Ronan McCarthy: Invaluable lessons mean Cork will gain from the pain

Where does one even begin when analysing a game that had so much packed into 90 pulsating minutes, asks Ronan McCarthy.
Ronan McCarthy: Invaluable lessons mean Cork will gain from the pain

Injuries, black cards, controversial wides, outstanding individual displays, a premature final whistle; this game had it all.

Mayo had been involved in an epic match in Limerick in 2014 with the All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay against Kerry but few travelling down from the West of Ireland could have anticipated another game of similar stature in the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday evening.

The All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Dublin in Croke Park last year was one of the greatest games of football I have ever witnessed and what it showed more than anything is that a team can give its all on any given day and still come second.

Ditto Cork on Saturday night, who emptied the proverbial tank but just couldn’t get over the line, despite an effort which did the county proud.

Writing some hours after the game, however, it is important to detach oneself from the emotion of the contest and analyse why Mayo won. The 0-27 to 2-20 scoreline highlights a very tight game and a narrow one-point victory for Mayo but in the cold light of day, this was a deserved win for Stephen Rochford’s side — and their attack in particular.

They were more fluid up front for most of the game, their combination play, the timing of their runs and angles of support were ever so slightly superior to Cork’s, apart from the last 20 minutes of normal time where the Rebels stormed back to salvage a draw.

After the poor starts against Tipperary and Kerry, it was important for Cork that they started the game well which they did.

It was particularly noticeable that the tackling from the Cork defence was far more aggressive than anything we have seen in the previous outings. There was a real steel to the Cork rearguard from the off. Former Cork selector Haulie O’Neill had a mantra about players — and defenders in particular — making physical contact with their opponents, even if that opponent won the ball. In contrast to the Munster final where Kerry forwards invariably won the ball in a world of space and under little pressure, Cork were in much meaner mood in Limerick.

This change of mindset meant every Mayo forward was forced to contest or win each ball that came their way under considerable pressure from the closest defender.

Cork had their defensive match-ups fairly spot on from the off. James Loughrey picked up Andy Moran and won the first few duels between the players when Moran cleverly turned in along the end-line instead of outwards as would have been expected. Loughrey was scrambling to recover and injured himself as the Mayo attacker sensibly hand passed over the bar.

Anybody who has played in the full-back line will acknowledge it is a specialist position. Loughrey’s loss was a major blow to Peadar Healy as he is Cork’s best man marker. The Mallow man would undoubtedly prefer to play further out the field but he has developed and adapted his game to become a top class inter-county corner-back. Another less obvious but significant loss was Jamie O’Sullivan to a black card approaching half-time. Jamie, on the Cork panel since 2010, is now one of Cork’s most experienced defenders. He is unquestionably under-appreciated in Cork football circles as he isn’t the most stylish defender but he has a great competitive attitude and will sacrifice his own game for the betterment of the team. Up to the time of O’Sullivan’s deserved black card, Cillian O’Connor had been peripheral enough to proceedings apart from frees but he was to come roaring into the game from that point onwards. Notably, Kevin McLaughlin, normally such an important cog in the Mayo wheel, was having little impact.

Cork, overall, were defensively sound but in contrast they were quite laboured in attack. Players took some poor shot options at times with Mark Collins being blocked down, John O’Rourke kicking to the keeper’s hands from out the field and Barry O’Driscoll kicking wide off his left leg from well out on the left flank. These were all examples where I felt players could have kept going driving at the Mayo rearguard, taking their marker on and drawing defenders across.

I felt Cork had the running lines to attack the Mayo defence but chose to take shots under pressure while being pushed away from goal instead of staying on course, sucking in defenders by going directly towards the posts.

When they worked the ball in and around the D area in front of the Mayo goal, Cork looked very potent, yielding a Barry O’Driscoll point and another Donnacha O’Connor effort from play. But for some reason they didn’t opt for this approach on a regular basis.

