Lack of goal threat a real concern for Dessie Farrell despite facile defeat of Cork in quarter-final
The noise came off the Hill in odd, staccato waves, as if from behind a door that kept opening and closing.
They had come in the hope of something competitive but encountered nothing of the kind. By the finish, it felt as if Dublin had begun to perform football’s equivalent of a soliloquy, barely even seeing Cork, never mind feeling the stimulation of a threat.
Football’s class divisions can be stark and cruel when held up to the light and pretty much nothing about Saturday in Croke Park told a story you could entirely trust.
Every now and then, the burst of a city ballad would erupt from the Clonliffe Road end, but it seldom survived a single, threadbare verse. The energy of these days needs to be reciprocal between field and terrace. And it just wasn’t here.
So there was a faintly surgical feel to what we were seeing, something hushed and cold and, eventually, scalpel-clean in Dublin’s execution.
Dessie Farrell’s men just rolled through the lines, popping passes off shoulders, working space patiently around ‘the D’ against opponents who were, palpably, beginning to run out of gas. Quarter-finals, by their nature, can be curiously unemotional games and this acquired the transactional air of unremarkable business being tended to. The signing of an uncontested contract.
That maybe sounds unfair on Cork, who, as John Cleary averred, were “out on their feet completely” by the finish. He is interim manager of a predominantly callow team – ten Croke Park debutants here – that has, somehow, managed to close out a difficult season with competitive integrity intact.
But they and Dublin exist in different solar systems. Cork’s only obligation in Croke Park was to avoid being knocked out cold. And they achieved that comfortably.
In doing so, they helped nourish a mounting suspicion that only Con O’Callaghan has the keys to Dublin’s swagger. Without him, they didn’t create a single goal chance, their attacking movement a mite too deliberate and sterile to ever threaten Micheál Martin’s net.
According to Farrell, it is now “a race against time” to get O’Callaghan and James McCarthy back for the semi-final on Sunday week. Dessie neither confirmed nor denied that both have hamstring issues but did admit their combined absence had “a huge impact on the team . . . captain and vice-captain and two rock-solid players”.
O’Callaghan especially was missed against a Cork defence supplemented in numbers and deploying the outstanding Seán Powter as sweeper. Without the Cuala man, the Leinster champions were inclined to move in passive, lateral lines designed more to sedate an opponent than devour them.
Accordingly, Dublin were still – notionally – vulnerable at the mid-point, just three points up and playing against a team finding plenty of profit in quick, direct deliveries inside to Brian Hurley and Steven Sherlock, who both had the beating of their markers.
Trouble was, nothing felt entirely real here. Dublin in a low gear always have the air of men struggling only with the rituals of concentration. Brian Fenton ambled about with what might have passed for regal ambivalence; Ciarán Kilkenny humoured himself with occasional jolting bursts free of his man-marker, Mattie Taylor; Dean Rock kicked his frees.
To protect their defensive structure, Cork chose not to contest Evan Comerford’s kick-outs, while Ian Maguire and Colm O’Callaghan offered lighthouse access in the middle third when Martin went long with Cork’s.
For Farrell, everything unspooled with that nagging sense of his team just treading water.
“The first half obviously wasn’t what we would have wanted, but the four-week lay-off probably didn’t help,” he said afterwards.
“It took us a while to shake off the cobwebs, but we strung together some good passages of play in the second half and were a little bit better.
“They didn’t surprise us with anything they did, but we just couldn’t get to the pace of the game in the way we would have liked.”
Much of what Dublin did in that second half was admirably cold-blooded and efficient, bossing the third quarter with six unanswered points that quickly terminated any pretence of this being fertile ground for an upset.
Cork needed goals and when a single half-chance did present itself on 58 minutes – Powter materialising unmarked on ‘the D’ to collect a diagonal Cathail O’Mahony pass – referee Seán Hurson was already whistling for a Cork free, his back turned to Powter.
On the line, all Cleary could do was smile. The time to argue had long drifted by.
And in the post-game search for consolations, he had no appetite for a fairy tale. “Look, I suppose some of it was OK, but any time you get beaten by 11 points . . . for us, as a group, the ultimate aim is to get up to the very top and we’re a good bit off it there now,” Cleary conceded.
“We were beaten by Kerry by a similar type score. That’s the standard and we’re not at it. We’re nowhere near it.
“How long it takes to get there and whether you can get there or not is another matter really. When Dublin pushed on, their fitness, their conditioning, we just didn’t have the answer. I thought our lads were fierce gallant and left everything out on the pitch. We couldn’t ask for more from them.
“But the top teams seem to have that extra gear when it really matters. At times, we were looking and thought Dublin had 16 or 17 players the way they were all coming at angles. Our lads were out on their feet completely there.
“So, obviously, it is a fitness thing and I think that probably takes a good number of years.”
Dublin won then without revealing a great deal about their readiness for the heat approaching. In O’Callaghan’s absence, Cormac Costello, Rock and Paddy Small seem to get tangled up in defensive webs far too easily, while, again, we saw evidence that fast, direct ball can discommode their full-back line.
“I’d probably give it a six-and-a-half out of 10 performance,” said Farrell.
Sounded on the money.