Jackie Tyrrell: Cork concede far too much to win an All-Ireland

Rebels are the most skilful team in the country but need a stronger defensive spine

Cork’s Eoin Cadogan in action against Waterford’s Jake Dillon. Cadogan’s return gives Cork another useful option in defence.  Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

Cork’s Eoin Cadogan in action against Waterford’s Jake Dillon. Cadogan’s return gives Cork another useful option in defence. Photograph: Oisín Keniry/Inpho

 

When I look at this Cork team, I see a lot of positive growth and development throughout it. I see game managers and players with potential combining to make up a team that has become really consistent in their performances.

Leaders in all shapes and forms are emerging – Conor Lehane, Séamus Harnedy, Daniel Kearney and Patrick Horgan in the forwards, Bill Cooper, Mark Coleman and Anthony Nash further back the field. They are a much more rounded proposition than they looked to be at the start of last summer.

I see them as the most skilful team in the country. Everyone has a super first touch – you rarely see a pass going astray or a ball spilled. They are brilliant in the tight. On top of all that, you can see a pattern of play developing from the ground up, judging by how their under-21s played last week. Their style of play is fluid, pacy and totally dependent on high skill-sets.

Cork’s game plan is pretty simple but it works for them because they are able to play it at such high speed and intensity. They gain possession by swarming to the breaking ball. They go forward by creating options through support runners moving at pace.

That pace helps them break the tackle and gets them into space so that they can get their head up and look for the man in the best position. Using sharp passing, crossfield diagonal balls and interplay between speedy forwards, they create space and scores follow. With Anthony Nash conducting the orchestra they sing to his tune.

They are becoming a really slick machine, very successful and hard to beat. They are unbeaten so far this summer remember. They are averaging 22 points a game in 2018 – only Galway have a better average. Imagine how potent they would be if Alan Cadogan was part of that forward division. He bagged 1-4 in the Munster final against Clare last year, remember.

A sweeper or seventh defender isn’t the Cork way. Never was and never will be. Cork are proud and traditional in their mentality and how they approach the beautiful game. Their attitude is: “We are Cork, boy – we’ll take you langers on anyway you want”. I love that Cork swagger, that honest, open, refreshing confidence in who they are. They always feel they have a chance even when sometimes they clearly don’t.

Look at them last week in the football. The pre-game talk was Cork have a bit of a chance, bringing Kerry down to the new Páirc, boy. Luke Connolly scored a point in the first half off the outside of his boot and wheeled away with his finger in the air, full of pure Cork cockiness. He wasn’t to know they’d get beaten out the gate from that point on. He had that ingrained confidence that makes Cork one of the proudest and strongest counties in Ireland. I was in college there. I know all about it.

The hurlers are in better shape but that Cork confidence in their own way of playing means that they can sometimes leave themselves a bit too open in defence. This Cork team reminds me of where Galway were in 2015. They’re a really good team from 8-15 but they are prone to stuttering defensively.

Carved open

Go back to that Galway team of four seasons ago, beaten in the All-Ireland final again by Kilkenny. The personnel in their defence was more or less the same back then as what they’re going with now, except now they’re the best team in the country.

Back then, they were easy to get at. They could be carved open up so easily. Think back to the All-Ireland semi-final that year when Séamus Callanan had the run of the place. Hell’s Kitchen? More like Santa’s workshop full of candy and teddy bears! He scored 3-9 from full-forward. Eyre Square was tighter than the edge of the Galway’s square that day. That Galway team treated the full-back position like it was a taxi rank. Whoever stopped at that spot got the number three jersey.

So what’s changed? There hasn’t been a wholesale overhaul of players. Four of the defenders and the goalkeeper who started that day against Tipperary all started in the All-Ireland final last year. Instead, they’ve worked with what they had, found everyone’s best position and come up with a shape that suits them.

Daithí Burke, left, has become a formidable presence at full back for Galway. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Daithí Burke, left, has become a formidable presence at full back for Galway. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Back then, they had Johnny Coen at 2, John Hanbury at 3, Pádraig Mannion at 4 and Daithí Burke at 7. All four of them are still there but not one of them is in the same position. Burke is the best full-back in the game, Mannion is a force of nature at wing-back. Hanbury never really got to grips with full-back but once they moved him 20 yards to the left, he had a really good year. I had him in my top three for Man of the Match in the All-Ireland final last year.

