PADDY HEANEY: Why Rebels must use their brain, not brawn

Anyone who has attended a training session at any level of the game will be able to testify that Gaelic football has become a very complicated affair.

Nowadays, no self-respecting coach would attempt to educate his players in the skills of the game unless he was armed with at least 200 luminous cones, all of which must be laid out in a complex array of stars, pentagons and circles. (The square is sooo 1980s).

Such is the intricacy of some drills, many bear a closer resemblance to mathematical equations. You would certainly need to be pretty clever to understand them.

The game has never been more sophisticated. We have sweepers and blanket defences. There are strategies for kick-outs and winning breaking ball. There are systems for everything.

Football is now considered to be a very cerebral business and the best managers are lauded for their brilliant minds and inspired tactics.

But amidst all this intense focus on training methods and game plans — there is one team that stands alone as a glaring exception. This is the team that makes a joke of the oceans of ink which is devoted to discussing the finer nuances of the game.

Take a bow, Cork — All-Ireland winners in 2010, league champions for the past three years, and the current favourites to land the Sam Maguire Cup.

While Jim McGuinness is being hailed as a guru, his Cork counterpart, Conor Counihan isn’t considered a prophet either inside or outside his own land.

Counihan, a gentleman to his bones, is polite, mild-mannered and extraordinarily gracious.

In a time when one county manager stopped talking to his local newspaper because he didn’t like the photograph they kept using of him, the Cork boss exhibits no vestiges of vanity or ego.

It’s just as well, because if Counihan was in the Cork job for any self-serving purpose, then he would have quit ages ago.

Despite his success, Counihan and his team are largely unheralded. They are neither admired nor copied. The rave reviews heaped on Tyrone, Kerry and Dublin just don’t happen for Cork.

Why? A good deal of the reason is because their success is considered to come by virtue of muscle power rather than brain power.

Statistics inform us that success in Gaelic football is largely determined by how a team uses possession. At their peak, Tyrone could be cleaned out at midfield, but still win handsomely.

But Cork confound all that new-fangled guff. Cork win games by winning the ball. Pure and simple.

Blessed with a large squad of quality players, many of whom collected All-Ireland U21 medals in 2007 and 2009, the Rebels have a rich mine of talent.

It also just so happens that many of their footballers are large, physical specimens who can hit like dump-trucks and run like the wind. Put the ball in the air, and they’ll either win the battle in the skies or the ruck on the grass.

The recipe for Cork’s success is simple. They grab the ball then run with it. If Kerry gave us catch-and-kick, then Cork own the copyright on catch-and-carry.

As a style, it has much in common with a battering ram. Like a Roman legion, Cork just stand at the gates of the fortress and keep thumping until they bash through.

Yes, it’s mechanical. Yes, it’s often laboured. But, it works.

However, Cork will face a major problem on Sunday. If the Rebels go running in straight lines at Donegal, then they’ll be galloping headlong into a brick wall. Unless Cork, can come up with something different, they will lose.

Anyone who doubts this theory should cast their minds back to this year’s league encounter between the teams.

After posting 4-11 against Down, Cork travelled to Ballybofey a fortnight later where they managed the grand tally of 0-6. Donegal scored 1-7 and won by four points.

From the teams that lined out in MacCumhaill Park in the winter, Donegal will probably have 12 on duty on Sunday, while Cork will have 10. We are not talking about massive changes in personnel.

Instead of running like lemmings at Donegal, the obvious alternative strategy for Cork is station Nicholas Murphy on the edge of the square and bombard him from the air.

Murphy surrounded by Colm O’Neill and Donncha O’Connor would take some stopping, particularly if Cork follow Aaron Kernan’s advice and put Paddy Kelly on Mark McHugh.

And yes, I can already hear all the tut-tutting from football’s cognoscenti who will declare that such a policy would be a kamikaze approach against Donegal.

The considered view of many is that it would madness to launch high ball into Donegal’s massed ranks.

Maybe so. But consider how Cork fared with their solo-running project six months ago? The only thing that has changed since then is that Donegal counter-attacking game has improved beyond recognition.

Bear in mind that Kerry also tried to carry the ball against Donegal. They scored 1-10. Tyrone managed 0-10, Derry got 0-9. Is there a pattern here? When Cork played Nicholas Murphy at full-forward in the Munster semi-final against Kerry, they kicked the ball to him three times in the first half. From the first ball, Murphy set up a goal chance for Donncha O’Connor that wasn’t taken.

The second ball led to a point for O’Connor.

That’s not a bad return, but by the time Murphy was substituted, Cork had targeted him just six times.

The suspicion remains that even if Cork decide to go long, they will struggle to execute this plan because they have been totally programmed into running with the ball.

But Croke Park will quickly become lined with cul de sacs if they don’t have a ‘Plan B’ for the Ulster champions.

Seasoned county players who have come against Donegal’s system will readily testify in private that they have never encountered anything quite like it.

Cork’s previous outings against Kerry, Clare and Kildare have not provided any type of preparation for the challenge which awaits them on Sunday.

Of course, Cork will be favourites, and rightly so. They have the better players and the superior squad. Donegal couldn’t win big games playing with an orthodox defence like Cork.

That is not an opinion. History tell us that. When Donegal went man to man against Cork in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, they were wiped off the pitch. Cork scored 1-24 from play.

Three years later, and Donegal are now a lot stronger. The big question is whether Cork have got any smarter.

If, once again, Cork try to bulldoze their way to victory, then we will be treated to the ultimate clash between brawn versus brain.

In that event, there will only be one winner, and on Sunday night the hills will be celebrating their genius from the Glenties.


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