Southern Star Ltd. logo
Premium Exclusives

JOHN HAYES: Cork confidence building ahead of Munster senior football championship

March 28th, 2024 12:10 PM

By Southern Star Team

JOHN HAYES: Cork confidence building ahead of Munster senior football championship Image
Cork's Luke Fahy celebrates after scoring against Armagh in the Division 2 clash at SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh. (Photo: George Hatchell)

Share this article

GIVEN where Cork stood after losing their opening three Division 2 league games, the mood is far better now after the unbeaten run stretched to four matches. It could have easily been four wins in a row, if Cork held out at home to Armagh on Saturday evening. Ultimately, it was honours even, 2-16 apiece. And a fourth place league finish.

The second half was superb as Cork’s final league game ebbed and flowed one way to the other before Steven Sherlock came agonisingly close to giving the Rebels a win they would have just about deserved on the balance of play, particularly in the second half. 

Being critical, it shouldn’t have been necessary. Sitting high in the prawn sandwich section, I was seated beside two fellow Ross men in Johnny Murphy (Senior) and Eddie Hayes. Approaching injury time with Cork four points in front and controlling Armagh well, I turned and said, ‘This is a very good win for Cork if they can hold on.’ I should have kept my mouth shut. 

The inability to close out the game can be attributed to a lapse in concentration during the very same phase of play. A weak Armagh effort for a point from the left wing seemed to catch Micheál Aodh Martin unawares and a little out of position. Suddenly realising the ball was dropping short and into the net at his near post, Martin reacted and palmed the ball back into the danger area where Rory Grugan pounced for Armagh. Suddenly the mood in the stadium was changed, and the sizeable Armagh following found their voices again, while Cork nerves jittered. 

Credit where it’s due however as Cork deployed their overload kickout at the right time and to good effect, winning a break on the left wing and starting a fast break up the wing which ended with Conor Corbett correctly popping over a point when I know for an instant he considered going for goal. Disappointingly, Cork could not hold out and the impressive Oisin Conaty found the equaliser before Sherlock’s near miss. 

Still, it was a decent evening’s work for Cork. While a win would have been excellent and should have been secured, avoiding defeat and keeping the current unbeaten run going was very welcome. In the process, Cork guaranteed their Sam Maguire status and maintained confidence and momentum going into the Munster campaign. Limerick at home on Sunday week looms, so it’s straight back to work for John Cleary and his crew. 

While the game would ultimately end in a welter of excitement, the first half was more typical of the modern game so many bemoan so often. Though not a poor spectacle, the fare was slower and more tactical as both teams pulled numbers behind the ball and invited the opponent to break them down. Armagh seemed to have the bulk of the possession in the first half. Their strategy in breaking Cork down involved bringing their goalkeeper Blaine Hughes up the field as a sort of de facto quarterback. Nothing unusual in that these days, although the northern teams are certainly more aggressive with the strategy than most. Micheál Aodh Martin, at the other end, is not so adventurous and tends to play it old school and stay at home in his square. 

Interestingly, both teams tried to employ a sort of set-play when the opposition were all back deep and defensively well set, forcing the play to be slower and more deliberate. Armagh would make a call and soon, the bulk of their players would load on one side of the field where they would handpass the ball until someone would see an opportunity to switch the play. Two or three players would have held on the opposite side, now the defensively weaker side, and someone would make a burst towards the top of the D to make himself an option for a diagonal kick pass. It was a tactic they deployed successfully on a couple of occasions in the first half at least. 

Cork have a different ‘open play set piece’, for want of a better description, and it’s one they’ve been utilising now for the last couple of seasons. I won’t lie, from my observations it has proven rather less effective. When Cork face a packed defence and aren’t able to quickly break through, a player in the centre of the pitch will raise his fist. Three or four players will hold a line across the middle of the field and everyone else will head for either wing. The ball is then worked through the hands up the line, more often than not ending up in the left corner with Brian Hurley being the last receiver. Unfortunately, the opposition are mostly not taking the bait and keeping their numbers central, before defending the side being attacked with numbers. 

I don’t think Cork got one score directly from this approach last Saturday evening, and Hurley either got swallowed up or had to recycle back out the field each time. In fact, I can only remember Hurley getting one shot off using this approach, firing wide on the first half from a difficult angle. I’d love to see a statistical review of the tactic’s overall efficacy as I’ve seen Cork get very little joy from using this approach any time I’ve watched over the last two years. Again, there is no issue with having a set-piece plan for these scenarios, yet much like the kick-outs, further evolution is required in this area if Cork want to go up another level and compete with the best teams around. 

Cork looked a far better side when the game became more fractured and open in the second half. The catalyst for the game opening in this manner was two goals Cork snatched from dispossessing Armagh high up the field. The first was an errant Armagh handpass under little pressure before Conor Corbett offloaded to Chris Óg Jones for a super finish. Minutes later, a strong tackle from Jones near the 45 saw the ball transferred to Luke Fahy who finished nicely. 

The game was now turned on its head, and an Armagh side who looked in some control now had to chase the game. Cork could now defend in numbers before hitting on the break, where Jones, Corbett and Sean Powter started to cause real problems for Armagh. Jones started to win ball operating as a link player around the 45 and Cork runners attacked hard in support. This was when Cork looked at their best and, but for the stoppage-time drop in concentration, would have secured the two points. Perhaps getting ahead in games and forcing opponents to come after Cork is the best hope in the long run, as the slower tempo games don’t seem to see the best of the players the Rebels have. 

It has been a broadly positive few weeks for Cork after a bleak February. A league campaign that looked to be heading for dismal failure at one point has been rescued to ultimately finish in respectability. The curve is starting to trend upwards once more, and fans can look forward with confidence to Limerick on Sunday week down the park. 

The more condensed season means there is no downtime after the league and we are straight back at it. The Limerick side coming to Cork on Sunday were relegated with seven straight defeats from Division 3, therefore the pressure and expectation will be on Cork for the provincial opener. We will look ahead to the game in detail next week. 

Share this article

Related content