Monday 20 November 2017

'You just shake off the flak' - Cork's Brian Hurley

Hurley insists Rebels' adapted game plan can halt Mayo charge

Brian Hurley: 'We are playing a team of huge talent but we have serious talent ourselves and despite what outsiders might think there is a massive belief within our squad'
Brian Hurley: 'We are playing a team of huge talent but we have serious talent ourselves and despite what outsiders might think there is a massive belief within our squad'

Damian Lawlor

LAST Saturday night's headlock with Sligo may not have been pretty but Brian Hurley doesn't care. Cork had to carve out a win and they did.

Since their second-half collapse to Dublin in the Allianz League final, it had been hard to see any chink of light, save perhaps their late, late comeback against Tipperary. But at least after last weekend they could say they got the job done in Tullamore. They crowded their defence and still hit 21 points. Job done.

The game looked over at half-time. Cork led 0-10 to 0-2 and it was clear with their new system (their two wing-forwards dropped back and tucked in) that they were intent on bouncing back from their Munster final horror show using any method possible.

In the first half alone they created 18 scoring chances, won nine turnovers and even though Sligo had eight per cent more possession, Cork ensured it was in territory where they couldn't be punished.

"We just needed to get back out there and get the win," Hurley says. "I couldn't wait for it, get the last few weeks out of the system."

Those stats from the Sligo game made for some light reading after their malfunction against Kerry. Ahead of that Munster final Cork had created an average of 31 scoring chances per game, but only enjoyed 57 per cent accuracy. In truth, though, their season had hit a wall. Their form had flipped horribly since they were at the receiving end of an embarrassing 15-point turnaround against the Dubs in the NFL final.

Up to that point Brian Cuthbert was looking like a modern-day svengali of Gaelic football and Hurley . . . well, there were times, especially as he notched seven points against Kerry, when he looked like Footballer of the Year material.

The 12-point reverse to Kerry in the Munster final changed things dramatically. Records tumbled on a historic day for the old grey bowl, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, but those records didn't fall in a good way. Not since 1970, when games were played over 80 minutes and they racked up 2-24, had Kerry scored as much against their old rivals in championship football. It was also Kerry's biggest ever Leeside championship win over Cork. Even their 10-point destructions of the Rebels in 1980 and '92 look competitive in comparison.

This time around Cork ended up returning to the lateral possession game plan they had broken free of. As they strode forward, they more or less left James O'Donoghue unmarked at the back and the Legion man ended up with 10 points. It could easily have been more. The home side hardly won one battle over the entire game and some would say that a 12-point defeat actually flattered them.

"You could stay looking back on that day for the rest of your life," Hurley sighs. "But it won't get any better. And what use would it be? We have no choice but to drive on. It's all about Mayo now. Today is my All-Ireland final. There might be two or three more All-Ireland finals left this season, but for me it's today and nothing else. Looking back to Kerry will do no one any good."

His own form has suffered, maybe as a result of the lateral passing of the provincial final and the fact that Cuthbert broke away from his core coaching beliefs and compacted his defence against Sligo. It was a highly effective system on the day, but in the grand scheme of things a massed defence will often slow delivery and supply of ball to the inside forwards. And Cork do possess serious quality in attack.

When a player like Hurley is looking for more ball to try to get back his best form, that delayed supply can be frustrating.

"It depends on how quick the ball comes out of defence," Hurley says. "That's what it's down to - but also what sort of runs you make. Like, you don't hide; you continue making the runs and hope that things will happen. I don't think that switching styles and game plans is a big issue for us anyway," the Castlehaven man says.

"We played defensively early in the league and we are all around long enough to adapt. We know what's expected of us no matter what the system is. That's why the win over Sligo was crucial. I just wanted to get out there on the Tullamore pitch and bury the memory of that Munster final for once and for all."

