basically found something to complain about every single time a Cork player did anything (even the throw-in) for the 35 minutes he was there.
If the memory serves as reminder that watching Cork football has rarely been a completely joyful experience it’s still hard to think of a time that’s been quite such a relentlessly tough watch as the last while.
Cork spent the league desperately searching for form and confidence and an idea of what they’re about yet it’s been difficult to locate any real sense of momentum building and we’ve left almost every game with more negatives and question marks than nailed down reasons to be hopeful.
The Galway game was a wasted chance to close a tight game out. Kildare was a complete blowout.
Clare was worse. Meath was a collapse from the point of victory. Down was more dead than alive.
That adds up to two non-performances, two extremely dispiriting draws, one slightly less dispiriting yet very annoying draw and two wins over the relegated sides (and even the Fermanagh game left its share of grumbling) from the seven games.
Cork just haven’t managed to shake off that grim atmosphere that’s around the place by either finding enough individual form from the players or developing a recognisable style of play that might suggest something was building.
There haven’t been enough moments of quality or where it’s been obvious what Cork are trying to do on the field.
Tactically, there had been an attempt to get the team moving up and down as more of a group and though it left them more open in defence when everyone pushed up, Cork have looked to target turnovers in packs a little more aggressively.
Cork haven’t conceded in the same numbers as last year but part of that must be down to the lesser firepower of Division 2 and they still didn’t look capable of actually stopping opposition scoring when necessary – only Fermanagh were kept to under 13 points conceded and there were spells of the Kildare, Clare, Meath and Down games especially where Cork looked like giving up a chance every time the ball came into their defensive area.
Spaces haven’t always been filled effectively in defence, there’ve been blasts from the sideline in almost every game for some lack of communication by one of the defensive seven and it was strange for example, how easily Meath managed to create a one-v-one so close to goal in the last minute of a game Cork led by a point.
Moving the ball from defence to attacking areas hasn’t been fluent or clinical enough and there hasn’t been an obvious trail that’d tell what sort of attacking team Cork are going to become.
In the first half up in Galway they kicked the ball into space for Paul Kerrigan a lot, in the Fermanagh game Kerrigan looked dangerous arriving from deeper and for parts of the Meath game the Peter Kelleher/O’Neill combination looked to have potential but there are still calls on the balance in the half-forward line between the kick-passing of say Mark Collins, Luke Connolly and the different energy of Kevin O’Driscoll and Aidan Walsh or John O’Rourke.
Against Kildare, Cork got sucked into contact by not moving the ball with conviction through the middle third. Against Meath and Down especially it was striking to see from behind the goals how Cork found it hard to locate an option for the man in possession when working the ball from defence, how they struggled to take opposition players out of the game with direct forward passes.
Cork seemed content to just kick the ball out to the full-back line when free without necessarily having a pattern for what happens then and there’ve been too many individual decisions on the ball that haven’t quite matched what teammates have been expecting to happen.
There have been some positives if you’re willing to look. Ruairi Deane has been a real find at midfield so far and has managed to mix Alan O’Connor’s work-rate and heft with a touch for scores as well, though there are bigger tests ahead against say Tipp even, never mind the Morans and the Fentons.
Colm O’Neill has again been a source of most of the scoring magic – the four points from play in the second half up in Galway all had some touch of his class and 0-20 from the two games with Meath and Derry was pretty impressive totting of points – even if the lack of a goal and the two late placed balls missed against Galway and Down will have annoyed him.
The defence has been stable which should allow it form a unit as the year goes on and Cork appear closer to knowing what they think is their best 15. But that’s hardly near enough and the list of unknowns is still far bigger than anyone would like heading back to the clubs and then into summer.
Cork haven’t been destroyed by any individual forward but they haven’t been tested against a Geaney or O’Donoghue or McBrearty either so we’re not sure on the man-marker specialist.
There’s still more a tendency towards vulnerability when the pressure comes on and management have again referenced that perhaps the mental scars from the recent run of defeats cut deeper than they’d realised. We don’t know what happens if and when the Colm O’Neill well dries up.
Cork have maybe six weeks from early-May to mid-June to solve enough of these issues and even then, that’s probably just covering competitiveness and lessening the potential for devastation.
The top four or five look a long way off in all sorts of ways.
After the game last weekend Peadar Healy spoke about needing to find a pitch for training for when the team gets back together.
That list of problems is still longer than hoped.