THE chief dilemma facing the Cork footballers for Saturday's All-Ireland SFC quarter-final is how to set up tactically against a Dublin side who have put their league troubles behind them to devastating effect in steamrolling through Leinster yet again.
The evidence suggests that a repeat of the defensive tactics Cork employed to nullify the Kerry attack and stay in the game for 50 minutes would be the wise choice. An equally compelling argument could be made that such tactics will only play into Dublin’s hands as they have so much experience in dealing with and dismantling such defensive systems in Croke Park.
Cork have done well in four of their last five competitive games, beating teams at or just below their level in Down, Offaly, Louth and Limerick. All four of those games were there to be won or lost with ten minutes to go when Cork showed the bottle and composure to get over the line in all four.
Central to these four successes have been the scoring exploits of Brian Hurley, Cathail O’Mahony and in particular Stephen Sherlock who led from the front in every game. A key question for the game is can Cork get the ball to this trio enough to trouble Dublin?
A vital aspect in dictating the supply to this trio will be in the kickouts and Cork’s success at both ends of the field. Cork’s press on opposition kickouts has been the biggest letdown for me this year.
Throughout the league and thus far in the championship Cork have hardly dented the opposition kickout stats. Incredibly, Limerick won all 29 of their own kickouts including five that went beyond the 45m line. Cork looked very disorganised in their efforts with players either not pushing up, not being touch tight, not being alert to second and third runs and in general a lack of energy in their efforts. Given that this has been the pattern throughout the year and with only a twelve-day window to prepare for Dublin, I can see this resulting in Cork dropping off and conceding possession on Evan Comerford’s restarts.
At the other end, I would be surprised if Dublin haven’t used the final 20 minutes of Cork’s Munster semi-final at home to Kerry as a template to suffocate Cork. Even using video analysis of the more recent Limerick game, Dublin will have noted that Cork lost seven of their own ten kickouts that went as far as the 45m line.
The Dublin press will be savage and without the easy short balls, Cork will be forced to kick long where Brian Fenton at midfield will be ably assisted from behind by a powerful half back line of John Small, James McCarthy and Brian Howard. This reality may impact Cork’s selection in the half-forward line, come throw-in time. Paul Walsh or a back-to-full health Brian Hayes would both add much-needed bulk and aerial ability.
In open play, dropping off the aforementioned Dublin half-back trio is a recipe for disaster as all three will dictate the tempo of the game and cut through Cork with their pace and power.
Are Cork confident enough to man-mark the three of those players high up the pitch and trust the backs and midfielders can cope without the cover they have offered up to now? Would that be brave or foolish?
There is no doubt that this Dublin team are still a formidable outfit and are rightfully red-hot favourites for this last-eight game. It is fair to say, however, that their strength in depth is no longer what it was in terms of quality or experience in guaranteeing impact off the bench. For this to matter, Cork must stay in the game right up to half-time.
Both Meath and Kildare were dead and buried by the short whistle. Cork need one of those performances where manic aggression and discipline in defending are married with composure and accuracy in possession. It’s a tall order but the Kerry game is still fresh in the memory as a reference point to instill belief.
Regardless of the result or performance on Saturday, this is a hugely important milestone for this Cork football team. Preparing for a knockout All Ireland quarter-final against Dublin will bring the group on massively in several ways. The tactical challenge of facing a top-tier team in the height of the summer will be fascinating but so will the opportunity to judge the levels of fitness and physical development in such an intense environment.
The experience of travelling to Dublin as a team, the pre-match meal before departing to the stadium with a Garda escort, arriving at Croke Park and taking in the vast dressing room area, sitting down to watch some of the first quarter-final before warming up in front of a vocal Dublin support - these will all stand to players individually and collectively as these occasions hopefully become the norm again over the next few years.
The Cork players and management have dismissed talk of bonus territory, but the reality is that this is uncharted territory for this group. Kerry gave Cork a taste of what the top teams can do to you do over 75-plus minutes of action.
This Cork team has shown great resilience these past few months in surviving relegation, their off-field stance in insisting on Páirc Uí Rinn as home venue and grinding out two narrow wins over Louth and Limerick. The comforts of home are gone but the bright lights of Croke Park await, a great sight to see a Cork senior football team back on centre-stage.
Now for a performance.