It’s an interesting phenomenon to hear people talk about the ‘right way’ to play a game.
Essentially, what they mean is a style that appeals visually to the watching public, even though many of that constituency will not have an emotional stake in how well the team does.
In misty-eyed hurling terms, that means 15 on 15, leave the ball in long for the man inside to win it and, if there’s time, some pulling on the ground and an overhead double or two. If it was good enough for the greats of the past, it should be good enough for the players of now, the thinking goes.
However, such a view ignores the fact that sports are always evolving. Steve Davis was not yet 32 when he beat John Parrott 18-3 in the 1989 World Snooker Championship final but he didn’t win any more, with Stephen Hendry becoming the dominant force of the 1990s as Davis’s conservatively efficient style was left behind. In contrast, Mark Selby, who recently won his fourth world title, was nearly 31 when he claimed his first but players nowadays have far more longevity.
In association football, 4-4-2 was once the ubiquitous formation of choice but now it’s seen as somewhat stone-age with 4-2-3-1 seen as a better option, while closer to home the Donegal side managed by Jim McGuinness is a prime example of a team getting to the top by going against the grain.
Having seen the team swatted aside by Cork in 2009 and Armagh in 2010, McGuinness knew that he had to change things up when he graduated from the U21 role to the senior job in 2011. It might not have been pretty, but a team – especially in an amateur sport, where wage packets aren’t contingent on performance and results – is accountable only to itself. Show us somebody who wants to lose a classic rather than win a dour struggle and you’ll probably be showing us a liar.
Which brings us to the Cork hurlers. While the style of play on show in the opening stages of the Allianz Hurling League is far from a hurling version of Donegal, it does bear a lot of hallmarks to the running game perfected during the managerial stints of Donal O’Grady and John Allen from 2003-06.
With O’Grady back in the fold, comparisons have naturally been drawn and, going by a selection of social-media comments on Saturday night, people outside of Cork aren’t overly enamoured with it. Short version: hurling’s in a bad way and the sky is falling in. Worse, “it’s like football”.
Will that bother anybody in the Cork camp? It certainly shouldn’t, after a win and a draw against last year’s Munster and All-Ireland finalists and the 2019 champions, respectively. If the Cork management reckoned that they couldn’t get the better of Tipp in the air by going long with puckouts, then holding on to the ball and working it up the field was the logical course to go. Only the most naïve teams would play into their opponents’ hands.
In any case, it shouldn’t be overlooked that it was Tipp who played with a sweeper, setting the terms of engagement from the off, while Cork outscored them by two goals to none. A more balanced free count could have seen Cork start the league with two wins for the first time since 2012.
The willingness to go for the goals is again encouraging. During the warm-up, the team worked in groups of three, interchanging passes as they ran towards goal before shooting. Within two minutes, one of these exact moves played out and Alan Cadogan eschewed an easy point in favour of setting up Jack O’Connor for a goal chance.
The shot went wide, but that didn’t discourage Cork and the two goals that did materialise came from driving runs through the middle by Tim O’Mahony and Darragh Fitzgibbon, with O’Mahony and Patrick Horgan getting the goals.
Seven green flags from two outings is a definite move in the right direction and it keeps Cork on course to exceed their tally of 11 goals in five goals from last year’s league. The frayed nature of the 2020 season meant that that couldn’t be used as a championship platform; this time around the compacted schedule should see a better follow-through.