Both Kildare and Cork would feature highly on most people’s list for flakiest teams around. Time and again both have shown glimpses of an ability to perform at an elite level and on paper both squads have enough individual quality to be delivering on a more consistent basis. Not only were questions being asked of the players, but Jason Ryan and Brian Cuthburt would have been aware of the importance of the game for their managerial futures.
Kildare had bounced back from the Leinster semi-final defeat to Dublin with wins over Offaly and Longford, giving them a momentum-building platform against a Cork team who only had six days to consider their replay defeat to Kerry.
We have seen since the qualifiers began how teams who only have a six-day turnaround after a loss struggle to get over the next hurdle and Cork’s performance was a further example of that challenge.
You could argue this Cork side have been the most discussed and analysed team to date this year and Saturday will have added another batch of hard questions.
During the first half, it was obvious a lot of players are unsure of their roles and what is expected of them in a style of play that may not necessarily be bringing the best out of them. Not only was there a lack of clarity with their game plan, more worryingly, they looked like a team who were feeling sorry for themselves and their body language throughout the game highlighted this.
Time and again Cork players stopped working when a Kildare man had gone past and, when attacking, there was little or no support for the man in possession.
If you look at the first 55 minutes of the game — when it was still a contest, before Cork started searching for goals — Cork only scored three points from play and only Mark Collins point after half time could be considered a well-worked team score, ie where there was some semblance of getting the ball to the man in the best position. Colm O’Neill and Paul Kerrigan had excellent individual points in the first half, but a team with so many talented attacking options did little to help each other. The slow build up, the reluctance to kick direct ball into the full forward line and the number of poor shots from the likes of Eoin Cadogan, Kevin O’Driscoll and Fintan Goold, suggests there needs to be a systematic review of how to develop a system that will maximise the strengths of their forwards.
Kildare, on the other hand, looked a team discovering themselves and, with the return from injury of Niall Kelly, they possess a forward capable of changing a game.
The experience this Kildare team have built in the qualifiers over the last few years would have told them of the physical and psychological challenge Cork were facing on the short turnaorund and, from the very start, they looked to push the pace of the game and ensure they were the team setting the tone.
Their midfielders, Paul Cribbin and Tommy Moolick, were instrumental in providing a platform around the middle third that allowed Kildare to dominate possession and control the tempo. Both were constantanly available for the ball and, when Cork lost Alan O’Connor to a knee injury after 20 minutes, there was little or no resistance to their domination of the area.
Kildare utilised a running game from defence that challenged Cork physically and mentally, but rather than looking to run it into the scoring zone, where Cork had extra bodies, once Kildare approached the Cork 45 yard-line they were looking to pop accurate kick passes in front of their inside forwards. With Eoghan O’Flaherty, Emmet Bolton and Niall Kelly all delivering these shorter 20-30 yard kick passes, it made the Cork sweeper redundant and allowed the likes of Alan Smith, Eamon Callaghan and Padraig Fogarty to win clean possession in front and lay it off to runners or turn and take on their own shot.
At the final whistle, it was obvious how much this victory meant to Jason Ryan and his players. It’ll be interesting to see if they can build on this display or will Kildare deliver a ‘happy to be there performance’ against Kerry next Sunday.
For me, Cork are at a crossroads. The first question is whether there is a change of management, but, whatever way that answer falls, the players must look to build a team identity and also consider how they support each other on the pitch. It’s said time heals all wounds; championship defeats are tough to deal with at the best of times, but ones which leave questions over a team’s heart and fight often need more than just time to heal. Cork have the rest of the year to start working out solutions.