Sunday 19 November 2017

Constant rotation policy sends Cork's form into tailspin

'Too much chopping and changing' hasn't been good for Cork, writes Dermot Crowe

AFTER seeing his team defeat Derry in the sixth round of this year's National Football League, Cork manager Conor Counihan spoke of an enduring affliction -- the absence of a clinical or emphatic edge. He admitted that the modern game ("when you have 24 men within 50 yards of goal") means opposition teams are hard to break down, but there were still aspects of their play which caused him niggling concern.

Cork were on the brink of a league final appearance and had used 31 players at that point. And yet. "I'd be disappointed with the consistency element of our performance, though that's maybe down to chopping and changing," Counihan confessed. This included the accuracy of their kicking, or, as he put it, "kicking the ball away".

Even that statement in itself smacked of uncertainty and indecision. Were the problems inherent? Were they brought on by the constant rotation policy? Maybe they had too much choice.

Cork experimented during the league, prompted by the success of recent underage teams and the flow of new claimants into the arena for consideration. While James Masters has left the panel, there is no shortage of forwards to choose from. There are not many though of Masters' innate ability to turn games on their head.

Where best to place the forwards has proved problematic and there is no solid evidence that Counihan and his selectors know at this stage the best team or the best configuration. Today's team shows three further changes, but that in itself doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. Alan O'Connor was always in line for a recall to the middle of the field, having been a regular first choice until an injury received during the qualifier win over Wexford.

His replacement that day, Nicholas Murphy, has also had injury problems. Derek Kavanagh filled the gap left by O'Connor in the wins over Limerick and Wexford, but the O'Connor-Aidan Walsh partnership has been restored.

In Cork's first four league games, Pearse O'Neill played at midfield, twice beside O'Connor. But in the last four matches he has been selected at centre-forward, with Cork having ditched the earlier experiment of using Donnacha O'Connor in that position. O'Connor is recalled to the team in place of Colm O'Neill, one of the county's brightest emerging prospects. O'Neill hasn't looked at home in the left corner, the most difficult position for a left-footed kicker, and is dropped after starting the last four matches. O'Neill seemed the future, yet finds himself left out for this key match in the team's development.

Ciarán Sheehan is entering his ninth match in succession as the team's full-forward but that has been compromised by flirtations with two-man full-forward lines and there is also an injury doubt hanging over him entering today's game. The most settled forward position is right corner where Daniel Goulding has played in all but one match during league and championship.

Goulding has been playing well and looks to have the right credentials for a shot at centre-forward, a more expansive role, but the management has reverted to Pearse O'Neill.

The trouble is that Cork have become predictable and somewhat recidivist in their thinking and their planning. And there isn't the same panache to the team's play that marked their championship efforts last season. The display against Tyrone in the semi-final, especially in the early stages, has not been repeated since.

Whether the indifferent form that has been a feature of the qualifiers and the missed chances against Kerry in Munster will later be erased from the memory by an expertly timed run of form in the last two matches remains to be seen. But there are valid grounds for doubt. Cork's patchy form carried through to the Roscommon game, their return to Croke Park, a match they should have mastered more tellingly. Against Dublin today, they have to deal with a level of expectation that has not best suited them in the recent past.

The defence hasn't been settled either. This season they have had six different centre-backs, starting the league with Paudie Kissane and lately settling on Graham Canty. One of the league matches, however, the regulation game against Mayo, was a dead rubber and Cork made a raft of changes, giving peripheral players a run, which gives the stats a slightly distorted look.

But there is no refuting the instability of Cork's form and structure. Full-back has had five different occupants, as have the left corner-back and right and left half-back positions.

It's in attack that Cork have fallen short, ultimately, lacking the imagination and wit, or coaching possibly, to destroy the best defences when the day arrived. They have been helped this year by the removal of Kerry and Tyrone. But only teams playing well win All-Irelands.

Sunday Independent

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