Cork club football isn't defensive enough to benefit the county team

Christy O'Connor looks at the differences between club championships on Leeside and the rest of the country and its impact on the elite level
Cork club football isn't defensive enough to benefit the county team

Micheál Burns of Kerry in action against Cork players, from left, Kieran Histon, Joe Grimes, and Matthew Taylor during the McGrath Cup final. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

A COUPLE of weeks back, former Ilen Rovers player and Cork minor footballer Alex Hassett, who lined out for St Jude’s in the 2021 Dublin senior county football final, did an insightful interview in the Echo.

Having played his club football at a senior level in both Cork and Dublin, Hassett noted a couple of significant differences between the two championships.

“The Dublin senior championship is ahead,” he said. “It’s very rare that you’ll see tackles being broken due to the physical conditioning of players.

“Defensive systems also make sure that even if you break one tackle, you’re probably just going to run into traffic anyway so there’s often no point. The level of preparation from a tactical point of view is the main thing that stands out.”

The team which St Jude’s lost to in that final — Kilmacud Crokes — are in Saturday’s All-Ireland final. St Finbarr’s are in the other semi-final. So in that context, is there that much of a gap between both club championships?

EXCITING

The Cork championship in 2021 was excellent because so many of the games were closely contested. Some of those games were tactical arm-struggles, but too many were far too open in comparison to other counties, especially the Dublin championship.

Hassett’s main point rightly focused on the symbiosis between the tactical and physical elements of both championships. And the reality that the Dublin club scene is definitely more advanced is also clearly obvious in the differences between both county teams. Dublin had the best players during the last decade, but they were also the most powerful and tactically astute team in the championship.

Tactically and physically, Cork have not been at that level. The U20 grade is a whole different level again but Keith Ricken’s teams were always keen to play open, expansive football. Ricken will be fully aware that such a philosophy won’t work at senior level because it would be ruthlessly exposed in a cut-throat league division against seasoned, hardened outfits.

Cork's Colm O’Callaghan competes in the air against Kerry. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane
Cork's Colm O’Callaghan competes in the air against Kerry. Picture: INPHO/Bryan Keane

Sometimes, defensive and counter-attacking footballing gets too easily labelled ugly football, or not compatible with that county’s tradition and style, but there is a real skill in how different gameplans are constructed and executed to win games.

It was summer league football last year but in their last two games against Clare and Westmeath, Cork conceded 1-18 and 0-25. Those totals could have been far higher. 

And the defensive frailties obvious on both days was ruthlessly punished by Kerry in the Munster final.

Before Cork began their McGrath Cup campaign earlier this month, Ricken said that there had been a definite focus on the training ground on individual defending and one-on-one combat. Having attended as many county championship matches as possible, the openness of so many of those games was clear to the manager.

“In relation to forwards, the county seems to be awash with good forwards, but I’d be really looking forward to what we can learn defence-wise,” said Ricken a few weeks back. “When I say defence-wise, I am looking at forwards as well, that they are able to defend, win back their own ball and turn over an opponent.”

Cork manager Keith Ricken after his side's defeat. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cork manager Keith Ricken after his side's defeat. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Kerry are always capable of wrecking a team and, while there’s no need to panic in January, shipping 2-17 in a 12-point defeat in last Saturday’s McGrath Cup final was another reminder of how much work Cork need to do. Sunday’s opening league game away to Roscommon will be an ideal gauge to see if Cork can start developing that habit of winning games in whatever form that takes.

That comes down to character as much as talent or tactics, but one of Ricken’s greatest talents is producing teams with character and personality and belief. He knows that there will be some days when he has to set his team up more defensively than others, but Ricken has always tried to get his players to play with purpose and confidence.

PIORITY

That’s how Cork will need to attack this league because securing Division 1 football is an absolute priority if Cork are going to develop and consistently compete at the level they aspire to. That quest to secure Division 1 status won’t be easy with four away fixtures, some of which will be make-or-break games in the middle of the campaign, especially against Derry, Down and Meath. Cork will face Galway at home but Cian O’Neill’s insight into Cork will be critical after spending the two previous years as their coach.

Cork will certainly be up for the challenge under Ricken. 

He has always been a breath of fresh air in how he has continually portrayed Cork football, especially in how he has always sought to remove the negativity that has appeared encrypted into Cork’s footballing DNA for most of the last 10 years.

Yet, the manager will also accept —especially at this level — that winning games is the only real way to insulate the squad from the negativity that has consistently been hitched to Cork’s senior train over the last few years.

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