On top of this, Paul Kerrigan was, at this stage, finding it difficult to get himself into the match in any meaningful way.

Cork’s second problem was a lack of support for the ball carrier. James Loughrey’s charge up the field early in the first half demonstrated this weakness. Even though he showed huge determination and great skill to beat a number of players and to recycle the ball up at the far corner of the pitch, he had to wait an age for someone to offer support. Donnacha O’Connor provided it eventually and scored but that passage highlighted some of the offensive difficulties during that period. I have no doubt a contributing factor to this was the instruction to John O’Rourke and Mark Collins to track Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle respectively. Such is the quality of both Mayo defenders going forward that vigilant tracking back is a pre-requisite of the job description. Both Cork half-forwards did their jobs in a dedicated and very disciplined way but it resulted in a lack of support at times up front for their colleagues.

Donnacha O’Connor was a shining light in attack in the first half and had Ger Cafferkey in trouble from the opening exchanges. Stephen Rochford and his back room team will wonder when watching the video why they didn’t address this faultline sooner.

Both Cafferkey and Eoin Cadogan (who as expected picked up Aidan O’Shea) were visibly off the pace, never really got to the pitch of the game and were having great difficulty managing their direct opponents. Both players when 100% fit have been very reliable championship performers over the last 10 years but at this level you have to have a solid training base and plenty of gametime under your belt to survive. Both didn’t, and it showed. You have to wonder about the wisdom of rushing players back ahead of schedule. Neither player or team benefited on this occasion.

Ryan Price, a late change between the posts performed solidly though in the overall scheme of things Cork’s tendency towards short kick outs probably didn’t help his side. It allowed Mayo to withdraw their forwards out to the 45m line and to slow defenders coming out whereas Cork needed quicker build-up play with incisive timed runs to break the opposition lines.

Sean Powter epitomised this mindset from start to finish. Cork were competitive in midfield and a few longer kick-outs would have afforded them the opportunity to get at the heart of the Mayo defensive set up in speedier fashion.

Paul Kerrigan’s score in the 28th minute was a case in point. Aidan Walsh broke the long kick out down to Mark Collins who offloaded to Powter as he timed his run to hit the gain line at precisely the right moment.

From there, he carried and drove at Mayo committing defensive cover. His pass was in front of Kerrigan who despite being under pressure was able to run onto the pass directly towards goal without breaking stride and the Nemo man slotted perfectly over the bar. The longer kickout was a tactic I felt Cork could have employed more.

A key period in the game was the 10 minutes before half-time when Cillian O’Connor was having a growing influence on proceedings. He kicked a point off his left foot from play to put Mayo two points ahead (0-9 to 0-7). This was the first instance when the Cork defensive system malfunctioned. Kevin Crowley, who was now picking up O’Connor, defended him well initially, stood him up and turned him away from goal but the Cork defence did not push out to support Crowley and/or press O’Connor and the Mayo ace kicked a good score with relative ease.

Almost immediately Diarmuid O’Connor, spotting a mismatch between Powter and Jason Doherty, then kicked a brilliant diagonal ball with the outside of his boot to the edge of the square and Doherty made his physical supremacy count to kick a point. All of a sudden Cork were three points down going into the interval.

Cork lost Aidan Walsh to injury almost immediately after the restart. After a two year hiatus from inter-county football the Kanturk man is still not playing instinctively. Walsh’s strength is his incredible physique, his huge stride and his lung bursting capacity to drive at the heart of opposition defences. While he worked hard and got on some ball I would have liked to have seen him attack the gaps in the Mayo half-back line as Powter did on so many occasions. Instead, you could see his hesitancy looking to offload to team mates who often were in less advantageous positions.

Mayo tacked on a few simple scores early in the second half. Michael Shields was now picking up Cillian O’Connor and the Ballintubber man lost his marker far too easily in the scoring zone to kick two scores. Add an Andy Moran point and Cork were now six down early in the second half. Cork did respond but again we had examples of poor shot selection, poor execution and a lack of support at times in the Cork forward line. Stephen Cronin kicked a poor wide when put through by Powter and Shields dropped a terrible effort into the keeper’s hands. After a Ruairi Deane run straight at the Mayo rearguard, Donnacha O Connor kicked wide.

