Cork need to be 'a bit cute' warns Shields
Skipper admits Rebels conceded too much over recent seasons
Sunday, April 13, 2014, 4.59 pm, Croke Park: Cork 2-11 Dublin 0-7; 5.32pm: Dublin 2-20 Cork 2-13.
Sunday, July 6, 2014, 2.03pm, Páirc Uí Chaiomh: Cork 0-2 Kerry 0-0; 3.25pm: Kerry 0-24 Cork 0-12.
Two snapshots from Cork's performance last year that showed how unprepared they were when left alone in the big, bad world.
Mugged by the reigning All-Ireland champions in spring and by the emerging champions in summer, it depicted them as innocents abroad.
Results dictate opinions, so those two catastrophic power failures left Brian Cuthbert and his squad exposed.
In an age when the harshest venom can be ventilated anonymously on social media, players and managers are deemed fair game for personal attacks. It's unfair but it goes with the territory.
"There's nothing you can do except ignore it. You certainly can't let it get to you," says Cork captain Michael Shields.
Those who felt entitled to unload themselves of so much bile were, of course, missing the point.
Because, whatever they wrote or said, it couldn't make the Cork players feel any worse.
Two season-shattering experiences had filled their misery tanks to capacity, which made their fightback against Mayo (they wiped out a seven-point lead before eventually losing by one) in the All-Ireland quarter-final quite noteworthy.
Most important of all, it showed Cork in a truer light, more in keeping with the early season form that had seen them topping Division 1 with 11 from 14 points.
Nonetheless, the League semi-final and Munster final wipe-outs, each different in context but similar in impact, had to be addressed if Cork were to learn from them.
First up in that painful process was the need to re-visit them.
So then, Michael, how did Cork allow a 10-point lead to become a seven-point deficit against Dublin?
"We had played some brilliant football in that game. Everything was going our way," he explains.
"Then, Dublin got a goal and suddenly the thing changed. We continued to be very attack-minded. Maybe we were a bit naïve. When Dublin came back at us, we kept trying to attack all the time, instead of being a bit cute and dropping into a more defensive mode."
And v Kerry in the Munster final?
"It was a bit the same. We went out and tried to play attacking football. Kerry sat back a bit and kept catching us on the break," he says. "Before we knew it, we were six or seven points down. We went for it even more then and Kerry exploited that too. It was a big learning curve for all of us."
The Munster final belonged to the genius of James O'Donoghue, who ripped the Cork defence apart.
For Shields (28), an All Star full-back in 2009 and 2010, it was a traumatic experience to repeatedly find himself one-on-one against a whizzing top who looked he had dropped in from a more advanced planet.
Like Marc Ó Sé in Kerry, Shields has spent most of his career on assignments against the opposition's most dangerous forward, a task which is always going to have its bad days.
O'Donoghue kicked 0-8 from open play in the Munster final, as well as setting up some other points for his colleagues in the near-perfect performance.
"There wasn't much I could do only suck it up. He could do no wrong that day but then he did go on to win the Footballer of the Year award," says Shields.
"A defender can't let a day like that get him down. You'd be very disappointed but you can't let it affect your outlook. You deal with it, move on and bounce back."
Of course, there was a wider dimension for Cork, who conceded an average of 1-21 against Dublin, Kerry and Mayo between April and August. A year earlier, they conceded 1-16 in successive championship games against Kerry, Galway and Dublin.
That's two seasons when, frankly, the giveaway rate was too high for a team with big-time ambitions.
"We have conceded a lot in the last two years, there's no doubt about that. It's something we're worked on this year," says Shields.
Cork's attacking rather than defensive skills are more likely to be tested tomorrow against Donegal, the proven misers when it comes to giving away scores.
They restricted Cork to 1-8 in the League clash last month. It was enough for Donegal to win by a point, so Cork are expecting a similar security cordon to confront them tomorrow.
"That's the good thing about getting to the League semi-final. It's another big test against a top team, a chance to work on things. Staying in Division 1 is always the first priority in the League but if you get to the knock-out stages, you want to win it," says Shields.
Cork completed a League treble in 2010, '11 and '12 but won only one All-Ireland title, leading to suggestions that they might have been better off with a lower profile in spring.
Shields disagrees, pointing out that Cork and Dublin won the League and All-Ireland double in 2010 and 2013.
"Winning is a habit. When you're winning, you're putting yourself in a good position for the next game, which is what you always want to do. That's how I look at it anyway," he says.
Cork are fourth favourites behind Dublin, Kerry and Mayo for the All-Ireland title, a ranking which suggests they have a really good chance of ending the five-year wait for another visit from Sam Maguire. Of course, they never thought that he would absent himself for so long when they closed a 20-year gap without an All-Ireland title in 2010.
After close calls over previous seasons, it was felt that the success would launch another glory era for Cork, but it didn't turn out like that.
They lost to Kerry in three of the last four Munster finals, followed by All-Ireland elimination at the hands of Mayo (2011 and '14) and Dublin (2013). They won the 2012 Munster final but Donegal beat them in the All-Ireland semi-final.
"We had a lot of injury problems in 2011 and 2012, but that's not an excuse. When you lose, you have to accept you were beaten by a better team on the day. We'd be disappointed with how we performed on some big days over the last few years," says Shields.
After last year's dismal League semi-final experience, it's very important for Cork make a bold statement of intent tomorrow.
Unlike Donegal, who have Ulster SFC action against Tyrone on May 17, Cork don't begin their campaign (v Clare or Limerick) until June 14 so reaching the League final would in no way interrupt championship plans.
There are rumours that Donegal won't be quite as enthusiastic tomorrow because of the proximity of the Championship, but Shields regards that theory as nonsense.
"It's not in their DNA to take a game casually. In fact, it's not in any player's DNA. Donegal are coming to Croke Park to win, the same as we are," he says.
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