Sunday 18 February 2018

No longer running for cover

The strength in depth of Conor Counihan's squad faces its biggest test against Dublin, writes Damian Lawlor

I T'S only five seasons since Cork emerged from a veil of mediocrity to win a dour, low-scoring Munster semi-final against Limerick. They scored nine points, eight coming from James Masters, on an afternoon best forgotten.

Although they went on to win Munster, the writing was on the wall for that team, which could always be relied upon to bomb in late autumn. Predictably, in the All-Ireland semi-final, Kerry turned them over by six points. Same old Cork; committed but confined, a team ultimately incapable of winning an All-Ireland title.

These days things are very much different. The reigning All-Ireland champions have reached today's Division 1 league final despite testing their resources to the very limit. In their last two league games they used 23 players, 15 of whom were under the age of 26. Out of the 15 youngsters, seven never even started a championship game. As if still troubled by travails of the past they have assembled a cast, many of whom are destined to be leading men.

In last year's All-Ireland final against Down, they were able to showcase five different midfielders. Most managers struggle to find two able midfielders but that day, with the final on a knife-edge, Counihan shuffled his pack to telling effect. Alan O'Connor and Aidan Walsh started, but then Nicholas Murphy turned the game with two massive hits on Peter Fitzpatrick and Kalum King. Derek Kavanagh came off the bench to hit a crucial point from midfield where Fintan Goold also enjoyed a brief stint.

Today is perhaps the greatest test of this panel's strength in depth. Cork must attempt to topple the league's form team without seven of the 20 men who played in last year's All-Ireland final. Kavanagh has retired; key players like Graham Canty, Colm O'Neill, Alan Quirke, Paul Kerrigan and Aidan Walsh miss out through injury. Eoin Cadogan is suspended. John Hayes, who came on against Down, recently left the squad along with Kevin McMahon, Kieran O'Connor and Paddy O'Shea.

Those guys would get game time with most counties. O'Connor was part of three successful Munster senior championships and at 31 was seen as valuable, experienced cover for a range of defensive positions.

Hayes is five years younger and appeared as a substitute in last year's final. But when Cork played Galway in this year's League he knew the writing was on the wall when a defender was sent into the half-forward role he might usually occupy. It was the team's fifth substitution. Soon after, his departure was announced. Sub 'keeper Paddy O'Shea followed suit, as did Kevin McMahon.

With the haemorrhaging of such talent, allied to the fact that those players left only months after James Masters departed, there could have been rumours of unrest. But there was no fallout or disruption. Instead, Counihan and his team continued on.

"The truth is we won All-Ireland under 21 titles in 2007 and 2009, hammered Kerry this year, and we have a heap of young lads coming through," says one player. "Maybe now lads feel that they've a window of five to six years to make things happen and if it's not working they hand over to a younger lad coming through. There's no bad feeling. If you were losing out to a lad who wasn't better then you, fair enough, but when you see so many young lads pushing in training and see the competition that's there, you have to accept it."

For two years, Counihan was regularly accused of not knowing his best team. Indeed, there were times when it seemed that the luxury of having too many good players actually affected the side. Last year, as they struggled for alignment, Counihan oversaw 18 substitutions in their first three games alone (including extra-time against Kerry). In a panel of over 30 players, not one broke ranks during that time. How could they when most of those tactical switches were used to telling effect as game after game invariably swung their way in the last 10 minutes.

Looking back, the manager must wonder what all the fuss was about. He has landed silverware in each season since taking over in 2009. This afternoon they could become the first county since Mayo in 1937 to win successive Division 1 league titles having captured Sam Maguire in the middle. Not bad.

"The bottom line is that Conor sets out to win every game that we play," says Donncha O'Connor. "Whether it's McGrath Cup, league, or championship, we try to win it. And as players we are ready for today again -- when you come out of nappies you want to play in Croke Park. History in the last few years has shown that whoever has won the league or even got to the final has done well in the championship and we'll be trying to do that again."

O'Connor's team-mate Michael Shields gave a deeper insight into their dynamic. Shields will only turn 26 in June but has already placed huge pressure on himself to guide younger team-mates. With Kavanagh retired and Murphy, Anthony Lynch, Graham Canty nearing the end of their careers, the St Finbarr's man feels he has to lead to maintain the continuity.

"You do have to start stepping up. I've been involved now for six years so I've a bit of experience at this stage," he says. "I suppose myself, Daniel (Goulding) and a few of the others probably now feel that we can help point other younger guys in the right direction. Coming up to a league or championship game, we can talk about what certain guys are like to mark and certain teams are like to play against."

Shields (pictured inset) is now in his sixth year and the panel has changed utterly since he first came on board. In 2005, when he made his debut, it was almost a slight to be replaced during a match but in the modern game it's unusual if at least three switches are not made. Mickey Harte was one of the first managers to openly embrace that tactic, while Jack O'Connor and Pat O'Shea have had a similar approach on the Kerry sideline.

Counihan has no real choice but to use that template after all the good development work carried out by Tony Leahy and John Cleary, who have generated burgeoning production lines. But the manager has already demonstrated that he knows exactly how to mould this promise. Only three months after returning from their holiday he has navigated them through a campaign which saw four away fixtures before steering them back into a national final. Even with a host of missing players they'll be formidable again today.

"In this business you never have enough options," Counihan said at their press briefing. "Not everybody is ticking 100%, that's the nature of it. The idea is to get as many people up to competitive action as possible. We have a bit to go on that -- some guys are performing well, others not so well. We're hoping that some guys will find a bit of form again. The ultimate is winning it -- when you're there, you want to win it. Second is nowhere."

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