WE could harp on about Cork’s lack of ball-winners in the forward line for the umpteenth time, or debate Mark Coleman and Tim O’Mahony’s best positions, but on close inspection perhaps Cork’s issue in big games has been their in-game management, and in particular their substitutions.
Against Limerick, in the Munster semi-final defeat, Cork only managed four points after the second-half water break, even if they were looking for goals late on. Despite Limerick clearly wobbling, Cork could not get the ball to stick in their forward line.
Shane Barrett came on for Conor Cahalane in the 44th minute, Luke Meade replaced Seamus Harnedy in the 50th minute, with the last member of the half-forward line being called ashore soon after, Alan Cadogan for Robbie O’Flynn.
Blarney youngster Barrett impressed, slotting two of Cork’s 10 second-half points, but the key point here is that he was replacing a player selected for his work-rate and physicality, not Barrett’s game.
Meade replacing Harnedy was hardly going to improve matters in this respect either. He has positive attributes but was never likely to outbattle Diarmuid Byrnes and Kyle Hayes.
The Cork management opted for lively attackers to ignite a late charge, but the balance was completely wrong by the end. Hence the Limerick defence had it so easy in the last quarter, even with Cork defence top at the other end.
And it isn’t like this is a once-off either.
In Cork’s last league match this year, where a win over Galway would have actually earned top spot in Division 1A, Cork endured a second-half fade-out, losing 2-23 to 3-25.
The Rebels had led by six at half-time but were five down by the final whistle, and until their subs were still right in it, as they were level at the second water break.
Then Cork did their usual ploy of replacing their ball-winners across the 65, as both Harnedy and Cahalane were withdrawn in the 53rd minute, for O’Flynn and Alan Connolly. Galway took over and won pulling up.
The lesson from that afternoon was not learned.
In that game, Declan Dalton and Tadhg Deasy were both brought on in the last few minutes but it was all too late by then, as the tide had turned.
There are many similar examples from the last few years. Cork exited the championship last year against Tipp, losing by 2-18 to 1-17.
They looked to be in a winning position early on, but when physical reinforcements were required for the inevitable dog fight that would transpire in the last quarter the management only brought on a clearly injured Darragh Fitzgibbon for Dalton in the 50th minute and Conor Lehane in a like-for-like switch with Jack O’Connor in the 59th minute. The Cork forward line got bullied and Tipp predictably got over the line.
In 2019, when Patrick Horgan shot the lights out against Kilkenny in a losing cause, Cork brought on O’Flynn and Shane Kingston for Lehane and Kearney, with Tim O’Mahony introduced at midfield, when he was much needed further up, as the Cork puck-out collapsed.
And earlier in that campaign it was a similar story in Ennis, as Cork lost by five, which cost them a place in the Munster final, with the 51st minute subbing off Aidan Walsh for Lehane looking particularly suspect, given the wet conditions that day, as well as the ferocity of the Banner challenge.
Cork management are clearly taking the approach of introducing scoring forwards when the game has ‘loosened up’ except this clearly has not worked. Instead, the Cork attack’s shape seems to completely disintegrate when they attempt this.
This lesson must be learned if fortunes are to improve.
At this stage of his career, Harnedy is not lasting the full 70 minutes anymore, and you could easily argue that he is much more important to Cork in the final quarter than the opening one. Likewise, maybe Cork can move O’Mahony up to the half-forward line late on?
There are many ways in which Cork can improve their fortunes in this regard, but one thing is for sure, they cannot just keep doing what they are doing.