The nagging fear that Kerry are hatching a plan is always there.
Kieran Donaghy’s introduction as the target full-forward won them the All-Ireland in 2006.
In 2009, midfielder Tommy Griffin was re-deployed to full-back where his ability to field the ball and win physical battles allowed him to shut down the emerging power-house full-forwards.
In 2011, Eoin Brosnan was brought out of retirement to drive forward from centre-back rather his traditional wing-forward role. Last year, Colm Cooper’s deployment at centre-forward allowed him to showcase his skills in front of the crowded rearguards rather than disappear behind them.
And on Sunday, Declan O’Sullivan invented the quarterback role in gaelic football. A role tailor-made for an ageing player whose Sat-Nav is superior but whose body is waning. The play was moulded and directed in front of him, by him.
Let’s be clear. You can’t take away from Kerry’s Munster final performance on Sunday. It was a top-class exhibition of all the skills in the game. They were excellent. They were allowed to be. Cork under-performed. Everyone agrees. However, leaving it at that without establishing the reasons why serves no purpose. Kerry have better players? Cork had no heart? Too simplistic. If it was that obvious, we would all have seen this one coming a mile off.
Every performance is a function of the way both teams approach the game. Gaelic football is no different to any sport in that regard but it is not a “set play” ball game. It’s not as prescriptive as Rugby or American Football. The play is too fluid for that to work. There is no offside; the opposition can set up whatever way they like. Just when you think you have cracked it off the back of a great win, the next opposition team has cracked you.
You need to be able to play it a number of ways. The game plan, the over-arching system of play is more like a philosophy tailored to your strengths but which has to be pliable depending on the opposition. Individual decision-making is more relevant. Roles are outlined and the hope is that through practice, these roles start working together seamlessly as the occasion merits. Easier said than done. Therein lays the skill and ability of the truly perceptive managers and coaches.
Cork didn’t go into this one without a game plan. However, it was unfortunate that Kerry went into the match with a game plan very much suited to whatever Cork could throw at them. Brian Cuthbert has tried to develop a strategy around Cork’s strengths in what is a very short space of time. Eamonn Fitzmaurice, it seems, has been developing options.
So what is Cork’s game plan? Cork have built their attack around the fact that they have four key scoring forwards. They play with two in the full-forward line and two in the half-forward line with these four players directed to stay as close to goal as possible. The other two forwards named on the team are mandated to work back the pitch. Along with the rest of the team, the job of those two spare forwards is to transfer the ball up to the four scorers in space as quickly as possible. The four scorers will do a lot of damage if this is left unchecked. But what if you find Donnchadh Walsh, Johnny Buckley and Declan O’Sullivan sweeping in the space in front of those four scorers, daring you to thread a pass? A hand pass sideways buys you time to make a decision but the three sweepers are still there forming a screen. You might punch a hole in the screen with a powerful run through the middle once or twice (cue Aidan Walsh in the first minute) but your four key scorers will still not be much use to you behind that hardworking screen.
Without the protection he was given, Shane Enright could have been in just as much trouble on Brian Hurley as Shields was with James O’Donoghue. Cork’s strengths became neutered and they needed to be able to play it another way. A collective re-organisation was required. If time-outs could be bought, Cork would likely have been highest bidder at several stages during the first half.
If Kerry try the same thing against Dublin, you could well imagine Johnny Cooper following Declan O’Sullivan high up the pitch and perhaps even nicking a point or two himself. Dublin are cavalier and so James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey would probably also gallop forward with Walsh and Buckley, no matter how deep they go. A shoot-out would ensue. With Donegal, Jim McGuinness would probably leave Declan O’Sullivan and company go as deep into the Kerry defence as they liked. The Donegal defensive screen would hold back and start at midfield with a defiant “break us down if you can attitude” coupled with “we’ll catch you on the counter attack”.
On Sunday, Cork’s half-back line was caught in two minds. They did not push up on the deep-lying Walsh, Buckley and O’Sullivan. They did not sit back to protect the full-back line. The result was exactly what you did not want to happen against Kerry; oceans of space in front of a very talented, nippy, two man Kerry full-forward line and time on the ball for the outside men to pick out a pass. Criticism of Shields and Cadogan was illogical simply because nobody would have coped with that.
They need to be judged on a different day when they are in with a fighting chance. Any efforts made to stem the flow will look unfit, tired and heartless. It’s like chasing shadows. Cork are not unfit. They are not tired and they are not heartless. Kerry simply worked them out in advance and set about dismantling them on the day.
The silver lining is that at least now Cork have an opportunity to avail of the two things they need most. Time and games. A chance to develop and play it a different way with new roles assigned. Whether there will be enough time left this season to address the other malfunctions from Sunday is questionable. The kick out battle, the kick passing, the ball handling are all now on the “to do” list.
Playing it a different way is exactly what Kerry did on Sunday. It’s what they have always been able to do. Whilst the notable change was their half-forward line sweeping in front of their defence and turning over ball, their transitioning of that ball back up the field was also an impressive departure. It required ferocious work rate, intelligent option-taking and a full forward line willing to bridge that 60 metre gap with well-timed diagonal runs. Their philosophy stays the same, the roles change.
Tony McEntee nailed it in yesterday’s Irish Examiner when he said what Fitzmaurice should be given most credit for is merging Kerry’s pass-and-move attacking style with a modern defensive system.
Impressive as it was, it will need to evolve further in Croke Park now that the other contenders have been given an advance screening.
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