JUST after Alan Connolly scored Cork’s first goal on Sunday, Shane Kingston won the Clare puck-out and provided the assist for Robbie O’Flynn to reduce the margin to four points.
O’Flynn won the next Clare restart as well, which resulted in a scuffle. Before referee Paud O’Dwyer made his decision on the incident, the Cork crowd could sense the opportunity during the break in play. They finally had a reason to find their voice for the first time all afternoon.
‘Rebels, Rebels’ boomed around the stadium. When O’Dwyer sent off Ian Galvin, a Cork comeback that seemed so unlikely for three-quarters of the match suddenly seemed on.
It wasn’t. Clare got the next three scores. By the 55th minute, Clare had already 0-25 on the scoreboard. Clare only managed three points in the last 20 minutes, but they didn’t need to shoot the lights out when their priority was to protect possession and deny Cork any platform to build from.
When Clare were reduced to 14 men, their ability to work the ball through the lines, especially on short puck-outs and in transitioning the ball out from the full-back was going to depend on how much heat they could withstand from the Cork forwards.
With Cork now able to play a sweeper, all of the Cork forwards had the luxury of knowing that they could push up and try and press Clare high up the field to try and pen them in.
The introduction of Aron Shanagher presented Clare with more of a long out-ball option, but they didn’t need that outlet as often when the Clare defenders were able to work the ball out to the midfield platform with minimal resistance from Cork. And Clare just brushed their way past them.
Just like the Limerick game, it was too easy. Again.
The only consolation for Cork – and it’s only a minor one – is that at least they avoided this being the complete horror-show it looked capable of becoming after 20 minutes. From the start, Cork’s body language was poor as they looked devoid of ideas and energy.
In the same time, Clare won six Cork puck-outs (some of which were secured on the second ball) and translated that possession into four points.
Of the first 11 balls Cork hit into their attack, they won just two. Clare defenders were scattering Cork players like skittles in those 50-50 contests, but – aside from the greasy conditions – Cork’s play was pockmarked with unforced errors, poor timing and a coarse first touch.
Cork did increase their intensity and execution levels towards the end of the second quarter but even that positivity was undermined by a consistent casualness and slackness.
After Patrick Horgan’s missed free in the 28th minute, Cork were so switched off that Shane O’Donnell was able to amble into a vast open prairie of space on the left wing, with no Cork player within 40 metres of him, to receive a long puck-out and nonchalantly stroke the ball over the bar.
After a Cork point five minutes later, David McInerney was standing on his own on the left wing before booming the ball over the bar after goalkeeper Eibhear Quilligan picked him out.
McInerney was given the freedom of the pitch. So was Ryan Taylor, who has now probably been Clare’s best player to date in this championship. He was excellent against Tipp seven days earlier but Cork just seemed to let Taylor off and he ripped them open. Taylor and Cathal Malone just ran the game around the middle.
Clare should have won by far more. They had 12 more shots than Cork. Clare won 18 Cork restarts (which includes the second and third ball on a short puck-out).
Clare's passing game was far slicker, especially around the middle third, but it was easier to execute with the lack of pressure Cork applied in that sector, both on the passer and the receiver.
Seán O’Donoghue was excellent while Cork’s youngest player Ciáran Joyce stood up as well as he could in the circumstances. Alan Connolly did provide a focal point for the Cork attack when introduced. As well as scoring 1-1, Connolly had assists for 1-2. Connolly looked dangerous while his power and strength has clearly increased over the last 12 months, which was really evident in the creation and finish of his goal.
For Cork though, nowhere near enough ball stuck up front. That has long been a problem but why were Cork so passive again, especially in such an important game?
Why has the confidence drained out of the team so quickly, particularly early on? Did the All-Ireland do more damage than envisaged? Have too many of these players almost become punch drunk from serial defeat?
Kieran Kingston claimed afterwards that the players were “affected” by the negative criticism after the Limerick game, which he felt impacted them early on against Clare. If anything though, the storm could be even more vicious after this defeat.
If Cork found themselves at a crossroads before Sunday, they’re mired in a swamp now. Sunday’s game was set to define Cork’s season but facing Waterford in Walsh Park in two weeks is going to define more than just this championship journey; it’s going to dictate the future of so many of this group.