THE INSIDE TRACK: BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
WHEN he is fully fit, Damien Cahalane is the best centre back in the county.
The Castlehaven footballer has size and presence. He holds the centre very well and his biggest weapon is his ability to deliver a 40-yard kick-pass accurately out of defence.
Right now the Cork footballers like to run the ball out of defence. But if Cork are going to graduate to a consistent top-eight or top-four team, more variety has to be brought to how they exit from defence.
The way the game has gone, an accurate foot-pass out of defence can take out up to ten opposition players – and Cahalane has that ability in his locker.
In an ideal world, I’d love to have seen Cahalane throw in his lot with the footballers for a couple of years at centre back. But he hasn’t. He’s still with the hurlers – but he’s a better footballer than a hurler.
Cahalane would own that centre back spot for the footballers. He would make his name there. He’s 28 years old now and he would bring an experience and maturity to a young team, and he would also add more size to the Cork defence – that’s an area where Cork are lacking right now.
Sean Meehan and Maurice Shanley – two young lads who helped Cork win the U20 All-Ireland in 2019 – lined out in the central positions last year but it would have been more desirable if Cork had two more experienced players to fill the number three and six jerseys – that would give Shanley and Meehan time to mature and develop in the corner and on the wing respectively.
I still think there was more time in Clonakilty man Thomas Clancy at full back. And then there’s Cahalane. Those two at three and six would add size, strength, experience and ability to the Cork defence this season.
It’s a big year, again, for the footballers. Last year saw Cork win promotion up to Division 2 and also beat Kerry in the Munster Senior Football Championship before losing the final. The league throws in this Saturday with the opener against Kildare in Thurles, the first of three games in Division 2 South (it’s Laois and Clare after that). This is the preparation Cork need ahead of the Munster SFC – a semi-final against either Waterford or Limerick and then, hopefully, a Munster final in Killarney against Kerry. Cork boss Ronan McCarthy will want to have his team primed and ready to go to war by the time that fixture materialises in July, if it all goes to plan.
Clonakilty shot-stopper Mark White has returned to the Cork panel this year after taking a break last season. He adds an extra dimension to the goalkeeping position. Mark has huge presence and is a good footballer but what differentiates him from the others in his position is his long kick-out. If you watch Stephen Cluxton, Shaun Patton or Rory Beggan, when the high press comes on their own kick-out from the opposition they have the capacity to bomb one over the top and take out a whole host of opposition players to set up an instant counter attack. This skill would add an extra facet to Cork’s kick-out strategy for the 2021 season.
Further out the field, Cork will feel the loss of ACL victim Killian O’Hanlon at midfield, as himself and Ian Maguire were developing a solid partnership. Maguire is a very strong leader and carrier of the ball, and if he could add the kick pass to his game it would bring him to the next level as an inter-county midfielder.
Cork consistently run the ball through the middle third of the field. It would speed up the play and bring variety to the Cork attack from deep if both the half-back line and midfield kicked it more. Ruairi Deane may now find himself partnering Maguire but, for me, they are too similar in style. Mark Collins could prove an able foil for Maguire as Conor Loftus showed last season for Mayo after switching to midfield from wing forward. Collins has the vision to aid the quicker play that Cork need if they want to progress and develop.
If we go back to last year’s Munster final against Tipperary, every time Tipp turned Cork over in the middle third they immediately looked for the 40-yard kick pass into Conor Sweeney. It instantly took out the Cork defenders who had committed forward and immediately put Sweeney in a one-v-one situation with his marker, from which he did quite a bit of damage.
Being an inside forward in a team that runs the ball is a very difficult position to play in. It means opposition defenders have more time to get back and clutter the spaces they are trying to operate in. Carbery Rangers’ John Hayes has joined the Cork management set-up as forwards coach and, undoubtedly, he will have a big impact on young forwards like Cathail O’Mahony, Colm O’Callaghan and Damien Gore. I’ve played with John and coached him – he was and is a master at creating space for himself in tight situations. All forwards like fast ball when it’s on, into space in the hope of getting one-v-one with their direct opponent. Using the kick pass more would make John’s job a whole lot easier.
Cork have very talented scoring forwards in the likes of John O’Rourke, the Hurley brothers, Cathail O’Mahony and Luke Connolly, but a more physical player on the edge of the square would complement them hugely and again offer variety in the way the ball can be delivered in. Colm O’Callaghan could be the answer here now that Mark Keane is back in Australia.
I would like to see John O’Rourke at centre forward and holding his position up the field. Again, for similar reasons to Mark Collins as a possible midfielder, Johno has vision, he can kick off both feet and is very creative, all of which may well release a scoring inside line.
And, yes, all you supporters of the hand pass out there are saying at any level – particularly inter-county – possession is nine-tenths of the law, but the best teams are able to keep possession while integrating the foot pass into their game. Just take a look at Dublin, Donegal, Kerry and Mayo.
A big season for Cork starts this weekend. As fans, we are like greyhounds gnawing at the trap door waiting for the off. Let’s hope Cork hit the turn first and keep going.