Denis Hurley examines Cork’s options in midfield as the season kicks into gear
GIVEN that it had become something of a problem area for Cork since the retirements of Nicholas Murphy, Derek Kavanagh, Pearse O’Neill and Graham Canty, it’s interesting to note that 2016 was relatively stable at midfield.
Across four championship games – against Tipperary, Limerick, Longford and Donegal – Alan O’Connor and Ian Maguire partnered each other for the latter three, with Seán Kiely having begun against Tipp only to be withdrawn at half-time.
As things stand, those 35 minutes represent the entirety of the Ballincollig man’s senior inter-county career and it’s a tally which may remain stagnant for a while as work commitments mean that he is unavailable to the panel at present.
Having impressed in Ballincollig’s run to last year’s county SFC final, Kiely was someone who may have been worth a sustained look during the McGrath Cup and the league, but even without his presence, Cork are not shorn of midfield options. Aside from the pair in possession, O’Connor of St Colum’s and St Finbarr’s man Maguire, the return of Aidan Walsh to the football fold is certainly to be welcomed while Ruairí Deane – selected to start against Tipperary on Wednesday night – will hope that he can build on 2016. Beyond that quartet, other options exist too, as we shall examine.
Alan O’Connor (St Colum’s): With Daniel Goulding and Fintan Goold having retired, O’Connor is now only behind Donncha O’Connor and Michael Shields in terms of seniority, having first been called up to the panel in 2007. Still possesses the same qualities which made him a central member of the team in the first place, and was never a speed-merchant so the passing of time isn’t an impediment in that regard.
Dovetailed well with Maguire last year and also benefits from the experience of playing alongside Walsh.
Ian Maguire (St Finbarr’s): Will be 23 this year and so still has plenty of time on his side. Last year was about reasserting himself after almost a year out of action following a frustrating 2015, and hopefully he can continue his progress.
He is the archetypal modern-day midfielder, big and strong with athleticism to go with it, though he could add more regular scoring output, even allowing for the goal scored against Longford last year. Barring injury, he will be the central figure of the Cork midfield for the next decade.
Aidan Walsh (Kanturk): Many will feel that his opting for football over hurling is merely righting a wrong of two years ago. It is certainly tempting to wonder if Walsh’s presence in Killarney for the Munster final of 2015 might have pushed Cork over the line, but it’s also pointless.
The important thing is that Walsh is available and he gives Cork options – before he burst onto the scene in 2010, he was primarily a half-back while he has played in the full-forward line too. Given his aerial ability, midfield is surely the natural setting though, especially as he could be an asset in gaining marks is that new rule gains traction.
There were signs that his shooting had improved in his last full year with the footballers, 2014, and it surely won’t be long before he re-establishes himself as a top midfielder, once he disciplines himself.
Ruairí Deane (Bantry Blues): Like Maguire, 2016 was about returning from injury for the West Cork man. He was used as a sub in Cork’s first three championship games but was then usurped by Walsh for the Donegal clash in Croke Park. Will still be a valued squad member, however, as he can also put in a shift as a wing-forward, providing auxiliary ball-winning ability.
Peter Kelleher (Kilmichael): Might seem a surprise given how well he did at full-forward last year but it’s easy to forget that he was regarded as a midfield during his time at De La Salle Macroom and when a Cork minor. Has taken to the edge of the square with ease and is the long-term number 14, one would think, but is an option at midfield should he be required.
Mark Collins (Castlehaven): Again, like Kelleher, better utilised elsewhere, but could be deployed at midfield, where he often shines for his club. Ideally, one would prefer if his playmaking skills at wing-forward were allowed to shine above the workhorse stuff, and Patrick Kelly’s retirement may facilitate that.
Eoin Cadogan (Douglas): To paraphrase Basil Fawlty when talking about the table-tennis table at his hotel, not a thoroughbred midfielder but could certainly be used in the event of an emergency. Better suited to the O’Connor role, he was tried there in the McGrath Cup a few years ago and has played there for Douglas.
Kevin O’Driscoll (Tadhg Mac Cárthaigh): Better suited to either of the half lines, but has the height to be able to contest aerial ball. Ideally, Cork will have a squad with enough specialists that the Caheragh man can be put where he is most effective.