BERNARD BROGAN is most people’s certainty for the 2010 Footballer of the Year award.
And rightly so.
He was superb for Dublin this season, and their main scoring threat throughout their championship run to the last four.
But, Down’s Marty Clarke is creeping up quietly by the rails in the home stretch and the An Ríocht club man was superb in Down’s victory over Kerry and subsequently against Kildare. Another stunning display on Sunday would make him the challenger in chief to Brogan’s case to claim the game’s ultimate individual award.
The fact that Clarke is on the back of two man-of-the-match displays in the quarter-final and semi-final will have the alarm bells ringing in Conor Counihan’s head and he will know that if his team are to collect Sam Maguire for the first time since 1990, they must curb Clarke’s creative influence.
Clarke is selected at number 15 by James McCartan but ranges around the field, offering himself as a target for defensive offloads and a springboard for many attacks.
He roams where he likes and you only have to remember his block-down against Kerry in his own half-back line to appreciate his work ethic. He is extremely athletic, cool in possession and a wonderful passer. His deliveries into the likes of Benny Coulter must be stopped at source if Cork are to win.
The ideal option for Cork would be to put Michael Shields on him. Shields is not a natural corner-back-style man-marker and appears restricted in the full-back line. Out the field he is well able to carry ball forward and uses possession well.
Were Shields to intercept a few of the passes intended for Clarke, or get a few turnovers, he would be the perfect man to drive forward and put Down and Clarke on the back foot. If a defender can make a few penetrating runs and ideally create a score, or better still raise a flag himself, it puts pressure on the forward and plays on his mind. The ideal situation for a defender is if the forward is forced to forget his attacking role and concentrate on negating the threat of his man.
Cork’s dilemma is that they may not be able to afford to take Shields out of the full-back line, especially if Canty does not start. Would Eoin Cadogan have the cuteness and skills to nullify Coulter? If the answer is no, and Canty can’t play, Shields will have to remain at full back to quench fires in the danger area.
So who does Counihan turn to if Cork cannot afford Shields to track Clarke? He needs an individual who will put the team first and track Clarke and be on his case all day. A man-marker who knows his limitations, and knows if he nullifies Clarke he will play a key role for the team.
Clarke plays a creative role for Down in the way Ciarán McDonald did for Mayo in 2004 and 2006 and in those All-Ireland finals, Kerry put Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Aidan O’Mahony on him in definite man-marking roles. And in both instances it worked splendidly as Kerry went on to claim Sam.
Would John Miskella have another big display in his legs? He has done superbly well on Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan in the past and perhaps the Ballincollig man would relish the role. He would be my second option.
Regardless of what individual defender is assigned to picking up Clarke, all the Cork half-forwards and two midfielders must be needful of their role in assisting him. A few big tackles or dispossessions on Clarke from the likes of Paul Kerrigan or Paddy Kelly would be boost Cork morale and rattle Down.
If Cork stop Clarke, they will have dislodged a key cog from the Down machine.
Cork need to have a plan and make it stick. Stopping him won’t be easy. But as Cork know more than any team over the past few years, winning an All-Ireland isn’t either. They won’t do one, without doing the other.
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