Saturday 24 February 2018

Jamesie O’Connor’s All-Ireland Final head to head

Jamesie O'Connor

THE GOALKEEPERS

ANTHONY NASH has been consistency personified between the posts for Cork, and with three clean sheets in four games, he looks certain to pick up his second consecutive All Star award.

With just one goal conceded, he's understandably playing with a lot of confidence, and makes the stops when required.

Nash's distribution has been excellent, and the accuracy of his long-range free-taking has been an added bonus. If the three frees he converted from inside his own half in the semi-final were daggers to the Dublin heart, the one he drilled into a gale just before half-time in the Munster semifinal won't have been forgotten by the Clare players. That highlights the folly of conceding cheap frees anywhere within 100 yards of goal, something sure to have formed part of Clare's prematch analysis.

An interesting statistic from the semi-final is that Cork scored points within 15 seconds off no fewer than nine of his puck-outs in the first half. That illustrates not just the range he has with the ball in hand, but also that he was making the right decisions on where to put it. That may be curbed to an extent if Clare, as expected, play with a sweeper and crowd the middle third, so he may have to go short. But that's something Cork will have meticulously planned for.

It's worth remembering too that in the 2005 final, when Galway expected Cork to use the short puck-out, Dónal Óg kept putting it deep into Galway territory.

Whatever they decide, Nash gives them plenty of options.

His counterpart, Patrick Kelly, has conceded just four goals in six championship matches. This is a statistic most managers would happily accept and unlike some of his defenders, Clare's custodian emerges, in my opinion, blamefree for the goals his team have coughed up.

Kelly has made few mistakes and been dependably solid and composed. He hasn't had too many saves to make, but the one he pulled off from Graeme Mulcahy in the early stages of the Limerick match was out of the top drawer.

That Clare lost 72 per cent of their own puck-outs last time out is not a statistic he'll have been proud of, but much of the responsibility for that lies with those out the field, and it's bound to be an area that Clare will have worked hard at addressing.

Like Nash, Kelly also has the ability to point frees from distance, albeit within a narrower compass than his Cork counterpart.

THE DEFENCE

FULL-BACK LINES

How these lines perform this afternoon depends to a large extent on the tactics the managers employ.

While they squandered a lot of chances, Clare created havoc in the Cork rearguard in the opening half of the Munster semi-final. Darach Honan in particular proved a real handful for Stephen McDonnell. However, the switch of Shane O'Neill to full-back has solidified things and McDonnell has looked a lot more at home in the corner.

On that basis, O'Neill with his pace, looks the most likely to pick up Honan, but he will be giving away a considerable size advantage.

Because Conor O'Sullivan played the extra man role so well following the sendings-off in the Kilkenny and Dublin matches, he's the most likely to be handed that job today, again assuming Clare leave just two inside.

Comfortable on the ball and a good distributor, how Cork use him will be interesting, because considering the threat Honan and Conor McGrath pose, I think Jimmy Barry-Murphy would be quite content to have him back there as an insurance policy. If that's the case, goals will be harder to come by and such a strategy would go a long way towards spiking two of Clare's biggest guns.

Regardless of the team named, Clare are likely to play Cian Dillon at full-back on Patrick Horgan, with David McInerney in the corner on Luke O'Farrell.

While McInerney has been a revelation — three consecutive man of the match awards if you include the two under 21 games that sandwiched the semi-final with Limerick — Dillon has been equally as effective and, in my opinion, one of the most underrated players on the team.

Dómhnall O'Donovan has made a couple of mistakes coming out with the ball, but defensively he hasn't done a whole lot wrong either. If the trio have a weakness, it's possibly in the air, but aside from putting Pa Cronin in close to goal, Cork don't have a Ray Cummins-type player to really put that theory to the test.

More importantly, given the type of game it's likely to be, all three of Clare's full-back line have pace, and with Pat Donnellan likely to be there to sweep up, they can afford to attack the ball and play from the front.

Dublin's full-back line paid the price for giving just a little too much room to Horgan and co, so I expect the Clare marking to be considerably tighter.

HALF BACK LINES

Potentially the key battleground where the game will be won and lost, and an area which Cork completely dominated in that earlier championship encounter.

That afternoon, with Tony Kelly operating at centre-forward, JBM deployed Brian Murphy to man-mark the Clare youngster, a move that from the very beginning reaped dividends.

