Thursday 22 March 2018

Semi-final provides Rebels with chance to atone for last year's collapse

After last year's experiences, Cork won't read too much into the League, writes Dermot Crowe

Brian Hurley in action against Dublin's Rory O'Carroll in the National League semi-final last year. The harrowing defeat had an lasting effect for the rest of the campaign for the Rebels.
Brian Hurley in action against Dublin's Rory O'Carroll in the National League semi-final last year. The harrowing defeat had an lasting effect for the rest of the campaign for the Rebels.

Before this year's National Football League began, Cork followers were willing to harbour relegation concerns. Their team's itinerary included four formidable trips to Ulster and the home games promised to be no picnic either: Dublin, Kerry and Mayo.

Two of those three had administered Cork's most traumatic defeats of 2014 and left wounds which needed time to heal.

They are not there yet but Cork find themselves back where it all went badly wrong 12 months ago, a league semi-final at Croke Park after topping Division 1. There is some defiance in that even if it offers nothing conclusive. When they met Dublin at the same point last year they had won five and drawn one of their regulation games with a team playing a cavalier brand of football that was easy on the eye. This time they arrive with five wins from seven. The football though has changed. It had to.

"There were a lot of people talking about relegation this year, that they were going to find it difficult," says the former county midfielder Nicholas Murphy. "I think from their (players') own point of view, they proved to themselves they are good enough to be where they are."

In qualifying for their semi-final against Dublin a year ago, they appeared to have created something authentic and worth applauding. Speaking before the game, their novice manager Brian Cuthbert said it was gratifying to be associated with entertaining football but also mentioned the need for resilience. He raised the standard reservations about the league, as if sensing that this was almost too good to be true.

Cork had lost anchor figures like Graham Canty, Pearse O'Neill and Noel O'Leary over the previous winter and Ciarán Sheehan, one of their best forwards, went to Australia. If that mattered, the signs weren't immediate. They began the campaign with four straight wins, including one over Dublin in Croke Park in early March, and the only defeat was to Mayo in a high-scoring match where both teams shot the lights out. They finished with a massive win over Kerry in Tralee, scoring 2-18, 2-17 from play.

Before the Dublin semi-final, one of their form players, Brian Hurley, gave a series of media interviews. Hurley scored eight points against Kerry, seven from play, but Cork know that these victories can mean nothing in the long run. "I have no doubt Kerry will be back at the business end of the championship," said Hurley. "They are always there or thereabouts. The league is for trying out things and I am sure they were trying out things. It won't be the last of Kerry, that is for sure."

Quite. It wasn't the last of Cork either, but in a sense it actually was - certainly as we had seen them. They began that semi-final against Dublin with the same adventure, ran up an eight-point interval lead, stretched it to 10 and then fell apart, losing by seven. Afterwards, Cuthbert spoke of a dressing room that required "soul-searching". Their form never picked up and the experience offered a jolting reminder of the gulf between spring and summer.

Tipperary in the championship failed to ignite them. They lost midfield, as they had in the second half of the league semi-final, and it needed the late intervention of Aidan Walsh to save them with a string of scores. The 12-point beating from Kerry in the Munster final was so emphatic that Cork played two sweepers in the next match, a qualifier against Sligo in Tullamore. Romance gave way to full-blown pragmatism. They made six team changes. It was now about survival, a salvage mission.

Nicholas Murphy puts their capitulations down to inexperience. "There were a lot of new faces and in fairness for the management I suppose it was their first year involved in a senior inter-county set-up as well; when you put everything together it kind of adds up. It was inexperience to an extent, when things went against them. I think this year there seems to be lessons learnt. Because you would even see from the manner of the performances, they seem to be a lot more steely. We are not going to get ahead of ourselves either, you are going to be judged on championship regardless. Sunday is the start of championship-style football, it's knock-out, and you will learn more about the team from Sunday on. But from the outside looking in there seems to be progression."

On closer examination maybe the signs were there a year ago. Cork experimented freely and still picked up results but playing Dublin in February and in April are two entirely different challenges. Playing Kerry in the spring and playing them in summer, the same rule obtains. The Cork defence was in a constant state of transition, with six different centre-backs tried before the championship. For Cuthbert and his backroom team, after the bruising experience of a poor League semi-final and with no pick-up during the Munster Championship, they felt they had no option but to go ultra-defensive. If they were naive tactically up to then, at least they were willing to find a game plan that stopped them bleeding so heavily, irrespective of how it looked to the public. After overcoming Sligo, their season ended respectably, a one-point loss to Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Murphy says the impact of the Dublin loss was felt right through the year. "If you lose like that, it is bound to have a mental effect on people and especially when there are new guys there. If they were playing a game the week after, they might have been able to get it out of the system but they had a wait for the championship match with Tipperary so it was left lingering. When they got to the Mayo game they resurrected some bit of pride, I know pride is no good in one sense, but after losing the way they did to Dublin and Kerry that was important.

"Dublin was a very strange game. I hadn't seen them (Cork) play as well as that first half in a long time, it was a super first-half performance. Once it started to go against them they began doing the wrong thing and it was like they were over-trying. I think they will have learnt a lot from the Kerry game last year. You would like to think there's never more than a kick of a ball between Cork and Kerry but when things started going against them, with new faces and a new management team, the Dublin game must have come into their heads. I don't think that would happen this year. I would have talked to one or two of the lads and they are very happy the way they are going, without in any way getting ahead of themselves."

This year's league included wins over Dublin and Kerry but the more pleasing results may have been those earned on the road. They drew in Tyrone and won in a tight finish in Monaghan. Against today's opponents, Donegal, they lost by a point in Ballyshannon, the home side finishing with 14 men after Michael Murphy's dismissal. Cuthbert has argued that they have performed well against blanket defences, citing Tyrone and Monaghan, but the ultimate test of that will be today.

The main priority has been to shore up the defence and establish a stronger middle third. Aidan Walsh has committed to hurling along with Damien Cahalane but the decision of Eoin Cadogan to side with the footballers was a boost. Cadogan has been spending league time between defence and midfield and the process of bringing back their wing-forwards to close defensive gaps has continued. Cork have had to compromise but they will soon be finding the space up the field more congested and picking out their main scoring threats Colm O'Neill and Brian Hurley will require good planning and decision-making when the stakes rise.

"It's a results game. It's not always pretty, but when you are on the field you want to win the game," says Murphy. "To get the win over Sligo was the most important thing last year and you could build from there and I think from there they have built. I think they could be dangerous this year. They are more tuned in when a team comes at them, they are able to repel them and go back up and get a few scores. The win in Monaghan was a great victory, they were up against it with 10 minutes to go, and finished strong. That bit of steel is needed going into a championship. But they can't be fairly judged until then."

Last year they topped Division 1 scoring 9-115 and conceding 9-97, or an average of over 20 points a game scored, with almost 18 per game conceded. This year's League saw a return of 10-89 and 7-90 conceded. The scoring average is down to 17 points per game but the amount leaked is down too, at just under 16 points. It hasn't been devoid of flamboyance either. Their win over Kerry, 3-17 to 2-9, showcased the team's attacking capability. If they meet Kerry again it will be in high summer in Killarney in the Munster final. Long before that comes today's challenge, the chance to atone for last year and to show that they are now more prepared for what lies ahead.

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