Fact: Not since the 2012 Munster semi-final have Cork taken out a football team sat higher than them on championship’s ladder. It’s a stat that frustrates Paul Kerrigan.
The Cork captain lined out at left-half-forward that June Sunday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh when Conor Counihan’s outfit scored a 0-17 to 0-12 victory over Kerry. Clare and Kildare were subsequently brushed aside to move the Rebels within 70 minutes of a fourth All-Ireland final appearance in six years.
Donegal, however, were the rock upon which Cork would perish; the Rebels’ shot selection and waning patience when attempting to break through the northerners defensive wall in the second period, according to Kerrigan, the chief contributing factors in their championship exit.
2013 ended at the hands of Dublin, Mayo terminated 2014 and Kildare knocked Cork out last summer; each championship campaign also bringing with it provincial final heartache at the hands of their neighbours.
So, four years on from that June Sunday down in the Páirc, Paul Kerrigan and Cork are still chasing a significant championship victory, a top table scalp.
Talk of consistency, well, for the moment at least, has been parked. Navigating a path through Donegal, or more specifically their defensive structure, represents their sole concern.
“For this team, we just need to beat a Division 1 team in the championship,” insists the Cork forward. “We have come close in the last couple of years, but we just haven’t done it. We need to get over the line. Donegal is the team that has come first to us. Beating Longford and Limerick isn’t the be all and end all for Cork football. We need to have a big game, we need to do it for this group.
“They are one of the top five, six teams in the country and that is the level we want to get back to. This is a season-defining game.”
Kerrigan is well familiar with the stuffy environment Donegal operate within. Patience, he says, is a virtue when the opposition wears green and gold.
“2012 was my first experience of playing them in the championship. As a player, nothing can prepare you for their system until you play it. They have their ‘keeper, a couple of man-makers, a corner-forward and everyone else goes where they want. It is just one of those games where anything can happen.
“We went with seven forwards against them that day in 2012. We really went for it. The biggest thing I remember from that game is that we stuck to the plan in the first half, but we went away from it in the second half, myself included. Our shot selection and a lack of patience came against us. They thrived on the couple of opportunities we missed. They feed off momentum. If I get turned over, there will be a big cheer for them. They’ll go up the field in twos and threes, then, and get a score. We just need to be patient. We just need to back ourselves.
“They could have a lot of possession as they did against Tyrone and they could be passing out around midfield, there is no good keeping them out there for 40 seconds and then concede a soft free in and around the goal. It defeats the purpose. Going forward, if you carry the ball into a tackle alone or drop a ball short under pressure, that’s meat and drink to them. Patience all over the field is what we need.”
But as much respect as Kerrigan holds for Saturday’s opposition, he doesn’t believe theirs is a system Cork can’t crack.
“We watched the Ulster final and then we watched their other Ulster games. We beat them in the league semi-final last year. They have lost games. We think there could be weaknesses there and we need to back each other and go for it in those areas of the field. If we perform, I think we’ll win.”
Granted, they’ll have to significantly improve on the first-half performance against Longford which yielded a fairly meagre three points.
“In the second-half of that game, there was only one team in it. We need to produce that kind of a performance for the whole 70 minutes. We’re not going to be afraid of the challenge in front of us. We’re going to go for it.”
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