Cork? Where do you even begin?

Most Cork football people I spoke to after the Munster final said it was the worst ever, writes Paddy Kelly.

Cork? Where do you even begin?

The few people I spoke to leaving O’Moore Park on Saturday were also in agreement; Cork football had plumbed to an even greater depth against Tyrone.

A second drubbing in a fortnight has ended what was one of the most disappointing campaigns in a long time. So many questions to mull over: How did it get this bad? Can it get any worse? How can it be turned around? Who is to blame? The players? Management? The county board?

Before we begin the painstaking analysis of Cork, let’s first examine Tyrone insofar as we can. This Rd 4 Qualifier game was so one-sided it is hardly worth analysing in any great detail. Tyrone, a well organised and athletic team met opposition nowhere near their level in terms of ability, conditioning, and nous.

Yet I left without being overly impressed by Tyrone. Their style of play is atrocious to watch. They will make it difficult for Donegal, Roscommon and maybe Dublin in the Super 8s but for the good of the game as a spectacle, I won’t be too disappointed if they fall short. Removing my Cork hat, there was no comparison in the enjoyment watching the Roscommon-Armagh game and the secondary offering. Granted Tyrone impressed as the game went on but that was as much down to Cork’s inadequacies as anything.

Tyrone have excellent players. Niall Morgan’s kick-outs are exceptional, Colm Cavanagh can dominate the skies, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden are top notch footballers. They have enough quality to play a more positive brand of football. They will have to win two from Roscommon in Croke Park, Dublin in Omagh and Donegal in Ballybofey. A tall order.

Tyrone played exactly as expected. As far as I could see the pattern of the game had developed within five minutes. Upon losing possession Tyrone retreated with as many as 14 men inside their 45m line. Cork advanced with possession only to find themselves running out of space and being turned over due to poor decision-making and tenacious, disciplined tackling. Tyrone then sprung forward and patiently waited for openings to appear. To be fair some of their moves were of the highest quality as they cut through the Cork defence with pace. Plus their shooting accuracy was outstanding. Their problems will arise in the Super 8s as higher quality teams will match their physicality and their one-dimensional play will be easier to stifle.

It is hard to know where to even begin with Cork. As sickening as the Munster final was, the Super 8s will highlight just how good this Kerry team can be. I’m not so sure getting hammered by Tyrone will look any better as the summer goes on. There are a hundred and one different things one could say about what is wrong with this Cork team and Cork football in general but I will begin with the most glaring from Saturday.

Physically, it looked like men against boys. Nowhere else on the field was this more apparent than in the Cork defence. Jamie O’Sullivan was possibly the only member of the back six standing over 6 feet tall and with any bit of bulk. But it’s not all about the size of the dog — it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

I remember training with Cork and lining up for A v B games thinking I would be marking one of Noel O’Leary, Paudie Kissane, Graham Canty, Johnny Miskella, Ger Spillane or Brian O’Regan. Every one of those players would look to physically dominate you. Nothing false, just touch tight marking, aggressive on loose ball and pride in their defending.

Chalk and cheese — and that’s just the half-back line.

One of most concerning aspect of this year is the fact that I’m not convinced there are many outside the panel who would improve things in the immediate future. Stephen Sherlock and Cian Dorgan are two lethal forwards but the inside forward line is the least of Cork’s problems. The reality is, however, that the players aren’t there to compete, let alone succeed. The perception may be that the Cork players didn’t work hard enough or care enough in the last two outings. It is hard to believe that players who began training as early as October and trained, on average, four nights a week since didn’t go out to give their all.

Serious questions can however be asked of their skill levels, physical conditioning, game management and leadership as yet again they were found wanting in all departments.

Management must shoulder some of the blame. As in the Munster final, Cork looked tactically inept. Defensively they were a shambles. Cork got plenty of numbers back but it was evident there was little organisation or sense of purpose in how they defended. The team selection raised some eyebrows — as light physically a backline as I can remember playing for Cork, a halfback not exactly known for his fielding or athleticism playing out of position in midfield, two novices in Kevin Flahive and Cian Kiely given the tasks of tracking Niall Sludden and Peter Harte to name but a few questionable calls.

Four players who started the Munster final against Kerry saw no game time from the bench; Tomás Clancy, Aidan Walsh, Kevin O’Driscoll and John O’Rourke. Now I’m not suggesting any of the above should have started (Walsh was struggling with a shoulder problem anyway) or been introduced but such turnover midseason, as in recent years with Cork, is a sure sign of a sinking ship.

Lastly, but in my opinion most critically, is the neglect of football from the county board. It has long been felt from those of us immersed in Cork football that a separate board is now required to look after the development of football within the county. At times it has felt like those running Cork GAA have actively attempted to hinder progress being made on the football front. One example; the fact that a man as passionate and well respected in Cork football circles as John Cleary has never taken up the top job gives you an indication of how unappealing a proposition it must be.

The neglect of our club championships also ranks high on my list of issues. The Cork County Board has allowed the senior competition to drift to 19 clubs, eight divisions and two colleges, the vast majority of whom have no chance of winning more than a game or two. The promotion of some club’s second teams to lower intermediate grade has increased the number of teams but diluted the quality of that grade and that of divisional junior competitions below. It is harder to get relegated than it is to win a championship such is the ridiculous system. The result of these developments are club players aren’t battle-hardened in competitive action and if not on a Cork squad won’t have the opportunities to develop sufficiently. A complete overhaul of club championships is badly required and long overdue.

These are just a couple of areas for concern but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Ronan McCarthy stated after the game that he is ‘very clear in his mind’ where he and the Cork footballers need to go moving forward. More importantly, the person chosen to replace Frank Murphy later this year must begin the process of maximising the potential in Cork football.

For now, Cork football must lick its wounds and take stock, starting with our club championships and unearthing some new players.

Finally, on a personal level, I’d like to pay tribute to my good friend Donncha O’Connor who played his last game for Cork on Saturday at the age of 37.

A man who never played minor or U21 with Cork went on to play a critical role in Cork lifting Sam Maguire in 2010. His dedication and passion for Cork football was unparalleled. He was a key figure in pushing standards in successful times but also keeping the squad together in more troubled times. I hope the youngsters on the panel will take with them some of his attitude and application in the years to come.

If they do, there’s hope for Cork football yet.

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