For now, that provincial final defeat will remain in the 'video nasty' chamber. Mind you, the abuse they took after that game still cuts them. The players were labelled gutless and spineless by pundits and by their own people. Usually, they wouldn't get more than 5,000 to an ordinary championship game - and indeed there were scarcely 50 supporters in Tullamore last Saturday - but it didn't stop half the county from ridiculing them after the fact. It got personal against one or two players - on social media especially.

"You sign up for it," Hurley says, shrugging his shoulders. "One minute it was all nice and jolly - you just have to remember that it turns nasty now and again. If you are a big player you have to get on with it and shake the flak off your shoulder. Yes, some of the criticism was way over the top but for me personally it is time to move on. It's taken just one extra game to get to where we want - the All-Ireland quarter-final."

It would have been nice to see more red jerseys in Tullamore last weekend, but there was a better chance of seeing Garth Brooks tuning up in Croker. Hurley, however, insists the apathy and criticism doesn't get to the team at all.

"It's hard for our fans to travel up and down the country with the economic situation but I'd hope there is a big crowd there for us today. We are playing a team of huge talent but we have serious talent ourselves, and despite what outsiders might think there is a massive belief within our squad. We had four lads coming in last weekend and they all stepped up to the plate. No one's place is safe now and that's the way it has to be."

Cork know that a ring of steel is needed around their defence but they also want to reignite the sparks of brilliance they showed in the league.

That will be a huge challenge - they were trounced by Mayo in Castlebar; Tipp cut through their rearguard very easily and should have been well put of sight before Kerry finally took them apart. The new system, as Hurley argues, is not an alien one, though. They deployed it twice during this year's NFL and last spring they also experimented with the wing-forwards dropping back against Donegal and Kerry.

Disciplined game plans must be practised and perfected, so it remains to be seen if Mayo will find a chink in the armour. Former Limerick hurling coach Donach O'Donnell, for instance, would walk his team through plays and drills and then repeat them at three-quarter and full speed, ensuring that everyone was au fait with the new way.

Against Sligo the Cork team were most definitely singing from the same hymn sheet, but James Horan was in attendance, took a copy of the DVD afterwards, and will have gobbled up the relevant data necessary for his side to dismantle Cork.

The mind games have already started, with Cork calling for a strong referee, remarking how streetwise Mayo are and claiming that their forwards are adept at cute fouling.

This will add spice to today's mix. What could make the occasion even more interesting is if 22-year-old Hurley can kick on. The former IT Carlow student has the physique to hold the ball up until support arrives, he can stave off defenders with his runs and can shoot with both feet. His form may have dipped since the spring but he is a student of the game, he lives for coaching practices and Gaelic football is what he spends most days thinking of.

"I live a nice bit outside the city so I could often be in the car for an hour and a half on my own either going to or returning from training and it gives you time to think," he says. "You go through every aspect of training and matches. You have the session or game analysed before you get home. I don't know whether that's a good or bad thing," he laughs.

When the chips are down, though, he rarely lets you down. In last year's county final against Paul Kerrigan's Nemo Rangers, for instance, Hurley was simply sublime, scoring 0-12, five from play. Castlehaven won by two to retain their title for the first time.

He says the back door holds little fear for him; Cork lost the 2011 and 2013 provincial deciders but bounced back on each occasion to reach the last eight in the All-Ireland series.

"It can be difficult," he says of the qualifiers. "We didn't know what Sligo would bring to the table but we got the win. If we scraped home I wouldn't have minded as you have to adapt to different situations in the back door. But I think each game is a case of different horses for different courses. Our team keeps switching but that's not a bad thing because there is lots of talent there. Mark Collins and Colm O'Driscoll adapted to their new roles against Sligo and it made a big difference as we had more security in our back line.

"Today will be a different test; I saw how powerful they were when they ran riot in the league game in Castlebar and we're ready for a real physical battle. People mightn't think it but we have a bit of momentum back."

They'll need every last bit of it.

Under Armour are the official technical baselayer partner to the Cork Senior Footballers

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