BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
IN my early years as Carbery Rangers senior football manager we played Castlehaven in Clonakilty in the county championship. Brian Hurley won a ball in front of our dugout and the Castlehaven players in the vicinity of the play started shouting ‘Johno, Johno, Johno’, looking for the lay-off.
I turned to one of the lads beside me, confused, thinking this was some tactic Castlehaven had on the day to try and put our lads off. Carbery Rangers have John O’Rourke and we call him Johno; that’s what we all know him as. I later learnt that Hurley’s nickname is ‘Johno’ in the Haven camp because he used to mention John O’Rourke so often as a young fella when they played on the same Cork underage teams. How big a compliment is that.
And the compliments are flowing again after John O’Rourke’s three performances in Division 2 South of the league. He has been one of Cork’s most consistent forwards. He kicked 0-2 from play against Kildare, two more against Laois and had his best performance against Clare last Sunday in Cusack Park where he scored 0-4, including the winning point. Now he is one of the first names on the Cork team sheet but he has struggled for that kind of consistency over the last number of seasons.
Johno was an audacious underage talent. He was most definitely a contributing factor to Bord na nÓg bringing in the one-hop one-solo rule for underage games to curb the influence of dominant players. In Ross, jokingly, we still call it the ‘Johno rule’. This didn’t stop him, however, as he led his U14 team-mates to a Premier 1 County title defeating Nemo Rangers in the final.
Being a close neighbour of mine and watching him all the way up, I couldn’t wait for this fella to graduate to adult football to see what extra dimension he would bring to a forward line already containing the likes of Hayes Holy Trinity of John, Seamus and Declan. That factor, in the form of additional scoring power, manifested itself in the club’s famous county senior championship triumph in 2016.
I was lucky enough to be still playing when Johno made his senior debut as a 17-year-old coming on as a sub in Newcestown against Ballincollig. When I was shaking hands with Johnny Miskella after the game, his first words were about Johno. Even then he was turning heads.
He is a dream player for any manager. He will do everything asked of him to the letter of the law and then some on top. He is a quiet guy who will only speak when the need is greatest.
Knowing him and having played with him and coached him I think his honesty and willingness to play defensive roles has prevented him at times from lighting it up at inter-county level and hitting the headlines on a consistent basis. I always felt he needed to be a bit greedier in front of goal.
The more often he is on the ball, the more good things happen. Look at the evidence in Cork’s three leagues so far. He played his part in Cork’s 0-22 to 1-18 win against Clare in Ennis, and that was the Rebels’ best performance so far.
Still, despite the victory, it’s Clare who have a shot at promotion to Division 1 when they take on Mayo the weekend after next, while Cork will face Westmeath at home in a relegation shoot-out. It’s scoring difference that cost Cork a place in the league semi-finals. That’s how fine the margins are. You can trace it back to the poor third quarter against Kildare and the second-half performance against Laois when Cork seemed happy to keep a poor team at arm’s length rather than going for the jugular and really finishing the job.
Cork have got better game on game and this developing team would really have benefited from the longer league format because their style of play against a well-coached Clare outfit is a noticeable progression from the opening league loss against Kildare. A promotion play-off against Mayo or Meath would have been another step up in class and ideal preparation for the Munster championship opener against either Limerick or Waterford.
Cork played with far more urgency, accuracy, pace and desire against Clare. Statistics are not a bible for Gaelic football but they are always a good indicator for the coach of what needs to be worked on. Cork minded the ball far better against Clare, only turning it over 12 times over the 70 minutes compared to 24 turnovers against Laois. Cork scored seven points from play against Kildare, nine from play against Laois and a whopping 18 from play, out of 22 scores, against Clare.
There has also been real steady progress on Micheál Martin’s kick-outs with Cork winning 85 percent of their own kick-outs last Sunday and managing to put some real heat on the Clare goalkeeper for their restarts. When Cork got their kickouts away clean there was great pace to the play, however they need to be a gear or two faster in general play to compete with the top teams. From my experience, these are real positive indicators of progress, yet no clear-cut goal chances and the concession of a lot of scorable frees against Colm Collin’s men are areas for Cork to work on.
Sean Meehan was the pick of the Cork backs and he did a fantastic man-marking job on Clare’s Eoin Cleary who was described by Galway All-Ireland winner Seán Óg de Paor on TG4 before the game ‘as one of the best players in the country presently’. Meehan is big, strong, pacey, agile, aggressive and his timing in the tackle is very good. If he continues this form it bodes well for bigger challenges in the form of Sean O’Shea, if all goes to plan coming down the line.
Ian Maguire, once again, was immense and the Cork forwards to a man had their shooting boots on with Cathail O’Mahony and John O’Rourke really standing out.
I was anxious before about who Cork’s ‘go-to man’ – the guy who is going to guarantee you six or seven points a game – was going to be in the forward line. But with such a spread of scorers emerging, ten in all in Ennis, that worry has been abated.
The Cork management now faces a dilemma with four scoring forwards going for three inside spots. It’s John O’Rourke, Cathail O’Mahony, Luke Connolly and Brian Hurley. Based on form, O’Rourke and O’Mahony are shoe-ins. Do they hold Connolly or Hurley in reserve or move one of the four to centre forward with Deane moving back onto the wing? A good problem to have but with the form and confidence O’Rourke is showing, he has to be kept close to goal and in the scoring zone.
Ronan McCarthy has more positives than negatives to take into the Westmeath game, and I wouldn’t have said that three weeks ago. Home advantage and the continued movement of the graph in an upward direction should see consolidation of Cork’s Division 2 status and have the team in a positive frame of mind heading towards championship.