Coen has moved out to midfield but don’t think for a second that he isn’t a crucial cog in that defence. In the NFL, defences often have ‘spy’ players, someone who is designed to watch, track and nullify the movements of the opposition quarter-back. Coen is the Galway defence’s spy player. He sits in front of the back six and reads the play for any potential fires that may happen. His job is to quench them before a spark is ignited.

So it just shows to create a really good defensive unit is not always about a blank canvas and getting different players in. It is just a matter of the right people in the right positions. Right shape, right schemes, right match-ups. Get those and then work on them. Build relationships, foster that familiarity and ease of play with each other.

Defenders should be regularly having conversations, not just with each other but with themselves. “Well, I know if Daithí or Gearóid does this normally, then that’s where he will go so I will be there to cover that space or that man.” If you are not talking to yourself regularly then you are not learning as a defender.

Particularly after a mistake. Bang, my man got past me for a score. Okay, move on, stay positive, next time, next ball. Very often, I never really heard the cheer from the crowd after a score against us because I was deep in conversation with myself. I’d always make myself a sandwich in these conversations – compliment myself, learn from the score, compliment how I’m playing.

Five points

Positive, learn, positive. Those are the kind of conversations that need to take place in defenders’ heads in training, in video analysis sessions and in games. After a while they become fluid and totally comfortable with each other. Always learning.

Look at the pillars of that Galway defence now. Burke fits full back like a glove – good in the air, strong, physical and able to use it when needed. He is fast and has a great sense for killing the ball in the full-back line. He’s very decisive and sees danger and nullifies it, no questions asked. Just ask my poor clubmate Luke Scanlon whose head was nearly taken off in Salthill this year. Rightly or wrongly, no goal was scored.

Mannion struggled with the constraints of the full-back line, as even good players sometimes do. You have to be more cautious in the full-back line, more careful not to make a mistake. When you get the ball, you get rid, end of story.

All you have to do is look at how Mannion has flourished since he was released to the half-back line to see why he was unsuited to his previous role. He is in like a demon to clean up possession around the half-back line, tidying up the breaks off Gearóid McInerney. Beyond that, he has a licence to get forward, an eye for a score. For Conor Whelan’s goal against Wexford, it was Mannion who broke through the defence to set up the rebound. He has freedom to play and it suits him.

The key point here is that Galway’s defence was there all along in front of them – they just had to find it and shape it. For Cork to win an All-Ireland, they have to do the same. In its current form, they won’t lift Liam MacCarthy this year. They just concede far too much. Galway are conceding an average of 20 points a game, Cork are giving up 25. Five points is a huge gap.

Cork need to land on the right mix and formula in their defence. Which player plays where, who is the marshal of the defence. Full-back and centre-back are pivotal in that regard – look what Burke and McInerney have done for Galway.

The thing is, Cork have the players to become a proper defensive unit. Eoin Cadogan is back on the panel for the first time since 2010 and if he can pass the levels he reached back then, can be a serious option. Maybe put him at full-back or, failing that, play him anywhere across the half-back line.

He has the physical attributes, yes. But what they need him to answer is whether or not he has the mental strength, attitude and resolve of a 31-year-old to meet that challenge. If he does – and I think he might just have – he can become the marshal of that defence. There is a cut to him that has been missing in the Cork defence since Diarmuid O’Sullivan and Ronan Curran retired.

Collectively, they need to defend more as a group. Take Mark Coleman’s block in the Clare game, 25 minutes in. David Reidy played a lovely one-two with Shane O’Donnell and when he popped it back to Reidy, Coleman was there. He had seen the danger and covered 30 yards to get a block on it, averting it. Super defending.

They need to lock down the central positions and get more protection from the midfield. Kearney’s selfless running from wing-forward provides extra bodies and protection for them but they need it to be a broader thing throughout the team.

There’s no shortcut – it takes time, trust and being totally comfortable with each other. If they can become tighter, develop a meanness and defend as a unit, they could be All-Ireland champions.