CHARACTER is revealed when pressure is applied. ‘Cork survive, survive, survive’ – that was Paudie Palmer’s animated reaction on C103 to the final whistle in Tullamore recently in the Division 2 winner-take-all relegation dogfight.
Two minutes into injury time Cork found themselves a point down against Offaly and staring into the abyss, relegation to Division 3 and the possibility of competing in the Tailteann Cup this summer. But up stepped Cian Kiely, a second-half sub, to rifle over a beauty with his left from about 40 metres out to level it.
Good decision-making under pressure separates the great from the good players. No doubt, following Kiely’s heroics, Offaly goalkeeper Paddy Dunican had done the right thing getting out fast and getting the ball away short to midfielder Jordan Hayes in the hope of building an attack that might have led to the winning score. What he didn’t expect was the same player to kick-pass it straight back to him. Under the new rule he couldn’t touch it without conceding a free. As the ball ran towards the endline for a possible 45 and a far more difficult kick into the breeze for Steven Sherlock, the keeper played it. Free in from the 20-metre line. Sherlock made no mistake and Cork won their second game in a row, 1-21 to 1-20, the balmy sunshine matching the Rebels mood as they kept their place in Division 2, if only just.
Jubilation, something to be proud of as a Cork football supporter for the first time this year. Mistakes galore were made in the final quarter of an hour by both sides, Cork more than Offaly on the turnover count, but these players stuck to their task, never lost heart and got the reward they deserve. They can now look forward to a joust with neighbours and All-Ireland contenders Kerry in the Munster SFC semi-final on May 7th and at worst advancement to the qualifiers.
Cork v Offaly was a great game of football to watch – 43 scores in 75 minutes. Many moments to debate. Great displays on both sides. Steven Sherlock further enhanced his reputation. John O’Rourke had his best outing of the year, scoring three from play. Kevin O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor were really good on the ball and Colm O’Callaghan at midfield improved again on his performance against Down, contributing two great fisted points in the opening half. On the other side, veteran Niall McNamee caused all kinds of trouble for first Kevin Flahive and then Rory Maguire. It is easy to see why Offaly boss John Maughan talked him out of retirement this year.
Cork went six points up late in the first half and thanks to Sherlock’s early second-half heroics they again found themselves six up ten minutes into the second half. Cork's lack of height and physicality was exposed with a high ball into the square towards McNamee with the score standing at 1-9 to 0-6 prior to half time. Even though Flahive and Kevin O’Donovan were in good positions – one in front, one behind – McNamee still claimed possession and was hauled to the ground by Flahive, resulting in a converted penalty and a black card for Flahive. Offaly were back in it. Roared on by a raucous home crowd Anton O’Sullivan, the same man that converted the penalty, put Offaly into the lead for the first time with ten minutes to go. It looked like the tide had turned in their favour.
Fresh legs were needed, so Cian Kiely and Blake Murphy came on and contributed great scores while captain Brian Hurley kicked the score of the game off his weaker side from 40 metres in the 70th minute to equalise at 1-19 each.
There are seeds for positivity going forward to the championship. Cathail O’Mahony, who had to come off midway through the second half, Sherlock, Hurley and O’Rourke form the heart of a dangerous scoring forward line. They racked up 1-16 between them. O’Callaghan and Maguire are forming a formidable midfield partnership but Cork’s problems lie at the back.
Speaking to a member of the backroom team prior to last Sunday’s game he put the injury count at 19 panel members, which is a staggering number. Prior to this league campaign I had Sean Meehan and Daniel O’Mahony pencilled in at numbers three and six for the foreseeable future – but both are now unavailable for different reasons.
I am delighted how the season is turning out for Éire Óg’s John Cooper following the harrowing experience he had in Killarney in the McGrath Cup final earlier this year. Mattie Taylor is continuing to improve and has become a major driving force and leader in the last two games. But we are still in serious trouble at full back and centre back.
A lot of the major injuries have been to key defenders and with only six weeks to championship – and that game against Kerry – will some of them at least regain their fitness to a sufficient level to put them in the frame for selection for Keith Ricken and his backroom team? Let’s hope so. Cork need every player for their biggest test.