In the lead-up to Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final, Cork interim-manager John Cleary outlined the bottom line of Cork’s task heading to Croke Park to take on Dublin.
Cleary said that the game would show what stage of progression Cork are at, what level they have got to, and how far they still have to travel.
So what level did Cork reach? That’s a multi-layered answer. Cork showed that they have quality. They didn’t play with any fear, anxiety or inferiority complex. They took the game to Dublin in the first half but they just couldn’t sustain that energy and intensity, just as they also couldn’t against Kerry.
The tone and trend of the match just confirmed where Cork are at in the footballing world at the moment, and how they are almost locked into that terrain until they can get back into Division 1. That has been a perennial question at the outset of each season for years now but that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, especially next year with Dublin and Derry in Division 2.
On the other hand, is that predicament overhyped?
Derry were in Division 3 last year. They didn’t get promoted from Division 2 this year, but their display on Saturday against Clare underlined how serious their All-Ireland credentials now are.
Despite beating Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal, Derry have yet to prove how good they really are at the top level. But they have still picked huge holes in the theory that any team with real ambitions of taking on the big guns has to be in Division 1.
Is that down to the brilliance of their manager Rory Gallagher? His experience has certainly been a factor. Gallagher was part of Jim McGuinness’ backroom team when Donegal won the 2012 All-Ireland. This year’s Ulster final was the seventh time in 12 years that Gallagher had been involved in an Ulster senior final either as a manager or coach.
Is that the kind of managerial experience Cork need?
Gallagher saw how much Donegal benefitted from training like a commando unit under McGuinness, a template Gallagher has clearly brought to Derry.
Derry won just one Ulster championship match in a decade before Gallagher arrived. Gallagher is a tactical genius but do Cork need to train at a level comparable to Derry to be able to make the gains required to get up to the levels the Ulster side have reached from Division 2?
These are all legitimate questions that Cork need to be asking now if they are really serious. The S&C and power factor has to be a starting point because Cork ran out of steam again, just as they had in the fourth quarter against Kerry. Yet Cork’s tank was leaking gas from as early as the third quarter on Saturday as Dublin pressed hard on the accelerator.
Dublin looked to be working their way through the gears in the first half, but Cork were playing well. Despite Jonny Cooper operating as a sweeper, Dublin’s setup of going man-on-man was presenting Cork with enough scoring chances.
The Dublin full-back line was under pressure from the class of Brian Hurley, Cathail O’Mahony and Steven Sherlock, particularly Hurley who was asking huge questions of Eoin Murchan.
Cork had more shots in the first half (16-15) but their conversion rate was only 44% compared to Dublin’s 67%.
Cork’s intensity dropped off in the second half. They hadn’t the energy, pace or volume of support runners to hurt Dublin on the break and Dublin were making huge incisions at the other end, especially off their own kickout.
Over the 70 plus minutes, Dublin mined 0-13 off their own restarts. They only turned over the ball ten times, with further limited Cork’s possession numbers. Dublin’s conversion rate in the second half was 85%. In the same period, Cork’s was just 30%.
Dublin’s defence was excellent in the second half. Their tackling and turnover rate went through the roof. Dublin forced seven turnovers in the second half, but it was easier for the Leinster champions to turn up the heat because of their superior conditioning.
After sourcing 0-4 from their own kick-out in the first half, Cork mined just 0-1 off their own restarts after the break.
Over the 70-plus minutes, Dublin had 283 possessions compared to Cork’s 215. Dublin had eight players with 23 or more possessions.
Cork had only one player with more than 18 possessions — John O’Rourke.
Seán Powter had another excellent match. Ian Maguire had a fine game when winning five kick-outs. Hurley, O’Mahony and Sherlock had a combined 44 possessions. Those three players also had 18 shots (from play and placed balls) but scored just eight.
Dublin only had two more shots than Cork (28-26) but their execution was at a completely different standard.
Cork will look to a number of positives. They closed off the central defensive corridor and Dublin didn’t create a single goal chance. That often meant Cork conceding frees which Dean Rock nailed, but Cork also kept a clean sheet against Kerry.
Cork have a number of quality players to return next year but the injury epidemic which struck the squad this year is also part of the wider issue around S&C and the distance that Cork still have to travel.
And that’s just one of the many questions Cork need to ask themselves if they are to move forward to the level where Cork football should be operating at.