Kelly, like so many of the Clare players on the day, was flat, struggled to get into the game, and had minimal impact. After shipping a fierce hit from William Egan, John Conlon's early departure with concussion was another factor that worked in the Rebels' favour, and both Egan and Tom Kenny on the wings subsequently hit a lot of ball.

Egan has displayed that form all year, and has been arguably Cork's most consistent defender.

While Kenny had two excellent games in Munster, he did struggle with Danny Sutcliffe in the semi-final before being withdrawn, but I think he's unlucky that Murphy is preferred this afternoon.

Because Tony Kelly is almost certain to play at midfield, Podge Collins, particularly given the form he's in, is likely to be the one the Cork management have earmarked for Murphy's attention.

Collins took Shane O'Neill for five points in June, and since then has assumed an even bigger role in the Clare attack.

However, tying him down him in the wide open spaces of Croke Park, after spending much of the last two months on the sidelines, is a tall order for the Bride Rovers man. Furthermore, with Christopher Joyce also less than impressive in the Dublin match, Clare will feel they can do a lot better in this area of the field.

Having laid waste to the Cork puck-out in the second half of both league games this spring, Cork were never going to allow the Clare half-back line enjoy the same level of dominance come the championship. On that day in June, there can be no argument but that Cork largely had the better of it.

There was no sweeper on that occasion though, a role that Donnellan will almost certainly reprise today. The Clare captain has almost played it to perfection in the last two matches. He reads the game well, has the athleticism to play midfield, and has genuine pace. Having run 80 yards to take the pass which he duly pointed to open Clare's account in the semi-final, the ground he made up to get that covering tackle in on Graeme Mulcahy minutes later, which gave his goalkeeper the chance to make the crucial save, is as good an illustration as any of what he offers in the position.

Assuming Clare set up with Donnellan as a seventh defender, Conor Ryan will revert to centre half-back. Ryan doesn't do anything fancy, but he gives the defence a bit more ballast, and has done a good job of holding down the middle. His size and strength match up well with Pa Cronin so he may be tasked with picking up the Cork captain. On the left wing, Patrick O'Connor, who struggled at times last year, has quietly gone about his business, and been a model of consistency.

On the other flank, while Brendan Bugler may not have hit the heights of last year, he too has been solid and dependable, and along with Donnellan, shown the required leadership in the dressing room. Those guys will be stung by how poorly they played in the Gaelic Grounds in June, and that's something their manager will surely have reminded them of this week.

THE MIDFIELD

ANOTHER fascinating battle in prospect here. For me, one of the seminal moments in Cork's development this season was watching Lorcan McLaughlin go toe to toe with Michael Fennelly immediately after half-time in the Kilkenny match.

Fennelly was intent on laying down a marker, but McLaughlin didn't take a backward step, and it was a real statement that neither he, nor Cork, were going to be bullied. To follow it up with the immense display he delivered against Dublin in the semi-final shows he's taken another step forward. And beside him, Daniel Kearney seems the perfect foil.

Since breaking into the team, Kearney has been hugely impressive, particularly in the amount of breaking ball he hoovers up in the middle third. Both have also shown the ability to take a score, and when push came to shove against Kilkenny and Dublin, they were among Cork's best performers.

Opposing them are two of the brightest talents in the game.

Although named at centre halfforward, Tony Kelly will be lining out at midfield and at 19, he is arguably the most exciting young player to come along since Joe Canning.

Tony has it all — skill, pace, athleticism and, more importantly, the required temperament and toughness. Midfield is his natural position, and he's every bit as likely to hit three or four points from here, as if he was in the half-forward line, where he played earlier in the year.

Cork will look to tie him down and he carries a huge weight of expectation for such a young man. But he'll have learned from the experience of the earlier defeat, and I think he'll rise to the occasion.

Beside him, and just a few months older, is Colm Galvin. Four years playing together in the middle of the field at minor and under 21 mean the Clare pair know each other's games inside out. Galvin is seriously under-rated, and I'm not sure people outside of Clare realise how effective this guy is.

He gets on an amount of ball, shoots well from distance and, along with Kelly, effectively ran the relegation play-off game when Clare finally wore Cork down in extra-time.

THE ATTACK

Half-Forward Lines

For so long Cork's Achilles heel, but, in 2013, this is an area where JBM has wrought massive improvement.

