The case for the centre of defence

EARLY on, the conversation was much as expected.

Ronan Curran was drinking tea and fielding the questions like so many sliotars being pucked around the Páirc on a summer’s evening.

Waterford?

“I hated those games when we played them, it was always 3-22 to 2-25 or whatever – not great for backs! But it’s been a great rivalry and there have been great forwards on show on both sides; Waterford have marquee names who are still playing well, so we’ll be up against it.”

His own form?

“I’m happy with the way it’s gone, I trained hard from the start of the year – said to myself I’d give it one good hard year and perform to my best if I could.

“Mark McManus, the Cork physical trainer, has been very good to me that way – he’s almost been a personal trainer for me at times. I’ve been training eight, nine times in a week, double sessions on some days, and Mark’s given up his time during the day to help me. Between the weights and speed programmes I’m where I want to be.”

But then a casual question about playing centre-back set the St Finbarr’s club man musing. The cup of tea was left alone for a while.

“I’ve seen it develop for the last eight or so years and it’s amazing how it’s changed in that time,” says Curran. “At times in the last two seasons there were times when I was nearly hoping I was out on the wing, to be honest, because that was where you were being dragged to anyway.

“Centre-back play isn’t what it used to be and I often said I’d love to have played centre-back in the 80s, the early 90s, when the opposition would puck the ball out down the middle of the field and when it landed you’d work a triangle around it to clear the ball.

“That was great for the likes of likes of Ger Henderson or Seanie McMahon, or Jim Cashman, who was a huge hero of mine in particular. They were well able to cope with that.”

Well then, it seems only fair to offer the right of reply to a players of that vintage. Jim Cashman was a superb centre-back for Cork, and he explains the job specifications when he wore the number six jersey a couple of decades ago.

“Your first job was to control the centre, to dominate that area and what happened around there. You were told to stay in the centre as most of the ball was coming down through the middle anyway and you’d see plenty of it.

“A lot of the time you were on a big centre-forward whose job was to stop you playing, to keep the ball travelling in to the full-forward line behind you.

“In my time you’d be marking Chuck O’Connor of Waterford, Christy Walsh from Kerry, John Power of Kilkenny, Declan Ryan or Donie O’Connell of Tipperary.

“You’d nearly always know who you were up against. If it was Limerick you knew it’d be Gary Kirby; against Wexford you knew it’d be Martin Storey. All good hurlers, but all big, strong men as well.”

The current Cork centre-back sees a difference nowadays. That template has been abandoned by modern managers.

“That’s changed now,” says Curran. “You have faster centre-forwards, and fellas who are more inclined to roam around the field, to drag you out of position and disrupt you. When you attack a team it’s only natural to attack down the centre, but it’s a matter of adapting to that. It’s got tougher, definitely, with the development of more and more tactics. Even I can see that since I came in back in 2003.”

Cashman agrees, and adds you don’t have to look far for proof; about 30 metres upfield from where Ronan Curran stands is exhibit A.

“Ronan’s right, it’s different now,” says the Blackrock man. “Teams aren’t necessarily picking a big powerful man at centre-forward – in fact Cork have been playing Jerry O’Connor there, and he wouldn’t be your old-fashioned centre-forward.

“You also have different players coming across the field, so it’s not just a case of the centre-back picking up one man in the number 11 jersey.

“And that makes it a harder job now. The centre-back can end up marking any of the opposing forwards at different times, compared to our time when you’d know who you’d be on before the game. Nowadays the modern centre-back knows what to expect more than who to expect – that he’ll have three or four different guys on him in the course of an afternoon.”

There are other changes. Other developments. Curran spent years sparking Cork attacks with quick popped handpasses to athletes in the middle of the field like Tom Kenny and Jerry O’Connor.

Cork still have strike runners in the middle third of the field, but now there’s an alternative if the ground attack isn’t viable.

“Aisake gives us an option up front, when you have a bit of time you can look up and drive the ball into him, but you can’t just drop it in on top of him – you’ve got to place the ball into your forwards no matter how big they are

“The likes of Jerry and Tom in midfield are players who wouldn’t be thinking of the long ball that much, they’ll run and take on defences, whereas John (Gardiner) would depend on his striking from the half-back line.

“It’s about mixing it up – people talk a lot about game plans and so on, but games take on a life of their own, and what suits you one day then you’ll do it.”

Jim Cashman recalls a far more direct game plan, but even then the emphasis was on the quality of the supply.

“With the Canon (O’Brien) and Johnny Clifford the basic message was to get the ball in as quickly as possible to our inside forwards, the likes of Kevin Hennessy or Tomás Mulcahy.

“The game has changed now and it might take two or three passes out in the middle of the field before it gets into the inside line, but no player can travel faster than the ball.

“At the same time, the supply must be right. That’s crucial and against Tipperary Cork’s half-back line gave some great ball to the full-forward line. If the quality of the ball is good enough that’s a springboard for success no matter what the era in hurling.”

Even in the 80s? “I wouldn’t know,” says Cashman. “I played into the 90s!”


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