Tuesday 24 October 2017

Marathon men now have confidence as well as talent

Cork are not without their faults but they are clearly still the team to beat this year, says Colm O'Rourke

S itting in Croke Park last Sunday coming up to 4.0, I was starting to think that the end of football was nigh.

One of the worst games I ever witnessed had just concluded and if this was to be modern Gaelic football then it would be a sport with few spectators. Of course the players are not paid performers, they are merely interested in winning and they don't have to apologise for whatever fare is turned out, but the opera would have been more entertaining than this.

The game between Donegal and Laois must have set a whole series of records. Statisticians are now able to tell the ratio of handpasses to kicks -- in some big matches recently it was running at about four handpasses to one; this must have been about ten to one.

It was also the first senior county game in which I saw all of a team's players in their own half at one stage. I counted 13 Donegal players inside their own 20-metre line when Laois were on the attack. It was not much different the other way round either as Laois retreated en masse behind the ball. As a result, this game was a throwback to the old schoolyard matches where everyone chased the ball.

The inevitable result when a team had possession was that they could not kick the ball long as they had no players up the field and so the maze of handpasses started. In fairness, Donegal did let in a few long balls and Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden did cause plenty of consternation when they had only three or four backs to contend with. Yet anyone who likes to see a man-to-man tussle can forget about it. There is almost no individual marking anymore as groups of players roam around the pitch either marking in numbers or running in packs when in possession while short-passing to each other.

Thankfully, the Cork-Dublin match was quite different. Cork are attractive to watch as they have not bought into this ultra-defensive system while Dublin do get numbers back but look to kick the ball forward into space quickly. This, in contrast, was a good quality match and had some of the best point-scoring from distance that has taken place in Croke Park.

The postmortems have focused on Dublin mainly and the usual last-quarter collapse. Yet that does a disservice to Cork, who showed the benefit of being champions and had the ability and confidence to strangle the opposition in the last quarter. That is what really good teams do. Big matches are a marathon more than a sprint and Dublin's flaky confidence reflects that. They start at 100 miles an hour but are slowing close to the finish line. The best sides can keep up a relentless pace from start to finish. In that way they focus more on their own performance rather than the score on the board at any particular time. That only counts when the fat lady sings.

There may be a thousand little incidents which decide games but the best teams usually win. No different last week. Cork had more better players than Dublin last Sunday and if the game was played today, they would have more this afternoon too. They also created more scoring chances and that normally tells in the end.

Even more significant is the fact that Cork now have a very decent forward line and, aside from Bernard Brogan, Dublin don't have the quality of Daniel Goulding, Donncha O'Connor, Paddy Kelly or Ciarán Sheehan. All of these can kick points when they are needed.

Kevin McManamon had a good first half but faded after working very hard. A Dublin forward line for the championship containing two Brogans, McManamon, Diarmuid Connolly, and Eoghan O'Gara will be a match for most sides, apart from Cork and Kerry.

Dublin also have problems at midfield. Michael Darragh Macauley is quite good but the business end of this game was conducted by Pearse O'Neill, who gave a magnificent display of winning possession, hard running and point-scoring. He changed the tide more than anyone else. Of course it does help to have Nicholas Murphy available for the last ten minutes when a bit of calm is needed. At that stage Cork were stuck for players after losing John Miskella, Fintan Goold and Paul Kerrigan, whose use of the ball was rather misguided.

One player who came on and looked good with the ball was Denis O'Sullivan but he also appeared to be caught badly for pace on a couple of occasions. Dublin had no real impact sub and after using a lot of players in the League there is no boy wonder coming along who is going to add much to last year's crew. Strange though that Paddy Andrews did not come on earlier as he can get a score -- when Brogan went off he looked the obvious replacement.

Another problem was the lack of a left-footed free taker for a vital free near the end. With Stephen Cluxton kicking over 45s regularly, he would have been a better

choice, or Ger Brennan, who is primarily left-footed. What this showed too was that the players on the pitch were not thinking quickly enough. They can't be relying on the line to tell them what to do. After Tomás Quinn made a mess of an easy free a few minutes earlier, it was up to someone on the pitch to show a bit of leadership and direct someone else to take the kick.

In many respects, however, winning did not cover a multitude of faults for Cork. The main thing that will worry Conor Counihan is conceding 2-14. The defence was ripped apart and Graham Canty is needed quickly. (Although if I got lost down a dark alley in a dangerous city, I wouldn't mind having Michael Shields with me; he looks like he could handle about half a dozen at a time.)

Pat Gilroy would have a pain in his head if he bothered listening to all the advice on how to solve their end-of-match syndrome. Persistence rather than a shrink is what is needed.

This time last year Cork could not win the really big championship games in Croke Park. Now, after winning one All-Ireland, most people will feel that apart from Kerry nobody has a chance of beating them when they have a full team. And players like Goulding, O'Neill, O'Connor, Kelly, Shields and Noel O'Leary were being seriously questioned about whether they had it or not. Now they are stars.

What a difference a year makes. And the meek shall inherit the earth.

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