Conor Dorman’s defending on the front foot

ACROSS the table is the face of modern gaelic football. The face and the physique.

Conor Dorman’s defending on the front foot

Cork’s Conor Dorman is nominally a wing-back, but as easily a midfielder or a wing-forward. Where once his office space was a cubicle ten yards in from the sideline and 40 yards from his own goal, now it is open plan, anywhere the ball is and everywhere he might like to take his exhausted opponent.

Though the jersey number indicates his role is stopping scores, jersey numbers are as irrelevant as buggy whips. Opponents spend more time fretting over Dorman’s whereabouts than the other way around.

In the Sigerson Cup derby with Cork IT in January, he sallied his way through the IT defence for UCC, careering past several players, to claim the game’s decisive goal early in the second half.

In the National League last month for Cork against Mayo, he was found scorching through the middle by John Hayes to set up Brian Hurley for the winning goal in injury-time.

It’s not that defensive responsibility is lost on Conor Dorman — Dublin shouldn’t be long reminding him of his primary duties on Sunday in Croke Park — but his game-strengths and the nature of the contest dictates that he’s a front-foot type of player. And in today’s football environment, where wing-forwards are essentially defenders, that’s a philosophy to be cherished.

“I’d be very comfortable anywhere in the middle eight now,” he concurs. “I started wing-back and went to midfield in the second half (against Donegal) in the semi-final. I didn’t feel out of place, and I’d feel fairly comfortable in the half-forward line as well. I’ve played a fair bit of football there with the club (Bishopstown). It’s all very similar, wing-forwards drop back, wing-backs drive on,” Dorman says.

The evolution of the game means that corner-backs can be liberated to midfield, where everyone gets the opportunity to work on their possession stats with a goalkeeper firing darts from the edge of the parallelogram.

“You see someone like (Eoin) Cadogan, who has made a fairly seamless transfer from corner-back/full-back to midfield. Keepers are getting so good at kick-outs. Ken (O’Halloran) found me with three or four in the semi-final and I wasn’t even really competing for possession on any of them. Mark Collins took eight kick-outs, and he’s not a massive player either.”

Football, if it hasn’t quite travelled full circle, is 90 degrees of the way there. Now everyone with what is colloquially referred to as a “big engine” wants to be wing back, and the graveyard shift is the wing-forward position that was once the domain of David Beggy and Ger Power, Dave Barry and Pat Spillane.

“Wing-forward is the most demanding position on the pitch,” Dorman accepts, “I don’t fancy Kevin or Colm O’Driscoll’s job on our team. You have to be up and down the pitch, helping the attack, helping the defence. They never really get to finish the game because they are working so hard.

If you get 50-55 good minutes out of those lads, you’d be happy.”

His own colleague Paul Kerrigan has had to be retooled with a reverse gear, and the Nemo man hasn’t been slow to put in a shift. But you know he’d prefer to be getting opposition defenders on the turn in their own backyard.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say the era of the old-style wing forward is gone,” says the Bishopstown man. “The likes of Paul is really quick and he will come back, but he’s been so good as an impact player this season that maybe it’s counting against him in some ways (in terms of not starting games).

“He is a brilliant player, can operate anywhere in the middle eight but yes, a wing-forward has to defend more than the wing-back in many instances. I’ve attacked a lot this season whereas Kevin O’Driscoll has ended up defending more in games.”

Dorman, an Energy Engineering student at UCC, is arguably more than halfway through his season — even if the championship is still eight weeks away. He is engaged by the debate on burnout among college inter-county players, but offers up some evidence for the defence.

“Between Cork and the Sigerson (with UCC) this year, it was handled very well between Billy (Morgan) and Brian (Cuthbert), before and after the Sigerson. Both were aware that there’s no point training five or six times a week. In fact I was probably training less around the time of the Sigerson than I was at any other stage.

“You notice the incremental improvements as you move on, because every year you are stepping up a level. When you’re a minor, you think ‘I’m at the top of my game’ but I am after getting a lot bigger, faster, tougher than I was then. You get faster in game terms year-on-year, and Pat’s introduction has moved it on a level again.”

‘Pat’, in this instance, is Cork’s fitness coach Pat Flanagan, who brought his own war stories and All-Ireland successes into the Cork set-up this season.

“I’m not a big one for past players or managers, but my dad was saying he was very good, had been involved with Kerry winning teams. When he came in, he proved to be even better than I had thought. Everyone has to prove himself, but we knew within a week or two that he was really good. We might be watching a clip of a game and he’ll pick something out about you, and you’re thinking ‘yeah, I was doing that’. If I made a run off the shoulder, it might be on the outside, and he’d be wondering why it wasn’t on the inside. He was saying to use my strength more than I have been — run through them rather than around them, because it’s a lot faster and more direct.”

Sunday will be only his second foray into Jones’s Road as a senior. The first lasted 27 minutes, at which point he was replaced by Kevin Crowley after a ropey half an hour against Dublin 14 months ago.

“I was going up before the semi-final this year wondering would I be nervous, but I had nothing like that before the game. After a game, it’s very important that you scrutinise yourself. After the Donegal semi, I felt I should have had another goal and a point, so in training, you’re looking to shooting and composure around the goals.”

Thus far, the 21-year-old has stood up to the scrutiny. In Omagh, where Cork turned a losing position into a one-point victory, Dorman gave away an early penalty — “I still don’t think the decision was right” — and his man, Conor McAliskey got Tyrone a first-quarter goal. “I had to put the head down and I thought I stood up pretty well. Last year, I might have been down in the dumps about it, but now I just got on with the game, helped the team, drove on, and we managed to pip them in the end.”

Evidently, there’s a big heart driving that tireless engine.

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