Hungrier Cork reach the top table as Tyrone struggle

 

ALL-IRELAND SFC SEMI-FINAL Cork 1-13 Tyrone 0-11: CHAMPIONS TYRONE were deposed at Croke Park yesterday. It was, however, the manner of the fall that distinguished this All-Ireland football semi-final because it looked as if the chasing pack has finally caught up with Mickey Harte’s formidable team.

Judged by the graph lines of performance, Cork’s fortunes have intersected and risen beyond those of the Ulster champions. The match never lived up to its billing as the event of the season, partly because of unexpected developments but also because Conor Counihan’s team was so much in command, faster, stronger and hungrier than their opponents.

Among the unexpected developments was the withdrawal of Seán Cavanagh before the start because of stomach bug. To lose last season’s Footballer of the Year is the sort of setback that’s going to disrupt any team but there was still a feeling in the stadium that if any side could improvise a way out of such adversity, it was the champions.

In the event they couldn’t. It’s impossible to assess the impact of the loss but they lacked Cavanagh’s drive and energy in attack and Cork coped comfortably with attempts to breach their defences, rarely looking likely to concede the goal that would have radicalised a match during which the challengers led by at least five or six for most of the afternoon.

Cavanagh did make an appearance but in corroboration of his illness did not look well and predictably struggled to make an impact. But given the demeanour of the rest of the team, it’s not certain that had he been fully fit it would have been enough to inspire an alternative contest and outcome.

At times the semi-final was eerily reminiscent of six years ago when a young, relentless Tyrone dismantled Kerry and provided the emblematic image of green-and-gold-clad opponents surrounded by swarming, snapping white shirts running their quarry to ground.

Yesterday it was Tyrone who at times looked to have nowhere to go, getting caught in possession and giving it away with hasty, ill-considered clearances as red jerseys swarmed around them, dispossessing and surging out with the ball to renew the pressure at the other end.

The other unexpected development was the dismissal of Alan O’Connor. Referee John Bannon is known to be impatient with foul play but it wasn’t expected that Cork would run foul of this. But the centrefielder, having picked up one yellow for a two-footed lunge that toppled Enda McGinley, was sufficiently incautious to challenge Owen Mulligan after the latter had released a pass.

Mulligan tumbled and Bannon issued a second yellow card followed by red. If Cork were disadvantaged, they covered well and space and time remained in short supply for Tyrone.

Cork successfully shut down attack after attack without fouling, denying the champions a suddenly discovered route back into the match. But the otherwise excellent John Miskella – for example in the 60th minute a great tracking run after a counter-attack dispossessed the breaking Tyrone player – was lucky to receive just a yellow, after an umpire drew the referee’s attention to an incident in which he struck out at an opponent.

The aftermath of the incident saw some shapes being thrown and general squaring up, with Tyrone goalkeeper Pascal McConnell covering an impressive amount of ground to get involved, but tempers cooled.

Mickey Harte’s tactical re-alignments, unusually, had limited impact on the match. Conor Gormley switched on to Donnacha O’Connor, with PJ Quinn going to full back. Justin McMahon swapped with Ryan McMenamin, subverting the theory that a big man would mark the imposing Pearse O’Neill – a typically counter-intuitive move that didn’t quite work.

McMenamin played as the extra man for most of the match after O’Connor’s dismissal but there were also stints for Gormley and Davey Harte, as Cork happily withdrew in a protective phalanx to await the often laboured counter-attacks.

Contrary to speculation, Cork managed to hold possession confidently, slipping passes through the tackles and taking the hits as well as giving them back with interest.

If there was a difference in the nuts and bolts of the game, the work-rate and the appetite, there was also a distinct contrast in the attacking potential. Cork were able to get into scoring positions and take enough of the chances created – although they also managed 13 wides – whereas Tyrone struggled to get serviceable ball into their danger men.

For instance, Stephen O’Neill kicked three points from play and looked to have Anthony Lynch in trouble but he was infrequently involved. In summary, seven of Cork’s nine forwards scored from play; only two of Tyrone’s eight managed to.

Tyrone led a couple of times in the early minutes. After initial Cork pressure, a quick free from Brian Dooher – who may have made his last appearance at Croke Park after a decade and a half of intercounty football – sent McMenamin scooting in for a breakaway point.

Cork hit back impressively with a combination move culminating in Patrick Kelly fisting an equaliser.

A point behind in the eighth minute, Conor Counihan’s team struck for the match’s only goal to take a lead which they would never lose. Its genesis was in a break by the excellent Graham Canty, who made ground, played a one-two with Donnacha O’Connor and released Colm O’Neill. His shot was blocked but Daniel Goulding was on to the rebound and his top-class finish flew past the crowding defence into the top of the net.

Cork really turned the screw, picking off points as Tyrone floundered in the face of the physical pressure and the pace of the attacks. O’Neill, who was a handful for Quinn, got a couple, Goulding dispossessed Gormley and kicked another. By half-time the lead was 1-9 to 0-7 but with Alan O’Connor gone the match looked far from over.

The second half saw both sides add just four points. Tyrone failed to get the start they needed with Cork almost scoring – Pearse O’Neill’s shot coming off the post and Colm O’Neill gathering the rebound and trying to get Paul Kerrigan in on goal only for the Nemo flyer to spill the pass.

In the end the Munster champions didn’t need to stretch themselves. All but the final point of their total was scored by the 50th minute but during the remaining 20 minutes the champions could only muster two in response.

So Conor Counihan in his second season has guided his team to an All-Ireland final. There they will face the winners of next week’s Kerry-Meath semi-final – two counties not exactly unfamiliar to Cork.