Mark Collins is the vital link for Brian Cuthbert’s Cork

Rebels scored 10 goals in the league despite defensive tactics

Cork’s Mark Collins celebrates scoring his side’s first goal against Mayo - one of ten during the league. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Cork’s Mark Collins celebrates scoring his side’s first goal against Mayo - one of ten during the league. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

For all of their adventures on the dark side of defensive systems and auxiliary defenders Cork footballers ended the regulation league season top of Division One and it was their scoring stats that stood out - top scorers and the only county to break double figures in goal scoring with 10.

On Sunday they added another four against Donegal - allowing that their opponents’ feared blanket defence at times looked more crocheted than tight-knit - and have showcased one of the best double acts of the season to date with full forwards Brian Hurley and Colm O’Neill hitting 7-45 between them, 7-19 from play.

Yet at the heart of the team’s redefined priorities has been the work-rate and distribution of Mark Collins. The Castlehaven player has been given a roving role by manager Brian Cuthbert and although lining nominally at full forward or centre forward, he plays up and down the field throughout.

Again on Sunday, he could be seen everywhere from the Cork full-back line up to the full forwards, acting as link man and providing an outlet in defence and a creator in attack.

Former Cork All-Ireland winning manager Billy Morgan knows Collins well from his work with UCC and the player was on the team that won the centenary Sigerson Cup four years ago.

“I rated him very highly,” says Morgan of Collins’s involvement. “When we won Sigerson and played him at centre forward because he held the half-forward line so well. His two wing forwards, Kevin O’Driscoll (now also on the Cork team) and JB Spillane, from Kerry, were up and down the field a lot. Mark held the shape and would move from one touchline to the other, picking up ball. His distribution was excellent and he was always good for a couple of scores.

“He has a great engine and the system that Cork are playing suits him nicely. He’s a very intelligent player, who understands what a manager wants from him and can implement tactics without fuss.

“Another plus is that he’s from the same club as Brian Hurley and has a telepathic understanding with him and seems to be able to find him nearly all the time.”

Cork’s decision to depart from tradition - they were five years ago the last or at least the most recent county to win an All-Ireland with six forwards in conventional positioning - was brought about by the trouncing from Kerry in last year’s Munster final. Playing more defensively and deploying a sweeper isn’t just a matter of taking the pitch one day and getting more players behind the ball. It takes work and practice.

According to Collins himself, the change in emphasis was bound to happen.

“It is the way that everyone is gone really, the likes of Kerry and Dublin were the architects of free-flowing football and they are as defensive as anyone now. That is the way that football has gone unfortunately and you have to play that way. We set up a bit defensively today but we still scored 4-11 so we are still attacking in numbers and it is enjoyable.

“Football has gone that way. You might have only two or three forwards and we know that with Brian and Colm, you have to get the ball to them and they will do the business for us. It is up to the rest of us to work as hard to get it for them. It is enjoyable anyway when you are winning.”

After the difficulties of last year’s provincial championship and the partial redemption of a narrow All-Ireland quarter-final defeat by Mayo, Cork have responded well this season. Like last year they have topped Division One but unlike 12 months ago, they have now reached the final and are one match away from resuming what had become a winning habit in the competition, which the county won three times running from 2010-12.

They face Dublin in the final, themselves hoping to complete a three-in-a-row in the competition and the match will be an opportunity to exorcise the memories of the match that last year arguably marked a turning point in their season.

Last year’s semi-final saw Cork lead by 10 points shortly into the second half but Dublin bounced back to win by seven, a 17-point turnaround. Brian Cuthbert said that it probably derailed his team’s season.

“It probably did,” says Collins. “It knocked our confidence a bit. We were flying through the league;we gave a great first half display up here but we fell apart completely. From there on even through the break to the championship we never regained that confidence and we left ourselves down big time in the Munster final and we never regrouped so hopefully we can kick on from here now.”

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