What stood out in this passage of play was Deane’s lack of options in front, or off the shoulder, as he drove forward. After this little mini period of dominance which yielded no scores, Mayo went straight down the pitch with fluid combination play, well-timed passing and incisive running leading to a Patrick Durcan point.

Now seven points down, Cork were in real trouble. Barry O’Driscoll won a free in front of goal to stem the bleeding. Cork withdrew Shields and introduced Colm O’Neill. John O’Rourke kicked two points from play in quick succession and O’Neill added another.

Ruairi Deane who had replaced Aidan Walsh was having a growing influence on proceedings with his hard running and his ability to beat the man in front of him causing Mayo untold difficulties. Cork erred I feel at this point by not going full court press on Mayo’s kick outs. Instead Mayo built from the back, adding the next three scores. A decisive passage of play was the lead up to Aidan O’Shea’s point to put Mayo five up. Powter was turned over by Jason Doherty and the ball was quickly transferred to O’Shea who was left isolated with Eoin Cadogan in front of goal.

This was a huge opportunity for a green flag but instead of going for the kill, O’Shea took his point, probably confident that a five-point lead was enough to see out the game. Contrast this to O’Shea’s single mindedness to score a goal in the 2014 qualifier versus Cork in Croke Park, despite being further from goal and with more defenders in his path.

It was a decision that nearly proved fatal for Mayo. Instead of being killed off by a goal, Cork came strong with huge levels of support running and Powter’s goal coming after a brilliant interchange of passes with Stephen Cronin.

O’Rourke showed bottle after a missed goal chance to land a crucial score. Cork showed great ability against Tipperary to work a goal in desperate circumstances and similarly here against Mayo their direct running and excellent combination play yielded a goal when needed most. And of course, Luke Connolly showed nerves of steel to kick a monster free to draw level.

Despite leading at half-time in extra time, Mayo reeled off three points in succession from Keith Higgins (again I felt a goal was on here for Mayo), Cillian O’Connor and a brilliant point on the outside of the right boot from his brother Diarmuid. It was just enough to see them home, with young players Michael Cahalane and Sean White rushing their efforts to draw the game.

We won’t criticise them for this. They showed courage to be there and go for it. They are young players who will find themselves in similar positions in the future. What they learned on Saturday evening will prove invaluable.

I understand the costs are significant but Croke Park must introduce Hawk Eye to all major venues as quickly as possible. Well done to the linesman for intervening (correctly) and overruling the awarding of a point to Donnacha O’Connor in the first half but there is too much riding on these games and too much effort and money expended by players, managements and county boards not to avail of the technology when it is there.

The black card has been a source of much debate since its inception.

Yes, it isn’t perfect but it has definitely helped to open up the game of Gaelic football. However, we have to ask — is it being used to punish the right offences? Michael Cahalane was straight through on goal and was fouled by Keith Higgins who was happy to concede the free. Higgins was merely ticked for the offence. Surely preventing a certain goal scoring opportunity near the end of a game is a far greater offence than, let’s say, Lee Keenan’s black card trip out in the middle of the field?

Let me be clear. This is not a criticism of the referee Ciaran Branagan who applied the rules as they exist correctly in both incidences.

It is more a question about extending the reach of the black card or introducing a heftier punishment for such game-saving (winning) challenges.

As long as the punishment is worth it players will continue to do it.

Finally, Carbery Rangers play Douglas tomorrow night in a Cork senior football championship match in Clonakilty. While taking account of the fact that championships must be run off and that it is not a knockout game, I think it is unfair to ask players like Sean Powter and John O’Rourke who gave their heart and soul for Cork on Saturday night to play again on Tuesday.

It’s not fair to the players, the clubs or to the championship.

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