Christy O'Connor: Cork's season will be dictated by setting a solid defensive structure

Having coughed up three goals against Meath, the Rebel rearguard tightened up to hold Kildare, the question is whether they can be consistent at the back
Christy O'Connor: Cork's season will be dictated by setting a solid defensive structure

Darragh Kirwan is tackled by Rory Maguire. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

WHEN Cork trained again in the days after their opening round league defeat to Meath, it would have been easy to picture where John Cleary, Kevin Walsh and the Cork stats team would have begun their post-match analysis.

The three goals Meath scored were well engineered and brilliantly finished, but that still wouldn’t have softened the blow for Walsh, whose initial brief as Cork coach was to make the side harder to beat.

Meath’s execution levels aside, Walsh would have felt let down, or that he had let Cleary down, by not drilling the players well enough to ensure they were more difficult to break down, especially in not conceding green flags, which is what Walsh had largely built his reputation on during his time as Galway manager.

It’s never black and white because genius often operates in the grey, but it’s still easy to imagine how Walsh would have forensically analysed and dissected those three goals.

Shane Walsh did brilliantly for Meath’s first green flag but Kevin Walsh would have still felt that Kevin O’Donovan wasn’t aggressive enough with his near-hand tackling, or that he could have adjusted his feet or body position quicker to stop Walsh heading towards goal.

Still, the Cork coach would have been asking the hardest questions of all of some of his other defenders. 

Matty Taylor was preoccupied with preventing a potential pop pass to a Meath runner, while Daniel O’Mahony didn’t want to leave Matthew Costello free at the back post.

Everything happened in a flash but Walsh would have also been asking how Brian O’Driscoll got caught in no man’s land and didn’t show enough urgency to get back in front of Walsh, or even communicate to O’Mahony so that O’Driscoll could wheel onto Costello.

The second goal from Jordan Morris originated from a turnover outside the 45 which quickly developed into a 4 v 3 attacking overload where Jason Scully created the opening for Morris to flick the ball to the net.

Jordan Morris of Meath celebrates after scoring his side's second goal against Cork. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Jordan Morris of Meath celebrates after scoring his side's second goal against Cork. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

There was very little the Cork covering defence could do but the biggest issues Walsh would have had was with their structure when they lost the ball, which left them so exposed.

Cillian O’Sullivan’s strike was a superb finish but Walsh’s biggest gripe would have centred on how the run of one of Meath’s most dangerous forwards wasn’t tracked more aggressively, and how Cork hadn’t protection around the D which left the central attacking channel wide open.


Of course, it is much easier to point out technical detail on a laptop than to implement, react and adjust to situations in real-time. Any coach needs time to bed in his philosophy, but getting the balance right between attack and defence was always going to be the biggest challenge for Walsh.

Cork had five more shots than Meath (31-26) but the 3-14 Cork coughed up was the highest score in the top three divisions over that opening weekend. No other game produced more scores (36) but Cork had consistently been on the wrong side of those shootouts; in the league against Galway last year, Cork scored 2-17, but shipped 3-22.

Cork manager John Cleary. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cork manager John Cleary. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

That opening day league defeat was a setback but the lessons Cork needed to take on board were clearly addressed against Kildare seven days later. That was obvious from an early Kildare attack when Darragh Kirwan found himself in a similar position to where Shane Walsh had been a week earlier.

As he tried to cut inside, Kirwan was aggressively directed towards the end-line while his route towards goal was closed off by the Cork sweeper. Kirwan turned back and played a sharp one-two with Jack Robinson but by the time he took the offload, there were three Cork defenders around Kirwan who was turned over in possession. 

During that sequence of play, Cork had seven players around the D.

A couple of minutes later, Kildare forged another half goal chance but Paddy McDermott was met with a wall of bodies. When the ball was recycled, Kildare were forced to shoot from distance and Cork were awarded a free out for a square ball as the shot dropped short. Brian Hurley subsequently scored Cork’s first point from that turnover.

Cork’s first goal shortly afterwards from Seán Powter was forged off another Kildare turnover, which was the dominant theme of the first half, where Kildare players were repeatedly hounded and hustled out of possession by a gang of Cork players.


Kildare were continually forced to shoot from distance or from low-percentage positions, all of which they either missed or dropped short in the opening 28 minutes. When Jimmy Hyland finally landed Kildare’s opening score, it was another low-percentage shot from close to the sideline which just squeezed inside the post.

Kildare only managed 0-2 in the first half. Their 0-7 total was the lowest score recorded across all four divisions that weekend. In last year’s league, the lowest score Cork conceded was 1-12 against a poor Down side that were relegated with just one point from seven games.

Cork’s defensive set-up was excellent against Kildare but any system can only work if it is matched with the level of aggression, hunting, tackling, foraging, tracking and absolute commitment and desire required to carry it out well.

Sunday’s game against Dublin will be a whole different challenge again but it also presents Cork with the ideal chance to show they can consistently produce the defensive structure, resilience and fortitude required to profit in this division.

And to prove that the Walsh way is working the way he and Cork intend it to.

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