INSIDE TRACK: Predictable Rebels didn’t bring any new ideas to championship

April 19th, 2023 12:05 PM

By Southern Star Team

Cork manager John Cleary dejected after his side lost by a point to Clare in the Munster SFC quarter-final. (Photo: Natasha Barton/INPHO)

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FOR years in Rosscarbery we were a great team for a good run in the league and a major blow-up in the championship. A very astute gentleman who was coaching Carbery Rangers at the time made a statement to us in the dressing room in the weeks’ pre-championship.

‘L for league and C for championship, lads’

We were all looking at each other saying the same thing in our heads. Yeah, the word league starts with ‘L’ and the word championship starts with ‘C’. But the meaning of his statement was far deeper.

They are two very different animals.

If you expect the levels you achieved in league games to be good enough come championship you are in for a rude awakening. The intent goes up. The aggression goes up. So too does the speed. The desire shoots up as well. If you can’t find that extra gear then you can kiss your ambitions goodbye, as we saw also with the Cork footballers in the Munster SFC quarter-final in Ennis. This loss, 0-14 to 0-13, is damaging.

Clare’s backs were to the wall. Relegated to Division 3 already this year, they were heading for the Tailteann Cup if they lost this game. They brought the extra gears, the aggression, the desire and recovered that pride that has served them so well in their championship and league runs during wily manager Colm Collins’ long tenure in charge.

Cork did the exact same thing as they did all through their Division 2 league campaign – they played at the exact same pace and they didn’t bring one new dimension to their game on championship day. As a result the opposition were prepared and ready. They nullified Cork’s threats and game-plan, and came away with the glory: a first senior championship victory over Cork in 26 years. Down here we still remember Ennis in 1997.

I expected Cork to win this provincial quarter-final but as I was sitting in the stand in Cusack Park about 45 minutes before the game, taking in the players’ pre-match stroll, I noticed that Brian Hurley didn’t head for the dressing room with his team-mates. I got that bad feeling straight away. Granted, his direct replacement Steven Sherlock scored ten points, with two from play, but he doesn’t possess Hurley’s killer instinct come championship. Hurley did take part in an A v B the previous Sunday and was in good form but if there was any doubt about him he should probably have sat that one out.

Ruairi Deane of Cork with Jamie Malone of Clare during the Munster SFC quarter-final. (Photo: INPHO/Natasha Barton)


Back to Clare. They had lost twice to Cork already this year – in the McGrath Cup and in Division 2 – but they won the game that really counted. Three major things worked superbly for Colm Collins and his backroom team. Number one: the six-foot six-inch goliath that is midfielder Darren O’Neill had recovered sufficiently from injury to come in at half time and dismantle Cork’s kickout. Number two: Podge Collins man-marked Matty Taylor, quashing his attacking threat while also troubling him from an attacking point of view. Number three: Pierce Lillis dropped back from wing forward to pick up Sean Powter when he dropped into deep areas to get himself into position to come onto the ball as he only can. This allowed centre back Jamie Malone to drop back into the pocket and close down the D.

If you think about it, shutting down Powter and Taylor and with Hurley side-lined, Cork’s goal threat all season, in which these three boys played a huge part, was gone.

Back to Cork's kick out. Going long, it’s been pretty one dimensional all year. They set up their pod of big men to Micheál Martin’s left on the touch-line and more often than not they outmuscled the opposition and took it cleanly or won the break. The story was playing out pretty similar in what can only be described as a pedestrian first half.

But plant an immovable monster from Clare called Darren O’Neill in the middle of that crowd and keep beating high ball down top of him for an entire half and see what happens. Such a display of ass, hips and elbows to hold his ground and win clean ball or tap it down to the advantage of a team mate, I haven’t seen in a while. Young and up-and-coming midfielders, take note.

Clare were now pressing hard to shut Cork down short, but to keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result was mind-boggling. At one stage Cork had a two on one involving Killian O’Hanlon on the other side but didn’t opt for it. When I saw this kickout set-up way early on in the league I said “yeah, it’s one option but more will be added surely come championship”. But there was nothing new.

The ultimate goal for any coach is to aspire to develop independent thinkers on the pitch. Present your players with scenario after scenario after scenario at training and help them to develop their problem-solving skills. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a good man for pre-planning and setting up moves myself but the question always has to be asked: what if all this goes haywire? What do we do then? As Mike Tyson once said ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. Cork were punched against Clare, and had no answers. They were too rigid in their overall style and kick-out plan.

The Cork forward play was poor, too. We had only five points from play to Clare’s 11, and they had 14 wides on top of that. Only for Ruairi Deane and Ian Maguire’s ability to take on their direct opponent and win frees in the first half we’d have struggled to score. Eoin Cleary, Emmet McMahon and particularly Keelan Sexton wreaked havoc with their crisp exchanges and direct play. Clare centre back Jamie Malone was a major catalyst and opened Cork time and again down the middle and into the wind.

This loss is a setback. We are down but barring a myriad of unexpected results elsewhere we are not out of the Sam Maguire championship, though we’re relying on results elsewhere. If both Meath and Kildare make the Leinster final or if Cavan make the Ulster final along with one of the aforementioned making Leinster’s equivalent we will be heading for the Tailteann Cup. Back to the drawing board, there’s work to be done.


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