MAYBE it’s the new and novel timing of the provincial round-robin format, it still only being April, along with the cost of fuel, but the lack of numbers supporting some teams was surprising last weekend.
Clare appeared to outnumber the Tipp support in Thurles on Sunday, whereas the small amount of Waterford fans in the Gaelic Grounds the previous evening was completely at odds with the hype and expectation surrounding the team since winning the league title.
Cork had big numbers in Páirc Ui Chaoimh against Limerick two weeks ago, but how many will travel to Thurles on Sunday? If they had beaten Limerick, Cork would have expected anything up to 20,000. Now? That figure could be as low as 12,000.
That’s still a large number in today’s terms, but not for the Cork hurling machine when it is fully up and running. The machine has just stalled at the moment, but the main talking point around fans being lukewarm is focused on the hostility and anger being aimed towards the players and management.
Losing in the way they did against Limerick, especially after last year’s All-Ireland final hammering, and just two weeks after the league final defeat has only added to the disillusionment amongst supporters.
Some of the local criticism has been over the top, but it’s all just blended into the collective frustration.
None of this is surprising. Going 16 years without an All-Ireland title was never going to be acceptable in Cork but it’s even less so after successive All-Ireland U20 titles. The last time Cork won successive All-Ireland U21 titles, in 1997 and 1998, they won the 1999 All-Ireland with 11 players under 22.
Whatever the Cork public believe Cork are capable of achieving with their young talent, the days of throwing in a batch of young rookies overnight, which Cork routinely did in the past before going on to win All-Irelands, has long passed.
Cork are unlikely to get too radical in terms of changing personnel, while any alteration of their playing style will be more of a tweak than an overhaul, especially at this stage of the championship.
Their puckout numbers have to improve but the movement on the second and third ball after the short puckout has been taken against Limerick was nowhere near where it needs to be if Cork are to get those numbers up, especially when they struggle so much on long puck-outs.
In terms of personnel, the overall team structure won’t be too hard to alter. Robert Downey could return to full-back where he was outstanding against Clare last July. The time also looks right to site Ciarán Joyce at centre-back, move Mark Coleman to the wing and shift Tim O’Mahony to midfield. That formation would also free up Ger Millerick as a man-marker on Tony Kelly.
Niall O’Leary did well for a period on Kelly in last year’s championship, before Kelly cut loose, but Cork are unlikely to move O’Leary from the full-back line when he played so well there against Limerick. In any case, they need him close to goal, where Clare did most of their damage last week against Tipperary.
Seamus Harnedy should start, and possibly Jack O’Connor too. O’Connor burned the Clare defence with his pace last year, but he has failed to spark all year. Cork have been using O’Connor as an impact sub but maybe the best way of reigniting that spark is to start him.
Cork appeared to be in better form last year heading into the Clare game than they are at the moment. Conversely, are Clare a better side now?
Arguably, yes. They are down three starters – David Reidy, Colm Galvin and Aidan McCarthy – from that Cork match last July while Aron Shanagher is injured as well and Mark Rodgers (who came on) is also recovering from injury. Yet that has been offset by the return of Peter Duggan and Shane O’Donnell, both of whom were amongst Clare’s top five performers last weekend.
O’Donnell had a hand in two goals and scored two points; Duggan scored 1-2 and had the initial shot saved for Ian Galvin’s goal, while he was also fouled for two frees and was a very productive target under long puck-outs.
Clare’s tally of 3-21 was even more impressive again considering Kelly only got off three shots from play, two of which he scored.
The Clare defence struggled with Cork’s pace last year but they will start with the same back seven as last July, which underlines a level of consistency that the Cork defence doesn’t have, especially around a settled formation.
This Cork side needs space to play but if Clare sit in and drop deeper all over the field like they did for long stages against Tipp last weekend, Cork will struggle for the oxygen they need.
Cork’s season took off last year after a narrow win against Clare. They are craving a similar spark now, but there is more pressure than ever on their shoulders. Because whether a big Cork crowd does or doesn’t go to Thurles on Sunday, Cork know that they need to produce something special to fully win them back.