It’s something of an understatement to suggest the early summer optimism surrounding the Cork footballers was well and truly extinguished by Kerry just two weeks ago.
Cork were put to the sword by an established Division 1 team in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and face a daunting trip up to Portlaoise this evening to face another perennial Division 1 performer in Tyrone.
With their season on the line, the big question is can Cork recover and pull off a major upset to rescue themselves?
The challenge facing Ronan McCarthy and his management team since the Munster final will have been considerable. Morale would have been at a record low for this group with every aspect of their preparation and performance up for debate. Some players will put the Munster final down to a combination of a bad day at the office for Cork and having the misfortune of catching All-Ireland contenders in scintillating form.
For other players, this will feel like another hammer blow to a team in such dire need of consistency.
With such a short turnaround, drastic change to tactics are unlikely and the named team suggests this. Five personnel changes to the Munster final team is a statement of intent from a management team that has proclaimed the importance of balance and consistency. In terms of positional switches, I again expect Stephen Cronin to operate as a sweeper, with Brian O’Driscoll or Sean White dropping to centre-back to pick up the dangerous Niall Sludden.
At midfield, Ian Maguire will likely be partnered by Ruairi Deane or Mark Collins leaving Luke Connolly and the Hurley brothers to spearhead the attack.
Cork appeared to play with only two forwards against Kerry which was a regression from the four they kept up top against Tipperary.
I’m not convinced this development was necessarily by design but more as a consequence of the pressure Kerry applied in the middle third. I expect Cork to attempt to return to the set-up implemented to great effect in Thurles in May. Many would suggest Cork’s best chance of beating Tyrone would be to adopt similar tactics and introduce some version of a blanket defence.
This short-sighted approach would fly in the face of all that Ronan McCarthy and his management team are aspiring to achieve. He has been given a three-year term and the bottom line is he will be judged on how Cork perform in the summer of 2020. Remember, it was only two years ago that the Cork hurlers exited the Championship in Round 2 of the qualifiers to an average Wexford team, sparking calls for a root and branch review of the state of hurling in the Rebel County.
A waiting the Round 4 draw last Monday, there’s little doubt Tyrone and Monaghan were the teams to avoid from a Cork point of view.
Tyrone’s style of play will pose a serious challenge to a new look Cork team. On The Sunday Game last weekend, Seán Cavanagh described Tyrone as the best running team on the counter-attack in Ireland. Whether that is a view through rose-tinted glasses or an accurate assessment of their qualities is up for debate but there is no doubting that counter-attacking is the key element to their game plan.
Tyrone will drop off Cork and invite them forward in numbers waiting on a mistake or look to force a turnover. This will be in stark contrast to what Cork faced against Kerry. Kerry pressed Cork around the middle third forcing turnovers and stifling Cork’s attack.
Tyrone’s approach may actually suit Cork. They will have prepared all season for facing teams who defend from inside their own 65.
The unfortunate reality is that often teams facing blanket defences end up mirroring that same set-up. What we’re often left with is a basketball style backs and forwards match with very little action around the middle.
Cork will be well used to this and it may be something they are comfortable facing. Ian Maguire, Ruairi Deane, Mark Collins, and my own club-mate Cian Kiely are ideally suited to this running game.
But will it be enough?
The current Tyrone team is a number of years in the making. Rewind the clock back 12 months and Tyrone had just secured their second consecutive Ulster title and were seen as one the main contenders to challenge Dublin. Con O’Callaghan’s early goal in the All-Ireland semi-final put paid to those hopes and Tyrone’s style was written off as outdated.
They have, by and large, stuck to the same approach while trying to develop their attacking play with the great Stephen O’Neill now part of the backroom team. Their defensive structure is excellently marshalled by Frank Burns and the deep-lying Colm Cavanagh while their running game is built around the classy Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly.
Up front, Niall Sludden is the key man with finishers in the form of Conor McAliskey, Ronan O’Neill and Richard Donnelly to choose from.
As clichéd and obvious as it is, a good start is absolutely vital for Cork on a number of fronts.
Firstly, their confidence is fragile after the disastrous Munster final and an early Tyrone surge would see psychological cracks lying not too far below the surface to reappear.
Secondly, Tyrone’s style of play requires them to lead. Tyrone’s game is based primarily on inviting the opposition to force things and to make mistakes. A few early scores for Cork and the players can be patient in possession and ensure Tyrone have to come out of their shell.
The cut-throat nature of the inter-county scene is unforgiving for teams going through transition.
Cork’s mediocre league campaign heaped pressure on the group but their season will be defined by this game. Before the Championship, opinion was divided whether Cork would make the Super 8s or not. The heavy defeat to Kerry places further pressure on this Cork team.
Win, and this season will be seen as a success. Lose, and it will be seen as another lost year.
Mayo in 2014 and 2017 and Donegal in 2016 were seen as ‘respectable’ defeats to superior teams which would be used as a platform for the following season. This progress hasn’t materialised and Cork has continued to slip further away from the top table.
Just as before the Munster final, one could make an argument why Cork supporters should be hopeful. The reality is they are facing a seasoned team with an excellent record in the qualifiers.
Mickey Harte’s calm and respectful demeanour is a far cry from his team’s attitude on the pitch. Tyrone are a physical, aggressive and cynical team that will do what it takes to win, as all the top teams do.
For Cork, too many of their players are either new to this level of intensity or have fallen short in games of this magnitude in recent years.
To expect an outcome other than a comfortable Tyrone victory is unrealistic.
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