Saturday 24 March 2018

Rebels need to restore some pride and claim play-off berth

Barry Moran, Mayo, is tackled by Paudie Kissane, left, and Noel O'Leary, Cork. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Barry Moran, Mayo, is tackled by Paudie Kissane, left, and Noel O'Leary, Cork. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Noel Horgan

THE desire to atone for a poor display against Kerry two weeks ago will be the spur for the Cork footballers as they attempt to advance to the National League semi-finals at Mayo's expense in Pairc Uí Chaoimh next Sunday.

The Rebels were woeful against the Kingdom, opting for a defensive strategy that had worked the oracle against Donegal in the previous round, but which backfired badly in Tralee. Cork's tactics were hard to understand, especially in the first half when they enjoyed the advantage of a strong wind, and the writing was on the wall after they went in at half-time trailing by a point.

Taking on Donegal at their own game made perfect sense, but it was naïve to think that playing it very tight was the best way of going about the task on hand against a Kerry side that, needing a win to have any chance of avoiding demotion, was bound to be highly motivated. Kerry certainly performed with far greater urgency on the day, and Cork were always going to find it difficult to break from the back and prise out the openings in the absence of such quality attackers as Colm O'Neill, Ciaran Sheehan and Donncha O'Connor.

The luckless O'Neill is out for the season, of course, and the severity of his loss can hardly be over-stated. The fact that Cork were also missing Graham Canty and Eoin Cadogan meant there was no shortage of mitigating reasons for their failure to Kerry, and significantly Aidan Walsh was largely forced to plough a lone furrow at midfield in Canty's absence. The bottom line was that Kerry wanted the game more, but Cork will have every incentive to get back to winning ways when they take on Mayo.

For one thing, they will be anxious to repair their dented pride, while they aren't yet out of the woods in regard to the threat of relegation, because if they lose to Mayo, and Kerry and Donegal beat Tyrone and Dublin respectively elsewhere, the Rebels could still go down.

Admittedly, it's a remote possibility, even if Tyrone and Dublin, along with Kildare, are already assured of a place in the last four, and won't have as much to play for as Kerry and Donegal on Sunday.

But Kerry can expect no favours from Tyrone up in Omagh, and they look most likely to make the drop at this stage, especially if scoring difference comes into play. In order to reach the semi-finals, however, Cork can't afford to lose on Sunday regardless of how the other games unfold, because they will have an inferior scoring difference to Mayo, and that will be the deciding factor in the event of three or more teams being equal on points behind Tyrone, Dublin and Kildare..

And, with the head-to-head result being used to separate two teams that finish level on points, Cork would also lose out should Mayo become the only side to join them in fourth position following the last series of games in the group. In light of Cork's current casualty-list, they can't be regarded as bankers to do the business against Mayo, but, with home advantage, they would have to be fancied to get a result at the same time, and a draw would be enough to keep their hopes of a fourth consecutive Division 1 title intact.

After beating Kerry in Round 1, Mayo endured four defeats on the trot in the league before stopping the rot with a win over Donegal two weeks ago, but they too will have their injury problems for next Sunday's crucial tie, with such as 2012 All-Stars Keith Higgins and Alan Dillon, along with Barry Moran, who was inspirational at midfield in the win over Donegal, and Jason Doherty numbered among the players that team boss James Horan will have to plan without.

All of which doesn't augur well for their prospects of collecting their first brace of points on the road in this season's league against opposition with a home record that has been second to none since Conor Counihan took the helm in 2008.

Much interest will be focused on how Cork set out their stall for the game, but one expects they will show a little more positivity than was in evidence in the Kerry tie, and they should have what it takes to account for the Connacht champions, and last year's All-Ireland finalists, providing their attitude and approach is right.