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JOHN HAYES: Cork composure in front of goal is key to staying alive in the All-Ireland football championship

June 20th, 2024 8:15 AM

By Southern Star Team

JOHN HAYES: Cork composure in front of goal is key to staying alive in the All-Ireland football championship Image
Cork's Rory Maguire gets in his kick despite pressure from Tyrone's Niall Devlin. (Photo: George Hatchell)

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ON the weekend that the football championship finally came alive, the Cork footballers spurned a real opportunity to win their group and secure direct qualification for the All-Ireland quarter-final and, more importantly, the week’s rest that would have come with it. 

Being drawn away to Louth this Sunday will increase confidence that Cork can still make the last eight for the second year in succession, however even if that comes to pass, the quarter-final will represent Cork’s fifth tough game in six short weeks. It will also be against rested opponents in the shape of Dublin, Kerry or Armagh. Suffice to say, the failure to convert a very presentable chance to beat Tyrone last weekend increases the difficulty quotient of an extended season for Cork significantly. 

We have much to discuss this week between the action from last weekend and the preliminary quarter-finals that loom immediately into view. Let’s start with the main event from Tullamore: the Cork footballers. Striking off at 10.30am with the inimitable Niall Flavin for company, the three and a half hour spin from Ross to the midlands was relatively smooth. Niall got a grand sleep between Fermoy and Thurles, oblivious to the ominously heavy rain. Only a detour into Portlaoise town and traffic into Tullamore slowed our progress. Tullamore buzzed with a healthy Cork crowd, although some in Cork jerseys didn’t seem too concerned about making the 3pm throw-in for the football as we made our walk to the stadium, there being no rush on a few hurling acolytes to leave the nearby watering holes. 

Nonetheless, Cork supporters seem to well outnumber a relatively modest Tyrone following inside O’Connor Park, and the first-half performance gave the Cork contingent plenty to get behind. Thankfully the rain didn’t follow us to Tullamore, and we got a fine half of football with both teams going toe to toe and kicking some excellent scores at both ends. Granted, there was some very slow build-up at times, particularly noticeable when Niall Morgan sauntered to midfield, soloing at walking pace. However, when either side did hit the throttle, each was capable of creating opportunities and taking some lovely points. 

Cork edged the first half by 0-10 to 0-9, while also leaving several presentable opportunities behind. Cork had 16 shots to Tyrone’s 12 in the opening half, as Steven Sherlock, Chris Óg Jones, Sean Powter, Matty Taylor and Colm O’Callaghan all spurned presentable openings. To their credit, Sherlock and Jones buzzed with intent in that first half and did convert a number of chances each. Mark Cronin and Brian O’Driscoll provided the strongest support for the inside duo, and this quartet would account for all of Cork’s final tally of 17 points between them. The failure of anyone else to work the scoreboard was one of the failings that cost Cork victory in the end, Tyrone, by contrast, would end the game with ten different scorers and a conversion rate from play of 75 percent (15 from 20 shots) to 47 percent for Cork (9 from 19). Credit to the mighty Gaelic Statsman (@gaelicstatsman) on ‘X’ for the information. 

Cork's Chris Óg Jones wins the ball ahead of Tyrone's Niall Devlin and Brian Kennedy.

 

A brilliant feature of the enjoyable first half was the contest between Daniel O’Mahony and Darragh Canavan. When Tyrone attacked, Cork went man-for-man in the midfield area which made for a very congested centre of the field, however there was space aplenty inside the Cork 45 and Tyrone were happy to bypass the congestion with direct kicks to Canavan in particular, mostly through Morgan. O’Mahony did superbly to intercept these passes on at least four occasions, knowing if he didn’t then Canavan would have had a direct run in on goal. It was high stakes defending for the Knocknagree man as Cork didn’t drop cover in front of him on many occasions in the game.

One beautifully floated pass from his brother Ruairi did find Canavan goalside of the full back, yet even then O’Mahony got back to effect a brilliant tackle on the Tyrone talisman. Canavan did end up with four points from play and would start to gain the upper hand as the game progressed, however that was as much down to the space afforded in front of him and the frequency he was targeted by his teammates. Canavan would have been my shout for nan of the match, however O’Mahony was one of the top performers in the game as well. ‘One of the best full backs in the game,’ was how Sean Cavanagh described him on The Saturday Game. Such one-to-one battles are something the football review committee are determined to resurrect, and last Saturday reminded us why. 

