Croker too sedate, Cork footballers too sedentary

EVEN from outside the plate glass Championship window, the perspective is the same. Cork threw it away.

I said before last weekend’s fourth round qualifiers that Donegal were vulnerable and were clearly rattled by Cork’s energy for the first portion of the game.

Come the final stages, however, Donegal’s belief in themselves was palpable. One wonders what edge it will give them against Dublin this afternoon?

Donegal are extremely comfortable in tight games. They seem to operate in third gear for most of the game, keeping a little in reserve for the crucial last 10 minutes. It’s the trademark of a team used to winning, to understand the flow of the game and know when to pick up the pace.

It was the 62nd minute when Donegal first took the lead. This was their cue to go for the jugular. They tackled harder and broke faster. It was quickly evident it was going to take a goal from Cork to derail Donegal as soon as they edged their noses in front.

It didn’t have to be that way and the Cork players will have agonised over this all week. Five points up, midway through the first half, only to go in at the break with a single point lead. That to me was the point of no return. It’s not that Cork changed their approach after the goal, it’s that they didn’t change their approach.

The opportunity was there for Cork to change the pace of the game once they had secured that daylight. At this point, Cork should have tightened up on their defensive duties in a bid to rise above the tit-for-tat scoring that marked the first half of this game.

Even though both teams were carefully guarding their respective full back lines, the defensive attitudes further out the pitch were lax by both teams. An example of this was the first Donegal point after the Cork goal.

Eoin McHugh collected the ball on his own 45m line and carried the ball uninterrupted for 80m before tapping over a point. That was a major rally call from a gutsy Donegal player who sensed danger. Gutsy and spirited he may be, but McHugh is not what you would call strong and powerful. 

No player should be afforded that opportunity. That’s the point. Cork lacked aggression. They should have protected their lead more furiously even if this meant the odd yellow card.

I am tired of stating that defensive systems employed by teams are clearly eroding defensive instincts of some players. Particularly defenders. Cork were diligent in their defensive tactics and regularly had extra men sitting back in front of the Donegal full forward line. This tactic was very effective in one sense and was the primary reason for Cork not conceding a goal.

However this approach by Cork left Donegal players further out the field unmarked and this is where Cork ceded control over to the opposition. What might seem like an innocuous lateral hand pass at the halfway line between static Donegal players, is actually strategic biding of time. Eventually an opportunity arises for a runner from deep to come steaming up carrying the ball past the gain line. 

I felt sorry for Eoin Cadogan and co in the full back line. Marking Paddy McBrearty was an impossible task last Saturday. Although his point-taking was exemplary, I was disappointed from a Cork point of view at the ease with which he gained possession of the ball in the first place.

If the delivery into McBrearty was pressurised, at least his marker would have an honest chance of foiling his best efforts. With Donegal’s ability to carry the ball easily into the Cork half, they were often able to hand the ball to their danger man well inside his scoring zone. 

It’s well and good packing the defence with additional players but they can’t be as static as we regularly see when this strategy is employed. They have to actively hunt to dispossess.

I went to the game with my wife and one-and-a-half-year old son. I was confident travelling up the road that Croke Park would be a family friendly environment. That it was. I even got parking at the edge of Jones Road five minutes before throw in, thanks to the help of the self- appointed local parking attendants, who promised not to steal my car for the small fee of €5.

It was hard to believe that an All-Ireland quarter-final place was on offer for the winners. The losers? A year’s effort brought to a sudden and unrewarding end. The fixture had the feel of an exhibition game. 

The type of environment you would expect if you popped into a baseball game while holidaying in New York. I knew my toddler, attending his first ever game, would hardly be startled by frantic outbursts from supporters. Sedate is what I expected.

I hated playing in Croke Park outside of All-Ireland finals or semi-finals. I found it sterile and uninspiring. I was sitting in the lower Cusack Stand on Saturday and I could regularly hear the yells of Rory Gallagher from his pitch side location on the Hogan Stand side. 

If I was playing myself, I would have loved to have played such a game somewhere like Portlaoise; players struggling to hear each other over the close proximity of a tight crowd. 

Atmosphere. As a spectator at an inter-county championship game, you want to feel unnerved. You expect the atmosphere to reach such fever pitch that you feel you have to keep an eye on the old man next to you for fear he might keel over.

So where now for the Cork footballers? There was no shame in this defeat. 

If nothing else, there is the opportunity to learn from this year and in particular, this game. It was Peadar Healy’s first year at the helm and it wasn’t as if the team he took over was a settled one.

Player-wise, there is strong evidence of fresh blood emerging. I would think Healy is already planning his calls to potential retirees. The first step toward progress for 2017 would be to ensure the likes of Alan O’Connor and Donncha O’Connor stick around. 

Looking at the background staff, the likes of Conor McCarthy, Paudie Kissane and Billy Sheehan patrolling the sidelines, there is fierce brainpower and energy there.

The only answer is to get back on the horse before autumn closes. In 2004, we were hammered by Kerry in a Munster semi-final before losing to Fermanagh in the qualifiers. We were a team well outside the top 10 at that time and feeling just as low as the current Cork team. We started preparing for 2005 almost immediately and underwent a highly intensive physical conditioning programme that made a massive difference. 

We didn’t become true All-Ireland contenders for another few seasons but we quickly shot up the ranking to be a consistent top four team. A root and branch overhaul is not needed here. What is needed is focused and purposeful groundwork over the winter.

Leaving Croke Park, I surmised that Dublin would make soft work of Donegal in today’s quarter-final. Of course last weekend will make Donegal a much improved outfit for a joust with the champions but I can’t see them lasting the pace with this brilliant Dublin team.


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