Cork defenders ahead of their game

Cork defenders ahead of their game

Rochdale's Eoghan O'Connell and Charlton Athletic's Jayden Stockley battle for the ball during the Sky Bet League One match at Crown Oil Arena, Rochdale. Picture date: Saturday February 6, 2021.

LAST month, June 2022, Cork teenager Cathal Heffernan signed for Italian giants AC Milan on a permanent deal.

The defender, who originally join on loan from Cork City, will now play in the Rossoneri academy alongside some of the best young players in world football.

Heffernan will be taught the fine art of defending and how to fit into Stefano Pioli’s first team, a group who just won the Serie A championship.

The teenager will have to learn everything there is to know about defending, as well as starting attacks from inside his own half.

He will be transformed into the modern centre back, a position a number of Cork players are excelling at.

Defenders now have to be ball carriers with the ability to hold a high line on the pitch while passing out from the back. 

This is a total transformation of a position once characterised by tackling and scoring the odd goal from a set piece.

The transformation can be attributed to the all-conquering Ajax team of the 1970s. 

They won three consecutive European Cups with ‘Total Football’, a way of playing that had everyone acting as an attacker. 

This influenced Johan Cruyff who implemented a version of this system at Barcelona and Arrigo Sacchi, who made sure every member of his AC Milan team could play football.

Oliwier Slawinski of Poland is tackled by Cathal Heffernan of Republic of Ireland resulting in a penalty during the UEFA U17 Championship Qualifying Round Group 5 match between Republic of Ireland and Poland at Turner's Cross in Cork. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Oliwier Slawinski of Poland is tackled by Cathal Heffernan of Republic of Ireland resulting in a penalty during the UEFA U17 Championship Qualifying Round Group 5 match between Republic of Ireland and Poland at Turner's Cross in Cork. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Their clubs dominated European football by winning three European Cups, two Intercontinental Cups, one European Cup Winners Cup in a four year spell. 

Their way of playing ended up influencing Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who are now set the standard in world club football.

Their teams are known for ball playing centre backs who come forward and hold a high line.

Guardiola used this system at Barcelona and they won the sextuple in 2008-09 and another Champions League title in 2011. 

A hallmark of Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool teams was a high defensive line. 

The German used this to win every trophy there is to be won in two of Europe’s top five leagues.

This isn’t something at the very peak of world football, but thousands of defenders are being moulded into carriers. 

Players from Cork are thriving in this transformed role and after years of work in the lower leagues of England, they are being noticed by the masses.

The transfer of Eoghan O’Connell to Chartlon Athletic from Rochdale was heavily influenced by his ability to carry and pass the ball. 

Last year, he completed 2,204 passes, the second most in League Two. O’Connell even admitted that he choose Charlton because his talent matched their playing style.

“I had a good conversation with the Manager about the way he wants to play and it really suits me. 

"I’m really excited to get started and get cracking,” he told Charlton’s media team after signing.

“Whatever way the team likes to play, which is obviously football here and that suits me. 

"I like to try and play out from the back and get the team attacking, as well as defending. I feel like the style suits me so I’m just looking forward to getting into training and getting working.” 

John Egan of Republic of Ireland in action against Taras Kacharaba of Ukraine during the UEFA Nations League B group 1 match between Republic of Ireland and Ukraine at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile
John Egan of Republic of Ireland in action against Taras Kacharaba of Ukraine during the UEFA Nations League B group 1 match between Republic of Ireland and Ukraine at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

His manager, Ben Garner, admitted that O’Connell’s passing skills was a major reason why he brought in the defender.

“Eoghan’s a player that I’ve admired for a long time and it was nice that when I came in he also featured high on the club’s recruitment list,” he said.

“In possession he’s fantastic. He’s very intelligent, comfortable receiving the ball, very brave, which is a big quality, and he has a fantastic range of pass. In addition to that, he is also a really good defender."

O’Connell was previously coached by fellow Cork-man Brian Barry Murphy at Rochdale. 

He left in 2021 to manage Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad. 

Barry Murphy now works closely with Guardiola and he is tasked with implementing a pass and move philosophy with the Sky Blues’ Under-23s while they get ready to play for the senior team. 

Part of his role includes moulding defenders into ball playing creators capable of holding a high line.

Stephen Kenny wants to implement this way of playing with the Republic of Ireland national team. 

He wants his team to be able to pass the ball and to get this done, he has his defenders coming out and linking up with the midfield.

John Egan, who plays his club football with Sheffield United in the Championship, is at the heart of Kenny’s team selection. 

The Ireland manager wants the defender coming out and spraying passes while he holds a high line when the team push up.

Kenny heaped praised on Egan for his abilities after a 2-2 draw with Belgium last March.

“His press from left centre-back was so aggressive. He made critical challenges and forced them onto the back foot,” Kenny said.

“I felt he was very influential when we needed someone to be, both in terms of spectacular challenges, jumping from the halfway line to 25 yards from their goal in tackles, and also to carry the ball out and be able to use it as well.” 

Other players from Cork who are known for their ball carrying ability include Sean McLoughlin with Hull City, Conor McCarthy, who just joined League One side Barnsley. 

Preston North End also have Harry Nevin in their academy.

Those defenders are all moulded in the new way of defending, attacking and pushing teams from the back.

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