Cork may have lost their third competitive game of the summer and exited the championship but do so with their heads held high.
While Saturday’s defeat to Tyrone will rankle more than the loss Dublin, the Cork footballers can again be proud of their efforts.
They died with their boots on.
Playing against this defensive Tyrone outfit, the nightmare scenario is to be chasing the game. Fourteen seconds in and Cork had the perfect start when Ian Maguire steamed through the middle before feeding Luke Connolly to roll home a dream goal. That early cushion gave them the confidence to go about their business with patience and avoid playing into Tyrone’s hands.
I wondered beforehand if Cork would mimic Tyrone’s style and they duly did. The reality is that there is no other way to set up when playing Mickey Harte’s side. Cork were excellent in moving the ball over and back the pitch, playing outside the screen before injecting pace and looking to break lines and create openings or draw fouls. (Watching the first half the thought struck me that it was no harm this game wasn’t played in Cork.
Due to the poor attendance, the Cork players wouldn’t have felt any external pressure from the moans and groans which could have altered their adherence to their sensible game plan).
At elite level games are often decided by small margins and the best teams tend to capitalise on the slightest of slip-ups. Last week Thomas Clancy fell asleep for a split second in the dying moments of the first half to allow Cormac Costello ghost through to create Dublin’s crucial second goal.
This time around, Kevin O’Driscoll, who is as diligent and honest a player as you’ll find, was caught on his heels as Michael McKernan powered through to put it on a plate for Cathal McShane for Tyrone’s first goal.
Similarly, Matthew Taylor got caught allowing Niall Sludden slip through before being pushed over for a penalty resulting in their second.
Ronan McCarthy noted that the concession of too many scores in Tyrone’s purple patch just after half time as being critical to the outcome. Whether intentional or not Cork were left waiting on the pitch for the restart for about five minutes.
This may be partly explained by the three substitutions made by Tyrone but it’s hard not to conclude a bit of gamesmanship from Mickey Harte’s men was at play. Gamesmanship or the less flowery term of cynicism is rife in the game at the top level; from verbals to buying frees to feigning injury. Darren McCurry’sextravagant reaction to Brian Hurley’s outstretched arm was a case in point.
When Tyrone did eventually come on to the pitch they did so with theintention of playing. Mattie Donnelly - who had been tracked by Liam O’Donovan around the middle in the first half - was positioned alongside McShane where he was now marked by Kevin Flahive.
This change was the winning of the game. In the second half Donnelly (ably assisted by Peter Harte) was the difference in his point scoring, assisting and winning of scoreable frees. His physical strength and ball control allow him to draw contact and either break free (while taking liberties with steps) or win frees.
On the restart Tyrone showed a greater commitment to attack, operating with two men inside and in general applying pressure higher up the pitch. This change of tactic worked to great effect as they created more scoring chances and forced turnovers which only adds to the neutrals’frustration at Tyrone’s overly defensive approach.
In that crucial spell after half-time, Cork were unable to minimise the damage being done during Tyrone’s purple patch.
This was in small part to increased pressure on Mark White’s kickouts. Whereas in the first half Tyrone allowed Cork easy short options they then got massive reward from squeezing up on White in the second half, forcing him long and attacking with breaking ball. This shift in momentum was critical in turning the tide in Tyrone’s favour.
At the other end it was again disappointing that Cork made no serious dent in Niall Morgan’s kickout percentages. Cork again went zonal but didn’t push enough bodies up to cover the extra Tyrone bodies dropping back into pockets. This gave Tyrone a constant supply of possession, an area Cork can look to improve for next year.
To their credit, Tyrone are incredibly well-conditioned. Playing their fifth game in a row away from Omagh and to produce a power-packed second-half display as they did speaks volumes for the work carried out under the stewardship of Peter Donnelly over the past five years.
They were aided by the introduction of three physically imposing players at the break in a clear recognition of the lack of intensity being shown in the first half. From a Cork point of view this level takes time and consistency of approach to reach.
Next year is year three of McCarthy’s reign and Cork’s squad should be able to close the gap over the winter time.
Cork should be lauded for not only their adapted game plan and how well they adjusted in the space of a week but also for their team selection.
The surprising omission of James Loughrey for Stephen Cronin proved a shrewd call. Cronin would be renowned as a ball-playing centre-back and a good reader of the game. Such attributes allied to the fact he was always going to end up having a free role made it a sensible decision.
Ronan made full use of his bench as he unleashed five attacking players as they looked to inject fresh legs in an effort to chase the game. Michael Hurley was the standout performer of the lot as he struck four outstanding points to give Cork a huge chance.
It was Tyrone’s leaders, however, who steadied the ship as Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte took control to get the Ulster men over the line.
As galling as this defeat will be, it is an experience that will add to the motivation that should mean this young Cork side return next year with high hopes of making further progress.
Cork, like Roscommon, face a strange fortnight as they prepare for what is essentially a dead rubber in Páirc Uí Rinn on Sunday week. Cork, over the past week, have shown themselves to be equally adept at playing against the most potent attacking force in the game and the most difficult of defensive opponents.
Add in Kerry in the Munster final and Cork, although losing all three, have performed consistently well against three of the top five teams in the championship covering the whole spectrum of styles.
This flexibility of approach is a major string to their bow as they look to rejoin the elite for the first time in approaching a decade.
For Cork players moral victories will count for little in the immediate aftermath of the defeat but they have restored the Cork public’s faith and hope in their prospects.
Given the unfortunate situation (and perceived slight to the Cork footballers in some quarters) which has led to their final game being moved out of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it would be a welcome boost and reward for the players’ efforts to be acknowledged with a decent crowd to cap off an encouraging summer.
Cork may be facing into a spring in the third tier of football but have shown over the summer that their true status lies a lot closer to the heavy hitters of Division 1.