Monday 19 August 2019

Rebels and Red Hand meet in 'must win' game

All-Ireland SFC quarter-final, Group 2 Phase 2, Cork v Tyrone, Saturday July 20, Croke Park, Dublin. Throw-in 5pm. Ref: Maurice Deegan (Laois). Live on Sky Sports

Paul Brennan

Seven days after what was an instructive first time to play in Croke Park for most of the Cork football panel, they are back at the venue again to face the second of last year's All-Ireland finalists, Tyrone.

Players and management will tell you that's where they want to be - at the pointy end of the business, competing with and measuring themselves against the best there is. Well, in the space of one week Cork's developing young squad is certainly getting the games they want and need.

Next February and March Ronan McCarthy and his squad will play Louth, Longford, Offaly, Leitrim, Derry, Tipperary, and Carlow in Division 3 of the League; a long way from rubbing shoulders with Dublin and Tyrone in Championship football in Croke Park.

It's often the case in sport that you become the level you play at, and therefore the concern from Cork's point of view is that over the course of seven Division 3 games next spring that they will get dragged down to that level. The real hope - and let's be honest, the expectation - is that Cork come out and win all seven games (or maybe we can allow them one loss along the way) and win the League Final in Croke Park - and be back up to Division 2 with minimum fuss.

The problem is that they will then head into a Munster Championship having played League football at a much slower pace than what Kerry will have endured in Division 1 and to a lesser degree Clare in Division 2.

In that context, whatever the results and end result of this Super 8 campaign, Cork had better make the most of the experience and absorb every lesson going.

On the basis of what we've seen since the Munster championship win over Limerick, the theory is that Cork will do the necessary in the spring and win promotion back to Division 2, and then think about going straight back to the top flight the year after. Already they will feel that's the sort or exulted company and rarefied air they should be among.

But that's the sort of medium-term plan that they cannot do anything about right now. Presently they have Tyrone to think about in what is a must-win game for Cork. Win on Saturday and a place in an All-Ireland semi-final becomes a very real possibility, with Roscommon scheduled to travel south to Cork for the third and final game of the group phase. Lose, however, and we could be looking at the deadest of dead rubbers between Cork and Roscommon in Pairc Ui Rinn on August 4 that might as well be played in Clonakilty or Mallow such will the lack of interest in it and the tiny numbers attending.

Ronan McCarthy said, when asked on Saturday evening, that he hadn't even thought of last year's Qualifier loss to Tyrone when Mickey Harte's team handed Cork a 3-20 to 0-13 beating in Portlaoise on their way to a place in the All-Ireland Final. And McCarthy was correct to say that that game, all of 12 months ago, really lends no context to next Saturday's re-match in Croke Park.

There's no doubting - relegation from Division 2 last March noted - that Cork now look a far better team than this time last year. The performances against Limerick, Kerry, Laois and, most recently, Dublin have shown that, but they must continue that arc of improvement again on Saturday against another top four team.

McCarthy was on the money in two things he said in his post-match comments last weekend. First he said: "I think anybody looking at the game can see there's a fine team developing there but there's no point in waiting for next year. We have to try and do what we can now."

Secondly, he said: "If I was to be critical of the team, I would say we're just a small bit naïve still. But the more we play the top teams, the more we learn from it."

The difficulty for McCarthy and Cork heading to Croke Park this time is deciding if they employ a similarly adventurous approach to the game but risk getting opened up at the back by Tyrone who are just as capable of doing what Dublin did in that last fifteen minutes.

Or do Cork consider what's at stake - a probable place in the semi-finals if they win - and go much more defensive and try to arm wrestle their way past Tyrone, which, in fairness, not too many teams succeed in doing?

In other words, does McCarthy stick with the more expansive, running-cum-long kicking hybrid game that worked quite well against Kerry and Dublin and eviscerated Laois, or does he tighten everything up, maybe employ a sweeper, and try to play Tyrone with a version of their own game?

The answer, we'd assume, is that Cork goes with the first option. Play to their strength, which is Killian O'Hanlon and Ruairi Deane running hard at the heart of the opposition, coupled with the occasional fast ball into Luke Connolly and Brian Hurley, and really take the game to Tyrone.

Needless to say, Cork absolutely must eradicate that naïveté that McCarthy spoke about; that propensity to switch off at crucial moments or not to employ the gamesmanship and cynicism that all the top teams do.

Despite McCarthy's suggestion to the contrary, the reality is that Cork were never going to beat Dublin last weekend. But can the same be said of this match with Tyrone? No. Notwithstanding the gulf in where these two teams are in terms of their development and ambitions, Cork - now - are capable of ambushing Tyrone next Saturday. It's do-or-die Championship football now for both.