In the zone: How Jimmy Barry-Murphy has rejigged Cork’s approach

If Jimmy Barry-Murphy didn’t know he was doing something extraordinary, he must surely have realised it when Dónal Óg Cusack lauded his changing of the script after the qualifier win over Clare last Saturday week.

Things between the pair just haven’t been the same since Cusack was dropped off the panel in 2013. But under the caption “Viva La Rebelution” on The Sunday Game a day after the Clare game, the former Cork goalkeeper said: “Their style has definitely changed and finally they seem to be applying a system.”

It was the second week in a row that Cusack saw fit to praise his native county after they had seen off Wexford the previous weekend. He clearly identifies with a style of play which has origins in what Donal O’Grady adopted from Newtownshandrum and Cusack and his fellow players embraced, particularly the short passing element.

What O’Grady put into motion in 2003 was cataclysmic for a county that prided itself on bettering teams in direct, individual combat.

Even if it borrows from Waterford, it could strongly be argued what Barry-Murphy is advocating and overseeing now is considerably more radical. At least under O’Grady and John Allen, it remained man-on-man for the most part. Mark Ellis now marks space. On O’Grady and Allen’s watch, forwards didn’t retreat as much as they do now. Brian Lawton is a back with an attacker’s number on his jersey. Cork have gone full-blown zonal.

That the U-turn has garnered a couple of wins deems it almost acceptable but Barry-Murphy’s reputation also makes it more digestible to those purists with more sensitive stomachs.

But it is tough to swallow. As Davy Fitzgerald pointed out after they had beaten Clare, not everyone in Cork will like it.

Many will feel Cork are now part of a problem that former Limerick manager Tom Ryan identified watching Cusack and Eddie Brennan analyse their win over Clare as well as the Dublin-Limerick and Munster final games.

Ryan wrote in a newspapaer column last weekend: “I did not know what they were talking about. Worse than that, the game they were analysing I no longer recognised. Okay, I know what some of you are thinking, that I belong to the dark age and need to be brought kicking and screaming into hurling’s brave new era. If last weekend is what hurling is supposed to look like, then lock me away in my ignorant world and throw away the key.”

Funny how Ryan’s thoughts now reflect what was so feared by the more conservative in Cork about their team’s style the godfather of whom, Bernie O’Connor, admitted the tactic was inspired by the other major Gaelic game: “To a certain extent you’re playing football with hurleys, if you know what I mean.”

In these pages after this past May’s Division 1 final defeat to Waterford, O’Grady urged Barry-Murphy to go unconventional: “Jimmy Barry-Murphy is a traditionalist at heart. But he may have to move a little to the dark side in planning for their upcoming championship encounter.”

The worm didn’t turn that day but it has most definitely changed direction since.

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