THE INSIDE TRACK: Rebels must find their spark to avoid a league relegation scrap

May 22nd, 2021 10:32 AM

By Southern Star Team

Cork's Ruairi Deane looks for options against Kildare in their 2021 Allianz Football League Division 2 South opener.

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THIS was not the start that the Cork footballers wanted or needed. The national league is only one game old and, already, they are under pressure. But that’s the nature of the condensed league this year.

Cork can’t have any complaints about last weekend’s 2-12 to 0-14 loss to Kildare in Thurles. The best team won, and could have won by more. It highlights that Cork have a lot of work to do, and fast. There’s no let-up in the matches: away to Laois this Saturday and away to Clare the following weekend.

When Kildare pounced for 1-2 in a 90-second spell in the second half to move 1-11 to 0-8 ahead, Cork were in trouble. From here, there only looked like one winner. Jack O’Connor is a shrewd operator. Here in Cork we know him well – too well, you say – from his years in charge of Kerry and he could do good things now with Kildare. They have been bobbing between Division 1 and Division 2 for the last number of years and that experience and know-how, gained from mixing it regularly with the top teams, showed as the game wore on. This Cork team doesn’t have that experience.

What added an extra layer of intrigue to this game was that Cian O’Neill, the former Kildare manager, is now a key member of the Cork backroom staff. Cian’s knowledge of the Kildare players’ strengths and weaknesses pitted against the Kildare players’ knowledge of O’Neill’s coaching philosophy was always going to have a big bearing on the outcome.

O’Neill brings a key skill set to the Cork backroom team; he was involved with Tipperary hurlers in 2010 when they won the All-Ireland and again with the Kerry footballers in 2014 when they lifted Sam Maguire. As well as being a former inter-county manager himself, this winning knowledge is a fundamental factor in Cork moving forward, particularly now after such a poor start.

The Cork team that started against Kildare included just eight of the side that started the 2020 Munster final loss to Tipperary last November. It was short the likes of Luke Connolly, Mark Collins, Killian O’Hanlon (who will miss the season with a cruciate injury) and Maurice Shanley, all of whom were a big part of the steps forward taken last year. However, one player’s misfortune creates an opportunity for another but Cork just didn’t have the strength in depth to cope with these absences over the 70 minutes. Compounding the players unavailable, Cork lost Brian Hurley to injury, and Sean Powter, Ruairi Deane and Ian Maguire also came off in the second half, and Cork don’t have the back-up to replace these players.

This is a demoralising start to the year for Cork, but if they want a template going forward they should focus on the first quarter.

Before the game I said I would try to keep a count of how often Cork kicked the ball. I stopped after seven or eight minutes as the ball was being sprayed around beautifully with a mix of hand and foot passes, resulting in all three of the full-forward line getting on the score-sheet inside the first ten minutes. This looked like a major tactical step forward from last year. But as the game wore on Cork reverted to type, ran out of ideas and it all became slow, lateral, static and listless.

If you’re to win a game – be it at club or county – you need to be at a 70 percent win rate or over on your own kick-out while 50-50 would be the goal on the opposition’s kick out. Cork’s kick-out saw a 60/40 win-loss ratio whereas Kildare reached that elusive 70/30 ratio. Most of the wins were on short kick-outs and of the 40 percent of kick-outs Cork lost, eight out of nine of them were long.

In the air, Cork were found wanting in the middle third where Kildare possessed more physically imposing players in the form of the Flynns, Masterson and Cribbin. Ian Maguire ploughed a lone furrow in this sector, contributing two fine points and working his socks off until he had to leave the field.

After the first quarter, once Kildare got to grips with the game and started to dominate around the middle, the physical advantage that the Kildare forwards held over the Cork defenders really began to tell. Even though they lost their top forward Daniel Flynn to a hamstring injury, Darragh Kirwan, Jimmy Hyland and Paul Cribbin gave their direct opponents a torrid time.

The Kildare forwards scored seven of their 12 points from play, as well as two brilliantly-worked goals at key times in the second half. They had seven wides and a number of efforts dropped into Micheál Martin’s hands so the final scoreline flattered Cork. Again, in the first ten minutes Cork looked very organised in defence, getting numbers back, communicating well, Sean Powter operating as a sweeper and they were disciplined in the tackle.

Early on, Cork’s forward line looked very dangerous when the ball was being moved first-time at pace with both the hand and the foot. Cork dominated possession in the first quarter, scoring four points but left three more in the Kildare goalkeeper’s hands as well as a number of wides. Converting these chances could have put a different look on the game at the first water break and would have given confidence to a relatively inexperienced team.

From here on the Cork forward line was crowded out and well marshalled by the Kildare defence. The ball was slower coming in so Cork lost the quick movement and off-the-ball running that we saw early in the game. Brian Hurley was a big loss when he went off, and John O’Rourke and Cathail O’Mahony had their men in trouble when they got quick ball. Cork scored seven of their 14 points from play, but had nine wides and left six in the goalkeeper’s hands; all frustrating statistics on a frustrating day in Thurles.

It’s a short turnaround for Cork and their backroom team as they head to Portlaoise this weekend to take on Laois. They need to put the Kildare defeat to bed fast as beating Clare and Laois will take them to a league semi-final. Hopefully, more of the leading lights will be fit.

Cork need to get back to basics, sort out their own kick out and take the first ten minutes from last weekend as a template going forward. Remember, if you can’t win the middle third you are not going to win games.

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