THERE won’t be talk of a crisis in the wake of being overwhelmed by Donegal’s incredible combination of the ultimate blanket defence and lightning counter-attacks, but the loss poses some questions about where Cork go from here.
Conor Counihan and his management team will probably step away after five years, while seven of the 18 players used yesterday are 30 years of age or more; not all will wear the Cork geansaí arís.
First though, where did it go wrong yesterday?
It wasn’t just a case of Cork losing the game, of course.
Donegal did so much right they’ll take some stopping the final against Mayo or Dublin.
Yet there were critical weaknesses in Cork’s display.
They failed to get a foothold in midfield, with Alan O’Connor losing a key battle with Neil Gallagher, while Aidan Walsh was on the margins too often.
The Rebels won more kick-outs, a statistic which was skewed by the bulk of Alan Quirke’s restarts going short, but didn’t secure the crucial long deliveries.
Cork managed to grab just five of Donegal’s kick-outs, losing 17.
It was a repeat of the league loss, when Cork were beaten 11-4 in that area.
Even when Quirke went long, they were often outmuscled, most notably with 15 minutes to go which led to a Michael Murphy free and a five-point margin, 0-14 to 0-9.
The score drained the life out of Cork.
The real damage had been done earlier. Cork didn’t get ahead when they were on top in the first half.
Fatally too they conceded their highest tally all season (previously 13 scores, 1-12 against Down, was the most they’d leaked), and couldn’t show the discipline of the Donegal backs – with Colm McFadden and Murphy sharing 0-5 from frees.
Daniel Goulding sent over Cork’s only placed ball inside the 45.
The major concern is that Cork’s worst showings since 2008 have been against sides who pack their rearguard, crowding out the channels for running at pace with a short game and minimising long passes inside through sweepers.
Limerick troubled them with a version of it in the 2009 Munster final, which Kerry perfected in the subsequent All-Ireland loss, and Mayo also implemented elements of the blanket defence last season.
Yesterday, Donegal smothered Cork with their intensity, positioning and constant pressure.
What was most galling was that – though the Ulster side were fully deserving of their win and were more dominant in the latter stages than the two-point margin, courtesy of a late Colm O’Neill goal suggests – it was a match Cork could have won.
They got their noses in front midway through the first half, with O’Neill and Ciarán Sheehan shaping up to cut loose and fire them into a lead which would have forced Donegal to chase a three- or four-point deficit.
A series of needless turnovers (even accepting the ferocity of the hits Donegal were putting in) and overly patient approach work left the Rebels behind by one at the break.
Opportunities to switch the play with quick, long hand or medium foot passes wasted.
It was a replica of Kerry’s loss in the quarter-final, when they couldn’t capitalise on their best period in the first half.
Cork were clearly wary of lobbing ball into those sweepers, but they needed to be that bit bolder in their attitude when they had inside forwards ready to beat their men.
And it would have been far better to be turn over possession near the Donegal 21 than in midfield.
Donncha O’Connor had one of his poorest matches, but is generally a capable ball-winner.
Whatever about Donncha, Colm O’Neill looked extremely sharp and even with Mark McHugh and Leo McCloone sweeping, there were times when he had 20 yards of space in front of him to receive passes.
It not often a case of ‘who dares wins’ when faced with a blanket defence, but Cork certainly should have backed their crack full-forward line to deliver more.
It was a similar case just after the break, when instead of levelling straight away and taking the charge to Donegal, Paul Kerrigan and Graham Canty were guilty of two horrible wides.
The key moment overall was Colm O’Neill drilling the crossbar after 47 minutes when Cork trailed by four.
He was desperately unfortunate, skipping past a clutch of Donegal backs and their keeper only to slam his shot a few inches too high.
Though Counihan’s charges were struggling badly at that juncture, a goal would have ignited them psychologically, fired up the supporters who could sense the fight and belief was ebbing out of the players, and rattled Donegal.
While Cork had carefully considered their tactical approach – and as we predicated on the back page of Friday’s paper, went for five defenders, dropping target-man Nicholas Murphy, retaining Sheehan and recalling Goulding – there were elements of their game-plan which backfired.
Goold was Cork’s seventh attacker, loose with two of the Donegal half-forwards inside their 45.
His task was to bomb forward from behind midfield, but didn’t he settle, giving away a converted free away for fouling Paddy McBrearty, missing a very scoreable chance and losing the ball in a great position.
Would Sheehan not have been better in that role?
At times, the ball was rotated to avoid tackles and work sensible angles, but only once did Goulding or Donncha get a clean strike at the posts within range (which Goulding missed).
They’re the team’s best shooters but weren’t freed up by intelligent movement up front.
It made sense not to start Nicholas Murphy, but he had his moments in the final quarter which were undermined by the absence of a forward playing off his shoulder or on breaks.
Cork will once again have to deal with the accusation that they can grind out results, but not think their way around teams who stand their ground.
That’ll sting over the winter.
Can Cork recover?
Of course, but this is Cork football we’re talking about.
The county has just seven football All-Irelands, despite 37 provincial crowns and a traditionally strong record at minor and U21. It rarely makes the most of opportunities.