By Peter O’Dwyer
The Cork management team finds itself in a bind; caught between perhaps the side’s most effective game plan and their players’ natural instincts and talents.
Much like Louis Van Gaal’s recent proclamations that the Manchester United side he’s inherited is more than a little top-heavy, Brian Cuthbert has a similar problem to contend with.
There’s no doubt that Cork’s finest players largely ply their trade with the aim of dissecting the posts rather than preventing their opponents from achieving the same feat. In that regard, the wide open spaces of league football suits Cork and their magnificent forward line.
Championship, as the cliché goes, is an entirely different challenge though and one that Cork have failed dismally so far this year.
Against Sligo, Cuthbert employed a more defensive-minded system to overcome the Yeats County. Colm O’Driscoll and Mark Collins provided far greater protection to the full-back line and provided a platform for Cork to spring counter-attacks thus giving their forwards the space they crave before the Sligo defence reset.
Admittedly, Sligo are no Mayo but as fellow Westerners, Roscommon showed, getting men behind the ball – while horribly ugly to watch – can be quite effective against James Horan’s men.
Cork, being pragmatic, could employ similar tactics but do so safe in the knowledge that quick ball to their forward line would provide beauty and crucially scores in sufficient quantities to justify the uglier side of the game.
That, however, does not sit well with the Cork psyche (thankfully) and seems unlikely to be the way Cuthbert’s men will approach the challenge.
“I suppose I’d prefer to look at us as an attacking team rather than a defensive team. I’d like to think that the two times we’ve been in Croke Park this year we’ve scored freely. We’ve let scores happen as well but, at the same time, I think Croke Park as a pitch suits us, it suits our players,” said Cuthbert this week. That’s that so.
Cork will have a chance in any match-up given the talents of Brian Hurley, Daniel Goulding, Paul Kerrigan and Colm O’Neill among others. But as Cuthbert concedes the talents of those guys matter little if they’re as involved as the fellas that paid admission to be in the stands.
In Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Kerry owned the ball and were not in any mood to share. Against Sligo, things were a bit better. Unfortunately, Mayo are more Kerry than Sligo – and then some, in a defensive sense.
When Cuthbert says the opposition will cause “huge problems in terms of winning the ball” he’s only considering half the story.
The other half is that Mayo are masters at winning it back too. Cuthbert touched on their tackling during the week presumably in an attempt to win a few soft frees from an affected ref.
It might prove his best bet.
Mayo are somewhat in limbo. For the moment they can’t win, even while doing so consistently.
Only in the next round of the championship, should they get there, will they be able to put forward their case that they’re capable of going one better this time round. Mayo’s victories to date are menial jobs that have to be completed to earn passage to that platform.
For now, they remain the country’s second best team by virtue of their successive All-Ireland final defeats. They also remain someway off dethroning the reigning champions if initial signs are anything to go by.
The transition of Aidan O’Shea to centre-forward appears the only change of note from the side that weren’t good enough in the past two years. It might well prove a positive move especially if O’Shea, who is enjoying being able to showcase his footballing skills a bit more, is to be believed.
Whether it’s sufficient to close the gap and claim that elusive All-Ireland is a matter for another day though.
For now, Mayo remain the country’s second best and against Munster’s second best that should be good enough for victory regardless of Cork’s attacking prowess.
CORK: Ken O’Halloran; James Loughrey, Eoin Cadogan, Noel Galvin; Michael Shields, Thomas Clancy, Brian O’Driscoll; Ian Maguire, Aidan Walsh; Paul Kerrigan, Mark Collins, Colm O’Driscoll; Colm O’Neill, Brian Hurley, Donal Óg Hodnett.
MAYO: Robert Hennelly; Chris Barrett, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan; Barry Moran, Seamus O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin, Aidan O'Shea, Jason Doherty; Cillian O'Connor, Andy Moran, Alan Dillon.