HOME supporters entered Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday with optimism and enthusiasm but left with that deflated sense that we have now associated with Cork football for far too long.
With defeat to Meath last Sunday in the opening round of the Allianz Football League Division 2, the valuable momentum gathered in early season victories has been halted.
With major jousts to come, this weekend away to Kildare away and on February 19th at home to Dublin, the chances of collecting early points looks less likely. When the pressure came on midway through the second half, a lot of Cork's old failings resurfaced. The good thing about it from John Cleary’s point of view is that he will have probably learnt more from this game than he did from any of the three McGrath Cup games.
This game turned on its head between the 52nd and 62nd minutes when Meath outscored Cork 2-4 to a 0-1 but the warning signs for these game-deciding goals had been flagged far earlier.
A wise football man once made a telling comparison to me – at 0-12 to 0-2, you are still in the game if you get the next goal but at 3-9 to 0-2, you’re out of it. Twelve scores in both cases but the moral of the story is that, if you don’t concede goals, you always have a shot. Cork scored 19 times to Meath’s 17 but still lost by four points. John Cleary admitted as much in his post-match interview: ‘Goals win games, they got three, we didn’t get any. We will have to look at how we conceded 3-14.’
This will be a sweet start to the campaign for Colm O’Rourke and his team. Fielding six debutants and only one player starting from the four senior club teams that contested the Meath SFC semi-finals last year, he walks away from this game with a feeling that there is something building. Their full-forward line of Walsh, Costello and Morris had a feel of Stafford, O’Rourke and Flynn about them, scoring 2-11 between them. They were big, strong and aggressive around the middle. Their defence grew in stature as the game progressed. They mixed their game well between short and long and, above all, they outworked Cork – the first team to do so this year. To be honest, I recognised only two names on the Meath starting line-up – Donal Keogan at centre-back and the ponytailed Cillian O’Sullivan at wing-forward – but we will be hearing about and seeing a lot more from these guys.
One passage of play summed up Cork's performance and that was the lead-up to Meath’s second and decisive goal in the 52nd minute. Cork had won a turnover inside their 45 but there was no decisiveness or pace to the passing or movement following the ball being won back. Meath had taken the chance and had pushed up, knowing Cork would try to run it out.
At the time, Seán Powter was standing between Meath’s 45 and 65 with his marker and an acre of ground surrounding him. A 40-yard footpass into space either side of him would have taken out up to 12 Meath players. Instead, Cork went lateral and exchanged passes with no pace attached. Ian Maguire, being the leader that he is, tried to remedy that and took a handpass on the burst but got surrounded by three Meath players. At club level and, more often than not at this level, he’d bully his way through and get Cork on the move, however on this occasion the ball was dislodged from his grip straight into an onrushing Meath player’s hands, overlap created and Jordan Morris palms to the net.
Cork were in control of this game up until that point, despite not playing with the same energy or variety that they had displayed in Mallow. It was almost too casual early on, with Meath failing to register a score until midway through the first half. However, the first signal that Meath were here for a fight came with the bigger-bodied corner-forward Shane Walsh taking Kevin O’Donovan along the endline, fobbing him off and finishing to the net to get Meath going. No cover appeared when O’Donovan was beaten as the Cork backs struggled one-on-one.
On the other side of it, we have to remember that Shanley, O’Mahony, Maguire and Meehan were involved at Sigerson Cup level mid-week, with the latter two playing extra time. The legs were bound to be that little bit heavier. They, along with the likes of Cathail O’Mahony and Conor Corbett, will have faced the same scenario this week in the lead-up to the Kildare game. Meath most likely had players in the same boat, as will Kildare.
Once Cillian O’Sullivan netted minutes after Powter had a gilt-edged opportunity to finish to the net from a Colm O’Callaghan shot, there was no way back for Cork. Again, direct running and poor tackling led to the Meath the wing-forward breaking the line. Even though the kickout strategy was long and left to Maguire, surrounded by four Cork players in a square close to the sideline, was repetitive, Cork recovered most of their possession from it. However, more variety will be needed in games ahead. Cork soloed the ball too much and the movement inside wasn’t good enough in the second half bar Chris Óg Jones, which meant we saw midfielders, half-backs and half-forwards turning backwards and inwards an awful lot.
Sherlock, to his credit, got 14 points with 11 from placed balls but only one point came from the half-forward line and nothing from midfield. The spread of scorers is a worry. Will we see Powter at 11 again this weekend? He is less dangerous there as he has his back to goal more often and we don’t see as many of his power-play runs. With the concession of goals, we could see a return to his sweeper role perhaps.
Getting back on the horse and delivering a performance, which will hopefully lead to Cork getting something from the Kildare game, will be foremost in the entire group’s mind.