In an excruciatingly deliberate game, which I watched for the second time in midweek, it was as if Cork had nobody to interpret the thermals, pitch one up and allow the wind to take it over the bar. Donegal had Michael Murphy from Glenswilly and Odhrán Mac Niallais from Gaoth Dobhair, no strangers to windy conditions and to nabbing a crucial score every now and then.
If Cork had somebody to scrape the skies, they might just have left Ballyshannon with two league points last Sunday.
In a game where Cork were understandably reluctant to engage in a horsing match against the Donegal midfield duo, Neil Gallagher only had to raise his paws in Ballyshannon and the O’Neills, as if by magic, nestled in his grasp. Another Glenswilly man putting in a big shift in early March.
If Cork had the guile to match their gusto and gumption all afternoon, they wouldn’t have gone from the 13th minute of the first half to the 25th minute of the second without any of their forwards scoring from play. That score late in the second half from Brian Hurley was the only score any of the Cork inside line got from play in the game. When one considers the inside line consisted of Colm O’Neill (four points from frees), Donncha O’Connor (one point from a free) and Hurley (a solitary score from play), this was surely a much smaller return than either they or their management would have expected. As they analyse their individual performances all week, I’m sure the Cork forwards will point to conditions that were less than ideal for feeding in or winning clean ball. There have been few better teams in the country than Donegal these past five seasons at clogging up the arteries to a decent inside line. Last Sunday, Donegal, with Mark and Ryan McHugh sweeping in front of O’Neill and Hurley all day, the blockages were severe and stifling.
There are some days, particularly in league football at windswept venues like Fr Tierney Park, that forwards need to make up their minds before they hit the pitch about what they want out of a game other than scores. I acknowledge that at times last Sunday, O’Neill and Hurley became isolated with an entire half-forward line and Donncha O’Connor filtering back. But that shouldn’t preclude either of them from getting genuine purchase on the man and/or the ball every time they move in to tackle. Nobody does this better than their counterpart, Michael Murphy — even if he did cross the line to the point of being sent off for two robust tackles.
Hurley seemed to discover the required approach almost by accident late in the game, when he expended a serious amount of energy hounding Anthony Thompson into turning over possession (a rare event for a Donegal half-back) but a minute into injury-time, the counter attack didn’t have enough conviction and Donegal got away with it.
In an ideal world, all attackers and all those, including myself, who would prefer to see quality players like O’Neill and Hurley getting proper service, want to see forwards keep 75% of their energy for attractive attacking play. But when that doesn’t happen, these idealists need to jettison principles and get stuck in. I imagine Brian Cuthbert and his management will have asked that at least 50% of their forwards’ energy is expended in tackling higher up the field. We should see more pressure on the Kerry backs tomorrow.
For starters, Cork have set up differently. The half-forward line of both O’Driscolls and John O’Rourke remains but the placing of Mark Collins at full forward is a nod not so much to the fact Cork needed more legs from their full forward but to the reality Collins was never going to compete physically with David Moran and Anthony Maher for kickouts. With the likes of Bryan Sheehan, Johnny Buckley and Jack Sherwood out around the middle, Collins might be required to forage outfield away from full forward tomorrow.
It was an indictment of Cork’s on-the-spot decision making last Sunday to see Collins line up shoulder to shoulder with Neil Gallagher for a hop-ball in the 27th minute. There was always only going to be one winner there. With due respect to Collins, he kicked Cork’s best score of the game within a minute of being swatted away. He might be still getting there physically, but he has the head for the game, no question.
The selection of Eoin Cadogan in the space vacated by Collins gives us an early heads-up on what to expect at midfield in Páirc Uí Rinn but will Ken O’Halloran dare to go direct on kick-outs after the job of work Kerry’s front six did on Seán Currie in Killarney last Sunday?
Three months ago in Austin Stack Park, Stephen O’Donoghue did as well as any opponent in the club championship on Kieran Donaghy. If at any stage tomorrow Michael Shields gets bogged down in the games being engaged in at the edge of the square, well, Cork have context and cause to try out the Ballincollig man on the Kerry captain. We might then see if November’s showing was more than just a flash in the pan.
Some of us are a little curious too, about whether or not Brian Hurley can repeat his incredible showing against Mark Griffin in the corresponding league fixture last season. Would it be too much to expect Cork to try and find out and for Kerry to allow the match-up to happen? Again, just to see if it was all just a flash in the pan.
One final observation based on the torture of watching the Cork-Donegal game. Has anyone noticed how many Cork players point to where they want the ball put immediately after releasing the ball themselves? Some may view it as a symptom of the hand-passing malaise sweeping the game right now, but there’s more to it than that.
When a player points to a pass beyond the one he’s already after giving, it seems to me a type of esprit de l’escalier; a classic case of being wise after the event. If the pass is so obvious to a player a split second after release, why can’t it be executed a split second earlier, without having to go through the middle-man? At the moment, Cork seem too have far too many players who describe the play and too few who are capable of seeing the play.
For Cork to win tomorrow they need to be more verb, less adjective. More doing; less describing. Recent history in their league encounters suggests Cork could surprise us all and give Kerry a right good tanking.
But the case for a Kerry win is more convincing.