Posted by Ewan MacKenna

One All-Ireland in five years is not good enough for a Cork side that promised to deliver so much more

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We didn’t see that coming. Not how Donegal won for that had been set in stone, but how Cork lost the semi-final.

Instead of the assured, confident, physical and driven machine with great depth we’d seen all year, to the extent they seemed unbeatable, what we got was good in parts but never great. That was the most disappointing aspect, for Cork are so much better than that when they play to their potential and their strengths. A year ago, they can blame injuries for their All Ireland exit, this year they can only blame those within their own dressing room walls for falling flat. None of that is to take away from their opponents, but a team with the personnel of Cork shouldn’t be taken apart for 35 minutes by any system to the point the result is beyond doubt across the last quarter. Their performance was lacking but what was lacking most was the management.

You can overreact after such a loss but one All Ireland in five years in not enough and it’s now reached the stage where this Cork team are the great underachievers of this era. Where before Conor Counihan built a top-class team while better sides fought it out for glory, most recently his top-class team has continuously come up short when they should be the best about. He got a lesson on the line in Killarney last year and he got a lesson in Croke Park on Sunday. It had been suspected all along he was the weak link in the team he put together and that has now been proven true.

Take Cork’s line-up. They have so many of their own strengths that should have asked questions of Donegal but instead they focussed solely on the positives of the opposition to the point it took away their greatest assets. That shows a lack of confidence in what Counihan had at his disposal and while you can’t play orthodox against Donegal, you can’t alter your own team to the extent you strip away what makes them so good.

Noel O’Leary’s strength has not only been his man-marking but his ability to get a half-forward going the wrong way to the point that he is the attacking force. When achieving that, so often he comes off the shoulder as a support player in opposition half. That trait would have been a huge bonus on Sunday when his forwards were bottled up, but it was something he couldn’t do from corner-back.

Paddy Kelly’s strength has been his play-making ability. Cork’s attack has so much going for it, be it Paul Kerrigan’s pace or Ciaran Sheehan’s strength, but he offers something different that would have made an impact against Donegal. In the opening period of the Ulster semi-final, Tyrone showed a way to get at their opponents and it involved spreading the ball from flank to flank, but not in a slow and ponderous hand-passing way. The ball travels quicker than any man and playing touchline to touchline with the boot drags Donegal out of position. Kelly has the ability to spray the ball about faster and more accurately than anyone on that Cork team yet he spent much of the semi-final chasing the game in his own half.

Playing Colm O’Neill inside worked to an extent as he got his goal and might have had another, but having him in the full-forward line and Donnacha O’Connor further from the posts took away a key element of both their games. Down showed in the first half of the Ulster final that if you can kick points from distance, it forces Donegal’s defence to be pulled further out and spread thinner. That’s one of O’Neill’s great strengths and may have created space for O’Connor inside. Yet playing them the wrong way around meant O’Connor was ineffective for large tracts of the game and was wasted.

Indeed playing so many out of position meant Cork had perhaps their best team all on the field at once but it added up to much less than the sum of their parts. And it took away from the impact of their bench as well as they struggled in midfield throughout and struggled all over throughout the second half. But just as Counihan had been quick to make like-with-like changes in the quarter-final, he had fewer options this time and was slow to make much-needed substitutions. Neil Gallagher dominated midfield from start to finish with Alan O’Connor his main victim, yet he played the entire game and it wasn’t until half-time that Pearse O’Neill came on. Thereafter as Cork fell away, all that was left to bring on were Denis O’Sullivan and Nicholas Murphy.

To say Cork were close midway through and close at the end is to miss the point. They were outperformed in the second half and even when the goal went in, Donegal were never going to lose. And staying close to the Ulster champions for 35 minutes is a given, not a compliment. Tyrone led Donegal by one at the break but were outscored after the restart and lost by two. Down only trailed by a point at half-time but were beaten up and lost by 11 points by the finish. Kerry were only two down yet Donegal had extended that gap to a comfortable six with five minutes to go. That’s how Jimmy McGuinness’ side roll. They grind you down before finally kicking on.

It was no different at the weekend when Cork are good enough to make sure it’s different. For them to comply to the same law of averages created by Tyrone, Down and Kerry isn’t good enough for a side with the potential to be the best in the country. Tomás Ó Sé may have said you can’t train yourself for Donegal, you have to experience it, but tactically you can give yourself the best chance when you do finally experience it. And that Cork team is good enough that it should be something for Donegal to have to experience too.

To his credit, Counihan has done a wonderful job in developing Cork football and assembling this team but you get the sense he doesn’t have the tactical nous to take them any further. If these Cork players want to take the next step, they need someone on the line that’s as good as they are.