Tuesday 24 October 2017

Rebels learn from Dublin's example

Colm O'Neill, Cork, shoots to score his side's second goal past Kerry goalkeeper Brian Kelly
Photo by Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Colm O'Neill, Cork, shoots to score his side's second goal past Kerry goalkeeper Brian Kelly Photo by Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile

Noel Horgan

TABLE-toppers in Division 1 after clocking up five victories, and incurring just one defeat, in seven outings, Cork will head to Croke Park next Sunday with a real spring in their step for the NFL semi-final clash with Dublin.

Last Sunday's resounding win over Kerry in Tralee gave an imprimatur to what new boss Brian Cuthbert has been trying to achieve in terms of developing the squad and implementing a different style of football over the past few months.

Over the course of the campaign in the group stage, the management have used a total of 34 players, and so many of the newcomers have made an impact that Cuthbert appears to be spoilt for choice following what has already been a comprehensive squad assessment ahead of the championship.

From the outset, Cuthbert insisted that no player had an entitlement to a Cork jersey, and that no stone would be left unturned in a bid to unearth some fresh blood during the league. He also made it clear that Cork would adopt a brand of all-out attacking football, similar to that which yielded such a rich harvest for Dublin in 2013.

Maybe Cuthbert's hand was forced to a certain extent on both counts, as the departure of seven of last year's squad meant he had no option but to trawl the county for some new talent, but the perception was that the panel needed to be drastically overhauled in any case, and that, with the exception of Ciarán Sheehan, who opted for a professional career in Aussie Rules football, all the other evacuees had passed their sell-by date.

As regards the change in Cork's style, it was a no-brainer that adjustment was required in the wake of what happened in last year's All Ireland quarter-final against Dublin. Simply put, Cork's lateral and laboured running approach was made to look distinctly outmoded by the speedy, direct and exhilarating football that Jim Gavin's Dubs brought to the table last August.

While it's early days yet, the smooth manner of Cork's transition has surpassed all expectations and has been the story of the year so far.

Even Cuthbert acknowledged at the start of the league that he anticipated some teething problems with the new game-plan, stating that just to remain in Division 1 was the initial target.

Now, however, Cork are motoring so well that many are beginning to rate them as the team capable of posing the biggest threat to Dublin's bid to retain the All-Ireland title.

There is still a long way to go before any lofty aspirations can be seriously entertained, of course, and it should be noted that Cork could quite easily have come out on the wrong side in their encounters with Derry, Dublin and Tyrone in the league.

Still, it would be unfair to suggest their narrow wins over Derry and Dublin weren't merited and that they didn't deserve to share the spoils with Tyrone. The loss to Mayo in Castlebar was certainly calculated to keep a lid on expectation levels, especially since Cork were well beaten on a day when their defensive frailties showed there are issues to be addressed before their new strategy is perfected.

But there is no denying the positives have outweighed the negatives to a large degree up to now and the demolition job on Kerry last Sunday has done much to restore the feel-good factor regarding the team's prospects.

To beat Kerry by ten points on the road was just the sort of confidence-booster required following the slump away to Mayo, sending out an unambiguous message that the Rebels are rapidly moving in the right direction.

There was so much to admire about Cork's display, with Brian Hurley's tour-de-force at full-forward the obvious stand-out. Paul Kerrigan also sparkled up front where Mark Collins excelled as well, and Colm O'Neill, Donncha O'Connor and Daniel Goulding contributed generously when sprung from the bench during the course of the second half.

O'Neill delivered 1-1, O'Connor chipped in with an outrageous point, and Goulding also slotted over a fine score as Cork ripped Kerry's resistance to shreds in the last 20 minutes. In defence, Michael Shields subdued Kerry's key forward James O'Donoghue, who looked sharp at times in the first half.

Damien Cahalane, making his first appearance in the league this season, showed up well on his return following a lengthy lay-off through injury, while Paddy Kelly didn't look in the least bit out of place filling an unfamiliar role at centre-back.

James Loughrey's input deserves recognition too, as he plugged a gap when switched on to Kerry's Stephen O'Brien, who had proved quite a handful for Clonakilty's Tom Clancy early on. What was perhaps most satisfying from the management's perspective, however, was the form of Colm O'Driscoll and Andrew O'Sullivan, two of the less established players on the panel, at wing forward and midfield respectively.

O'Driscoll made life very uncomfortable for Marc Ó Sé, producing the sort of an energetic and industrious performance that has hallmarked his play with Cork at different levels in the past. O'Sullivan, a peripheral player for the past few years, likewise covered acres of ground, getting through an amount of effective work, which will have done his chances of featuring prominently in Cork's plans for the remainder of the season no harm at all.

Notwithstanding the win over Dublin, 1-17 to 0-18, in the group stage, Cork will be facing their stiffest test to date on Sunday, as the Dubs are bound to be more formidable opposition in a do-or-die situation.

But there is every chance that Cork will rise to the challenge, and, regardless of the outcome, will provide further evidence they are on an upward curve, having absorbed the harsh home truths delivered by Dublin in last year's championship.