Scoring lulls are not acceptable
PRIOR to their final
regular league game against Dublin two weeks ago, there was an increasingly worrying trend to Cork’s play.
It was something which had been evident over the previous two years but it reached crisis levels against Donegal and Kerry when Cork went a combined total of 66 minutes without a score from play before only notching three points in the first half against Mayo.
Although Cork won the 2010 All-Ireland, they went through huge valley periods in five key games that season, where they only scored a total of 0-6 in the space of 103 minutes.
An All-Ireland didn’t exactly wipe those viruses from their hard-drive because that capacity to disappear during games was also evident in last year’s Munster final against Kerry and their All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Mayo.
With a team of such experience, power and scoring potential, there is no logical reason for the hiatuses that have blighted Cork, but there are a couple of theories.
Firstly, teams often aim to halt their running game, which stifles Cork’s early attacking rhythm. Secondly, their panel is so strong that once the game opens up, so do Cork. Yet when the game didn’t open up against Donegal, Cork didn’t have any answers.
Cork have reached another league final without having hit top gear but this year’s campaign has been about far more experimentation than recent spring journeys.
Over the last number of years, Cork have consistently been portrayed as being naïve, largely because they play an orthodox, attacking, open brand of football. They didn’t play with a sweeper or a blanket defensive template, which limited their capacity to lock down a game. Neither did they play with the systematic cynicism which has become such an intrinsic part of Gaelic football’s culture.
That wasn’t part of this squad’s DNA but they have inevitably been forced into assessing their own self-identity and there have clearly been changes to their style this season.
That was evident from the opening day against Armagh and they have clearly been playing with more of a defensive structure. They had the lowest concession rate in Division One, while, along with Tyrone, Cork were the only team in the four divisions to concede just one goal in the regular season. Although they conceded a goal in the semi-final against Down, the umpire told goalkeeper Alan Quirke afterwards that the wrong call had been made in awarding Down a penalty.
As a further comparison as to how much Cork have tightened up, they conceded an aggregate of 16 goals in their last two regular league campaigns. That has alleviated concerns around a defence that had an average age of 29 in last year’s Munster final. Players have got significant game time and, Graham Canty apart, the average age of the defence which started in the key game against Dublin was 26.
There has also clearly been a harder edge to their game, which has been reflected in the statistic of picking up 25 yellow cards, two red cards and two retrospective reds in the regular campaign. After Dublin, Cork were the league’s worst offenders.
One of the biggest criticisms of Cork too in the past was that their game wasn’t expansive enough, that their running game was often aimless and they under-utilised their three inside forwards. Yet the move of Aidan Walsh to full-forward against Laois gave them another dimension. While he played at number 14 that evening, he scored three points, could have had two goals and was involved in the two goals Cork did score. He also got the decisive goal against Dublin.
Cork have also been rotating their forwards more but some of their tactics were often more out of necessity than anything else. Yet the bottom line is that they have more variation to their play now than they had in any of their other league runs over the last four seasons.
One of the elements to emerge from the league is that tTheir panel looks far stronger than last year. Although Cork achieved an eight-point comeback in last year’s league final without the services of six key players, the strength of their panel wasn’t as deep as it seemed as the summer progressed. They had no game-breaker on the bench for the Munster final and they never recovered from losing Ciarán Sheehan and Daniel Goulding in mid summer.
Goulding came on against Down, while he played a championship match with Muskerry last Tuesday and is back in contention for a starting place for Sunday. Sheehan is also due back in May while Colm O’Neill has really stepped up this spring and has been one of the forwards of the campaign.
Mark Collins and Barry O’Driscoll have matured while Brian Hurley looks the only U21 player that may get game-time this summer. Cork have plenty of options inside but they may still be looking for another right-footed player in the full-forward line.
Last Saturday’s All-Ireland U21 semi-final though, showed that Luke Connolly needs more time before he can make that step up yet.
When Cork beat Mayo in Round 6, it was a huge victory because they had no right to win that game. Sunday will be another opportunity to lay down a marker for the summer but delivering a sustained performance for 70 minutes is every bit as important as the result.
Because with the summer coming, Cork need to eradicate those chronic scoring lulls in big games.