The second half then could be described as a tale of three big moments that went against Cork. Firstly, Paul Walsh was off target with a goal chance when played through after a brilliant burst by his cousin, Tommy. Paul went himself when possibly the pass to Steven Sherlock might have been the better option, however I wouldn’t be too critical of the decision as much as I would the execution. Paul might have got a nudge from Mattie Donnelly to affect his balance, but that ball had to hit the target from that position. That was key moment number one. 

Key moment number two came just minutes later as a Cork turnover presented Sean Powter with possession in midfield with runners in support and Tyrone defenders and goalkeeper all at sea in retreat. Powter looked up to see Jones inside the Tyrone cover in the Tyrone half and Morgan on the retreat towards goal. Powter decided to go for the killer kick pass to Jones only to see Morgan spin around and execute the all-or-nothing interception. Jones then compounded the error by sticking his boot out in frustration and earning a back card for his efforts. Inside ten minutes of the second half Cork had left six points behind them and went a man down as the game entered the championship minutes. 

Disaster number three from a Cork perspective was soon to follow, as the failure to cover the second run of Ben Cullen from a simple one-two proved fatal. Cork had plenty of cover defenders, yet Cullen cut in from the wing untouched and goaled. Now Cork were a goal and a man down when realistically the Rebels should have been at least a goal up. Tyrone took advantage of the extra man and by the time Conn Kilpatrick was extremely harshly red carded – I’ve got worse digs from my nephews – Tyrone had a five-point cushion and just over ten minutes to defend it. They would do so relatively comfortably as Cork never got closer than four points from that point on. A quick Sherlock free was turned over the bar by Morgan and Jones zoolandered to the left when he had support runners to the right in injury time as Cork chased a goal that never came. 

Ultimately, Tyrone prevailed by four points, 1-18 t0 0-17, which wasn’t enough to secure top spot as Donegal blitzed Clare. Tyrone will have home advantage against Roscommon while Cork got the preferred draw on paper with a trip to Monaghan to play Louth. The Wee County is a familiar opponent for Cork at this stage, as this will be the fifth clash inside two years. Cork have won both championship encounters at home in 2022 and in Navan last year, while Louth have claimed the spoils in the league both this season and last. Louth won 2-9 to 0-13 in Ardee in February, with Cork passing up several goal opportunities in the game. Where have we heard that one before? 

Here we are in June and the failure to convert chances is still hurting John Cleary’s men badly in big games. Cork will create chances in Grattan Park, Inniskeen on Sunday afternoon (3pm throw-in), and increasing the conversion rate in front of goal is paramount if Cork want to make life a little easier for everyone this weekend. Everyone with even a passing interest in Cork football knows this to be true at this stage, sometimes this job isn’t exactly rocket science!

If I were to posit a reason for the profligacy, other than plain old poor finishing, I would suggest it is that Cork have developed a game-plan that requires turnovers and then counter attacks at breakneck speed to exploit the space left behind. The counter attacks are sometimes frantic and can be very exciting, however at times we lack the composure to take a second, take a breath and assess the options a little more calmly. Of course, players aren’t afforded the world of time on the ball in the modern game so speed is a necessity, nonetheless perhaps if Sean Powter had taken a play and used his support runners last weekend, a better chance would have presented itself. As ever, that’s easy to say watching from the stands. 

Louth will be no pushovers and won’t fear Cork. They will target this game as an opportunity to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final for the first time since their introduction over two decades ago. Cork, though, should feel confident after positive performances against Kerry, Donegal and Tyrone. Louth may present a different challenge if they sit off more and allow Cork to have the ball, in which case Cork will have to show their capacity to break down a deeper set defensive structure as opposed to the reliance on counter attacking as per the games against the Division 1 opponents. We might see a cagey, cat-and-mouse style game, however I feel Cork have enough quality to secure the away win, especially if Brian Hurley can recover to play a part. 

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