IT WAS the sort of evening in Páirc Uí Rinn that felt meaningful, even if we’ll have to wait until August or September to figure out exactly what we learnt.
Cork beating Donegal last Saturday wasn’t entirely about the result but the context and the little details of the win made it a little more important than two league points.
There was a spell either side of half-time where Cork, shattered by Colm O’Neill’s absence, appeared unsure as to how they could get enough scores to win a game against the All-Ireland champions without their go-to guy, the crowd were flat and it could have fizzled out in a season damaging sort of way.
That they found a way to win in the circumstances and showed an ability to think around the problems on the field was, at the very least, encouraging and potentially points the way forward.
There was plenty to like about Cork’s performance.
The way Eoin Cadogan tied up Michael Murphy, stopped him winning any of the long balls pumped towards goal put down a marker for later in the year (and showcased why Cadogan’s probably the best defender in the country at stopping a forward winning this type of ball clean – number two, by the way, is Michael Shields).
The way Liam Shorten put his hand up as a scoring option once a game becomes open and Andrew O’Sullivan got himself involved constantly from half-forward. Paudie Kissane reminding everyone that he can bring two points a game to the table from half-back.
Ken O’Halloran influencing the game with two important saves. That Cork were able to find holes in Donegal’s defence through quick ball movement, switching of the point of attack and generally being more decisive in that second period was pleasing – there was far too much poor decision making and non-decision making in that first half again.
That Donegal were made to look a little unsure themselves when chasing the game late on was a nice bonus.
The patience of Aidan Walsh to recognise and eventually take his opportunity to influence the game in an attacking sense – along with the clinical finishing to nail his one chance all day – was impressive.
As an aside, it was interesting just how much Donegal targeted Walsh. It was about 15 minutes into the game before I realised I hadn’t seen the Cork midfielder on the ball driving forward so kept an eye on him next time Cork attacked.
Donegal tend to be defend quite zonally to fill space but Rory Kavanagh basically sacrificed himself to attach to Walsh each time the Kanturk man got inside the Donegal half, stopped his runs, got very, very tight and manmarked him for the full game.
Twice Jim McGuinness actually shouted to Kavanagh just to remind him of duty if he’d slackened a small bit, so Donegal saw stopping Walsh as one big step in stopping Cork.
It might be a trend Cork and Walsh will have to think around this summer as teams try and halt him doing damage; you can’t imagine say,
Kieran McGeeney, letting Walsh bomb down the centre at will like in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final. Walsh got away from Kavanagh due to a slight slip, saw his chance and took advantage brilliantly, but if it crops up again, there needs to be a solution that gets Aidan Walsh on the ball as much as possible.
Anyway, tactically was where the game, or Cork’s approach specifically, was really interesting: Cork have committed to a defensive structure based on getting 12 bodies into the space in front of their goal and playing on the counter attack from there.
At one point in the second half, Cork gave away a free just inside the Donegal half and you saw the entire half-forward line – Goold, Collins, O’Sullivan — turn and jog back inside their 45 without looking at a man or the ball. The most important link in this system right now is Mark Collins.
The Castlehaven forward plays a kind of Mark McHugh for Donegal role, sitting in front of his defence to fill space but most effectively offering a spare man to move the ball out accurately by hand or foot once it’s recovered, taking responsibility for taking frees from defensive areas, with the ability to be a deep-lying playmaker really and set the tempo for how Cork use possession around the central area.
It’s a clever move as it gets a good ball-player involved in the game, takes him away from the heat of fighting for possession up front against a marker and Collins should have the skill set to do the necessary. McHugh probably brings more explosiveness to the position but Collins has more control (which seems about right, given the identity of the two teams) and has the ability to attack and score effectively as well.
I remember Billy Morgan trying Conor McCarthy in a similar role back around 2006/2007 but it didn’t really stick for that long. It’ll be interesting to note how Cork evolve this sweeper system and what form it’s taking by summer (Paddy Kelly could also be an option if they were looking at mixing things up).
There are plenty of bits and pieces to iron out both tactically and with personnel. Quite how Paddy Kelly and Ciarán Sheehan especially can be accommodated and best used in this system will be an interesting developmental step.
There still needs to be a kicking option – some of the time at least — to hit in the half-forward line when Cork break with the ball. Cork still need to be more dynamic and need players breaking forward to commit to running into space at speed to open defences up most effectively. Teams will prepare for Mark Collins’ role and try to counter it as the season goes on.
Two things jump out from Colm O’Neill’s injury (and you could almost feel the stadium deflate when he went down clutching that knee):
1) No matter what way it’s put or argued or ignored, Cork’s All-Ireland chances have been cut by a reasonable amount, same as Donegal’s without McFadden/Murphy or Dublin’s without Brogan,
2) The team can take up the collective scoring slack to a degree but somebody’s going to have to become the forward who’ll get scores like 1-4 or 0-6 in the big games of summer.
Let’s remember that Donegal actually missed a fair bit themselves last weekend and that they’ll be a different animal if they get to Croke Park in August/September.
For now though Cork have a plan to be working on and that on the
basis of the last two games, appears to be working.