Cyril Farrell: Banner must raise green flag to send Rebels packing
WHEN I saw Clare and Cork battle it out in a Waterford Crystal League game in Sixmilebridge on a cold night in early February, I never thought that almost eight months later, they would be facing each other in an All-Ireland final replay.
Both played well with experimental teams that night, but with so many big beasts lurking around the country, Cork and Clare were expected to be swallowed up somewhere along the championship line.
But then it has been a year in which they have improved significantly, match by match, throughout the summer and into glorious autumn. It has also been a year in which they have been drawn towards each other, all the time moving forward towards their targeted destination.
This will be their sixth competitive clash of the season – the ultimate shoot-out to decide who parks in the No 1 slot for the winter. Familiarity has bred respect, not contempt among this pair and it will be very much in evidence again this evening, not least in terms of how they set themselves up.
Davy Fitzgerald surprised many observers by using a conventional formation in the drawn game, rather than deploying a sweeper. It worked well too, causing problems for Cork on their puck-out as it forced Anthony Nash to go long. If Clare had pulled back one of their attackers, it would have allowed Nash to find an unmarked defender, who could then ping the ball forward to his selected target.
Instead, Nash had to go long, turning it into a traditional half-back v half-forward battle, which Clare won most of the time. Hoisting high ball down on Conor Ryan suited the Cratloe man, who had a field day. If Clare play the same formation again, forcing Nash to go long, I would expect him to angle the ball into space in the Clare half-back line. That would force them to run onto the ball, rather than wait directly underneath it. That way, there's likely to be quite a lot of breaking ball whipping around the fringes, which would give the Cork attackers more to work off.
Cian McCarthy's return at centre-forward will make Cork more aggressive in the air and on the ground. Mind you, Seamus Harnedy and Pa Cronin can be pretty good in that department too when they are on their game.
Jimmy Barry-Murphy's teamtalk will carry one simple message – don't allow Clare to settle into their stride as you did last time.
Clare dictated the pace, pushed forward, squeezed the middle third, turning it into their domain before picking off several long range points. However, they needed to score a goal or two to maximise their advantage. Darach Honan had a chance off a snap-shot in the second quarter, but Clare generated very few other genuine goal openings, largely because their game plan was based on long range points.
It worked well – 0-25 wins most games – but with so much possession in the first half, it was important to snatch a goal or two. Had they done that, they would be on a tour of schools and clubs for the last three weeks rather than preparing for the replay.
I reckon Clare need goals to win this evening and I always believe they will get them. I suspect their strategy will be more goal-orientated, because they now know just how difficult it is to win an All-Ireland final off points alone.
As for Cork, their goal drought ended at exactly the right time – the second half of an All-Ireland final where they were losing the possession battle.
Clare will have looked back on the goals scored by Conor Lehane and Cronin, in particular, and felt that while playing the game in a straight-forward contest is all very laudable, there are times when conceding a free is quite a good idea. In fairness both Lehane and Cronin used their high skill levels to exploit the openings, but both goals could have been avoided if Clare opted to concede a free.
The debate over who will benefit more from the last three weeks is largely irrelevant. Rest assured that the winners will be attributed with having done amazing preparatory work, but that's not the reality. Week one was about coming down from the first game (many of the Clare lads also had an U-21 final to contend with); week three was about ticking over, which left week two as the only time when real work was done.
Even then, it will have been all about perfecting the rhythms and routines that got the teams to the All-Ireland final in the first place.
In terms of mindset, Clare will feel that they outhurled Cork for most of the way and were eventually caught out by conceding goals. Even then, they came back to grab the late equaliser so their confidence levels will actually be higher than going into the drawn game when they didn't know how they would react to the big day.
Cork will feel that, despite being within seconds of a victory, they were, on the overall balance of play, lucky to get a second chance. They will also believe that they can't be as inefficient again when it comes to ball-winning.
Both camps are actually right in their assessments, so obviously something has to give. A replay often takes on a totally different complexion to the drawn game, but even if that happens here, I still believe that Clare have the capacity to work their way to victory.
Cork ended their goal drought three weeks ago and got a draw; Clare can improve their goal rate this evening and get re-acquainted with Liam MacCarthy.
PENALTY RULE FLAW FAVOURS NASH
Much has been made over Anthony Nash's up-close and real personal style of penalty/close range free-taking. He's certainly not the first to gain ground after lifting the ball but he has – quite literally taken it a step further. He's breaking no rule so good luck to him.
Indeed, what he's doing is actually very difficult, because he has to make up a lot of ground after tossing up the ball to make sure he's in position for the strike when it comes back down.
However, on the more general point, the goalkeeper and/or defenders should be allowed to dash out, the second the ball is lifted. Instead, they are supposed to remain on the line or risk a re-take.
The rule is flawed as it states that the opposition must be 20 metres away from the ball when a free is taken. Clearly, that's impossible when the ball is tossed forward several metres inside the 20-metre line. So, if the rule is unworkable why should all the advantage go to the striker? Why are the defenders forced to stay on their line to face a shot from as close as 13 metres when the rule states that they have to be 20 metres away? What are they supposed to do? Retreat behind the net and allow the striker tap in a goal?
This rule needs to be addressed and, in the meantime, it has to be fair to both sides. At present, too many advantages go to the attacking side.