Why? Well, Seamus Harnedy has been a real find and is, if such a title exists, the 'breakthrough player of the year'. He ticks all the boxes required of the modern-day half-forward – he scores, wins primary possession, and, equally as important, works his socks off when the opposition have the ball.

Alongside him, JBM has worked his magic to get the best out of Pa Cronin. Playing with the confidence of a man who knows his manager believes in him has elevated his game, and, in particular, his scoring rate, which has improved significantly this year. Cronin caused real problems for Clare in the air in the relegation play-off, winning an amount of possession, and he also did a stint on the edge of the square that got him the goal that looked to have secured the win for Cork. That move remains an option for JBM. His battle with either Bugler or Conor Ryan is one of today's key match-ups.

On the other wing, the youngest player on the Cork team, Conor Lehane, hasn't really hit the heights of his early league form in 2012. However, there were flashes of brilliance in the first half of the semi-final that showed what he's capable of. Yet, when Dublin denied him the same space in the second half, he was virtually anonymous. By all accounts, his club form has been good, and someone who it isn't expected from is often the one who really does the damage on All-Ireland final day. Clare need to mark him tightly to remove him from that particular equation.

On the Clare side, that earlier statistic, where they were wiped out on their own puck-out in the semi-final, has to be a concern. Those same problems were evident in that first championship meeting with Cork, and therein lay the foundation for the Rebels' victory.

Part of Clare's problem has been that their best primary ball-winner, John Conlon, hasn't had the season he'd have liked. Injury and concussion have disrupted both his form and confidence, especially as he's the type of honest player who tends to be hard on himself. If he's frustrated with how his year has gone to date, today's the day to answer it, and there's arguably no one more important to Clare's chances.

On the other flank, his former St Flannan's team-mate Colin Ryan has had an excellent season. In the 20 odd years I've taught in Flannan's, he's probably the purest ball striker I've come across. He's been exceptional on the frees, but has also contributed from general play and his work rate and fitness have been excellent. Below-par and substituted that day in Limerick, he's another who should be relishing another crack at Cork.

At centre-forward, although named in the corner, Podge Collins has been one of the championship's stand-out players. His move to centre-forward, the position he occupied as a minor, where he acts as the play-making fulcrum of the attack, has co-incided with the team's improved form. His influence, stitching the patterns together and linking defence to attack, is something Cork will have put a lot of thought into curbing. I expect Brian Murphy to man-mark him, but with the ground he covers, it may be easier said than done.

Full-Forward Lines

With Paudie O'Sullivan's injury, Cork needed someone to step up to the plate and assume the responsibility of leading the attack. To Pat Horgan's credit, he has been that man. Devastatingly economical when in possession, his free-taking has been clinical, and Cork wouldn't be here today without him.

When the red card he received in the Munster final was rescinded for the Kilkenny match and the pressure was on to perform, he delivered, and did so on JJ Delaney. Excellent too against Dublin and the key man Clare have to stop.

Jamie Coughlan is typical of the type of young, pacy, skilful player that JBM likes in his team. Mobile and accurate, he's another player with the potential to do damage given time and space on the ball. Could prosper out the field, if the play opens up, although with the level of traffic Clare are likely to have in the middle third, that remains to be seen.

While Cork don't raise too many green flags, their biggest goal threat comes from Luke O'Farrell in the opposite corner. O'Farrell has pace and is probably the one Cork player who seems to have goals on his mind when he gets the ball. Was very sharp against Clare in the Munster championship, and played well in the semi-final, so like Horgan, his confidence will be high coming into today.

For Clare to win, either or both of what I regard as their two marquee forwards, Conor McGrath or Darach Honan, will have to deliver a big performance. While they both worked desperately hard in the Limerick match, neither could be happy with their input on the scoreboard – Honan's goal their combined solitary contribution.

Admittedly, some of the ball into them, where they've had to go away from goal to collect it, hasn't made it easy. An extra defender in front of them hasn't helped either, but for me they still haven't done enough with the possession they've had in their hands in the last two matches.

McGrath in particular could do with taking the early point opportunities that have presented themselves, rather than heading for goal. Class is permanent, though, and these guys have it in spades. They created enough carnage in the Cork defence earlier this summer for me to believe that they have the beating of the Cork full-back line, if they get the type of fast, early ball they got in Limerick that day. Ultimately, this is where I believe the match will be won and lost.

Sunday Independent

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