COMING into Sunday’s Division 2 opener, I would have felt that it was a league-defining game for the Cork footballers.
A win and I felt there would be an outside chance of promotion, but more importantly, relegation fears would become distant. Defeat, however, and we now face the real prospect of being pointless after three league games with Kildare away and Dublin at home coming down the tracks.
This was a refreshingly open game of football. Neither side played with a full-time sweeper, rather using a half back to drop as a plus one. As a result both teams were pushed up enough to press opposition kickouts and we were treated to some good old-fashioned aerial battles and some fine fielding.
There was one noticeable difference between the teams: The style of play.
Colm O’Rourke has lamented the lack of foot-passing for long enough on our screens and to his credit the early signs are he is going to walk the walk.
His Meath team were a breath of fresh air with their willingness to look up in possession and to give the kick pass. They mixed short pop passes with long 50/60-yard deliveries which Cork found difficult to cope with. There were plenty of interceptions or turnovers from these kick-passes but they benefited far more than they suffered with this tactic.
Cork, however, were one-dimensional. Strangely enough, Cork’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. An overreliance on hard running, breaking the tackles, and popping to finishers on the loop becomes predictable and easier to shut down as games approach the fourth quarter and players tire. Frustratingly, this is an age-old problem with Cork football.
There was little willingness for defenders or midfielders to look up and pick out a link man in the half-forward line who in turn could either feed an inside forward or a runner off the shoulder.
The phrase ‘paralysis by analysis’ comes to mind when looking at Cork’s style of play. Are we too afraid to lose possession with the riskier kickpass? Are players not making the run and if not is it because they know the player in possession won’t look up to find them? Or is it something more fundamental that reflects a lack of the basic kicking skills within Cork football?
The contrast was stark. Take the first Meath goal as an example. Wing back Daniel O’Neill received a free inside his own 65’ with Cork centre back Rory Maguire for company. He then picked out Cillian O’Sullivan with a kickpass down the far sideline with Sean Meehan right behind him, who in turned kicked down the line to the corner and to Shane Walsh, who had close company in Kevin O’Donovan. Despite the proximity of the sweeping Maguire, Walsh managed to manufacture a goal when outnumbered.
The same two players — Maguire and O’Donovan (who hasn’t trained in recent weeks due to injury) — were caught out for a score again at the beginning of the second half when Jordan Morris tapped over after jinking between the pair.
This brings me to an important point: The positioning of Sean Powter. In the last few years, Powter has essentially played the role of Cork’s sweeper or plus one brilliantly. Off the ball, he reads the game very well and positions himself to deter the initial ball but is also excellent in his decision making in terms of when to double up and when to cover the danger zone. I understand the logic of playing him further forward, but the reality is Cork started with two half backs playing in the half-forward line and it showed. The phrase “robbing Peter to pay Paul” comes to mind.
With all that said, when Powter kicked Cork into a three-point lead in the 50th minute, I would have said Cork had been slightly the better team. However, their attritional running style would be their undoing. A short kickout led to Eoghan McSweeney handpassing to Colm O’Callaghan, who in turn handpassed to Ian Maguire, who found himself surrounded by five Meath players. The resulting turnover led to the goal which would be the spark for the final 20 minutes, when Meath scored 2-6.
In fact, across the four divisions only Waterford conceded more than Cork. This is a recurring theme for Cork, the high concession of scores. One only need look at the first and third Meath goals and the chance which resulted in the magnificent double save from Micheál Martin to identify the issues. Poor one-on-one defending, poor two-v-one defending, ball watching, but more worryingly a lack of defensive awareness in identifying a greater danger and leaving your direct opponent.
There were some positives for Cork.
Stephen Sherlock continued his excellent form and is now the fulcrum of the Cork attack. Chris Óg Jones was lively and notched two points from play in an impressive league debut. Cathail O’Mahony and Conor Corbett will strengthen the attacking options once their Sigerson Cup commitments are finished. The Sigerson will have undoubtedly impacted the amount of collective work the squad have completed in recent weeks and fatigue is sure to have played a factor for those involved. It doesn’t get any easier with both Cork colleges travelling to Dublin midweek before a daunting trip to Newbridge next Sunday.
Three wins usually guarantees safety from an eight-team league. The fear for Cork is they may need to garner those six points from the final four games if results go as expected in the coming weeks. The Division 2 league has never been so important.