Threads of Cork's challenge slowly unravelled

 

ON GAELIC GAMES:Tactically outsmarted on the day, the third quarter of the game was when Cork’s challenge largely fell apart as Donegal pushed for home

SUNDAY’S SEMI-FINAL between Cork and Donegal was a fascinating afternoon’s football. There are mixed feelings about the style of play the Ulster champions have adopted and all but perfected under the management of Jim McGuinness but it has this important quality in its favour: it gives hope and a renewed sense of possibility to many counties.

As a basic indicator of the scale of the improvement, eight of Donegal’s team (nine if you count David Walsh who came on a replacement on both occasions) started the quarter-final of just three years previously when Cork annihilated them by 14 points. The figures for Cork are 12 and 14 respectively.

Given such similarities in the playing stock, consideration of this transformation begins and ends with McGuinness’s management. A predecessor and former team-mate Declan Bonner put this most succinctly when saying: “He came with a background in sports psychology and he had a plan.”

Almost 40 years ago Kevin Heffernan took over a seasoned Dublin team, low on achievement, and initially sold the message of intensifying fitness levels – the “you mightn’t be the best team but you’ll be the fittest” legend – but also outlined how that edge would benefit the team over time.

On the 20th anniversary of the 1974 All-Ireland, Dublin’s Brian Mullins wrote a piece in the Sunday Times, making the point that is key to all great managerial practice. According to Mullins, players began to experience and understand how the preparations were benefiting the team and how gradually the progress outlined and projected by Heffernan was coming to pass.

It’s the way that all player ‘buy-in’ is achieved – by creating faith and trust in the manager. McGuinness devised a system that would require high levels of fitness and conditioning and he set about securing those. If any Donegal players were sceptical at the start of the project, we may be sure it didn’t take until last Sunday for conviction to dawn.

Did Cork handle the challenge well? The fact that they lost suggests ‘no’ but where did the key failings lie?

Firstly, tactical: under Conor Counihan Cork haven’t strayed too far from the path of traditional orthodoxy but if there’s one thing worse than not doing tactics, it’s trying to implement tactics players aren’t used to.

Under pressure all week from suggestions that Mark McHugh should be marked by a forward, who could capitalise on any slip-ups when the Donegal sweeper’s travels took him too close to his own goal, Counihan started Fintan Goold at wing back and rotated a couple of other forwards in that direction.

There was some vindication for this in Patrick Kelly’s point when he exploited a ‘challenging’ kick-out by Paul Durcan to pick McHugh’s pocket and score a point.

But most of the other exchanges suggested that whereas playing an extra forward to follow a roaming wing forward might appear a good idea, even the hardest working attackers aren’t used to the demands of tracking a Duracell-sponsored opponent and making his life uncomfortable.

Ultimately McHugh was much better able to play his normal game than were a succession of improvising opponents.

Secondly there was the issue of ‘intensity’ – a term I dislike, as it has acquired a portmanteau meaning, connoting all that is good in the game from focus to shooting accuracy – but which here refers to the sustained tempo of the match.

Cork hadn’t had to hit that sort of rhythm all summer and it took its toll. The constant recycling of the ball in short hand-passes works as long as, at some point, someone looks up and sees a constructive disposal.

In the early stages when unable to penetrate the central corridor, Cork found themselves isolated on the wings and essaying hit-and-hope kicks into the middle where they were gobbled up.

Possession wasn’t an issue either, as despite the ironically conventional excellence of Neil Gallagher at centrefield, Cork shaded the kick-outs in the first half during which period most of the restarts were contested before the short kick-outs began to proliferate after half-time.

What Cork had to do in the first half, moving the ball by personal courier while Donegal went for a few early deliveries into Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden, had to burn a fair amount of energy. If you were looking for a moment when the fuses began to blow in earnest, try seven minutes into the second half.

In a match which had been led by no more than a point, level eight times during the first half and which Donegal led by one at the break, Cork now trailed by three – the two concessions coming directly from turnovers.

With what looked like panic setting in, a medium-range ball was played into the Cork defence. Michael Shields had it covered but for some reason didn’t secure the possession and instead fly-hacked it out of defence, only as far as Paddy McBrearty, who should have scored but mercifully for Cork he sent his shot wide.

Additionally there was the litany of missed opportunity, bad wides either from being panicked into poor shot selection by defensive pressure (as at the start of the second half) or anxiously over-ambitious efforts (as in Aidan Walsh’s long-range pots in the first half).

Thirdly there was Cork’s traditional walkabout, a habit that affords a little rest to beleaguered opponents and a clear head shot to those more lethally inclined. During the first half Cork scored seven points – an average of one every five minutes with no more than seven minutes between any two. This is by no means prolific scoring, but in a tense opening half it’s at least consistent.

Between the 28th and 49th minutes – 27 per cent of the match – they managed just one point, which is largely where the match fell apart, as Donegal’s lead had reached four, a relative chasm and Cork were forced to chase the match with diminishing conviction.

Is the system bullet-proof? It’s hard to say, as it hasn’t been fully tested but what’s the likelihood of that happening?

smoran@irishtimes.com

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