Rebel footballers with a cause
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Rebel footballers with a cause

ON the day Cork played Sligo in last year’s qualifiers, Dara Ó Cinneide said in his newspaper column that Cork’s season was now about “regeneration and rehabilitation”.

Regeneration was a reference to the raft of changes made after the Munster final collapse to Kerry, while rehabilitation was self-explanatory in the same context. Both words could also have translated into what Senan Connell described before the Sligo match in his TV co-commentary as the central theme of Cork’s season – “redemption”.

All of those words were directly connected to a new approach from Cork, but the most obvious change against Sligo was in style. Cork got reefed against Kerry because they were so open, but they adopted a new philosophy in the aftermath. From the first ball against Sligo, Mark Collins and Colm O’Driscoll retreated to defensive positions. For most of the game, Cork played with huge numbers behind the ball.

Cork have never been fully comfortable playing a defensive style because the players haven’t been reared in that culture. Cork adopted a similar defensive style in the 2013 Round 4 qualifier against Galway, but they weren’t fully comfortable in executing it. They abandoned it for the All-Ireland quarter-final and Dublin created nine goalscoring chances.

Cork will never be totally at ease with that defensive style,but they accepted after last year’s Munster final that unless they joined the party, they were going nowhere. The alterations they made nearly took them to an All-Ireland semi-final, but their performance against Mayo in the quarter-final at least offered some form of redemption.

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When Mayo did push up on Cork’s sweepers from the beginning of the second half, Cork restructured the team and adapted to Mayo’s tactical set-up. Mark Collins had made 24 plays before being withdrawn, but replacing him with Donnacha O’Connor, who made seven big plays in the last 20 minutes, underlined how Cork were trying to be more creative and expansive.

That example is still at the core of how Cork will probably never become an ultra-defensive team; how they are the one of the few top teams currently in the middle ground of the ongoing debate on football, and where it is ultimately headed. After the regular league campaign ended last weekend Cork were the leading scorers in Division 1, but only two other teams conceded more than them in seven games.

For years now Cork have been getting it in the neck for their philosophy, and for trying to retain their unique identity in an increasingly homogenised defensive culture. Even the level of indifference shown to them by their own public often forced Cork to grapple with their self image.

Cork were consistently portrayed as naive, largely for playing an orthodox, attacking, open brand of football. They didn’t play with a sweeper or a blanket defensive template, which limited their capacity to lock down a game. Neither did they regularly play with the systematic cynicism which has become such an intrinsic part of Gaelic football’s culture.

Last summer sparked the latest bout of sporadic self-assessment, but Cork have still refused to go fully down the road of suffocating defensive football. They have been working off a more attacking version of the template they set out against Sligo last year, but they have been adapting and tweaking as the season has progressed. After digging in for a dogfight against Donegal, and only scoring 1-8, they went out a week later and rifled 3-17 against Kerry. That game proved that if a team is willing to play a more attacking style against them, which Dublin also did in the second-half in February, Cork will go toe-to-toe, while always using a two-man full-forward line.

The counter-attacking form of blanket defence Cork have rolled out has been really visible through the volume of scores from their defenders. Some of those players have also been integral to the number of support-play goals Cork have bagged, especially the high number which have been palmed to the net from a defence splitting pass just outside the square.

Bringing bodies back allows Cork more protection to their defence, while also giving them short to medium kickout options, especially after losing Aidan Walsh to the hurlers and the serious back injury to Ian Maguire.

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Two players are usually kept in the half-forward, one to supplement the midfield, another deeper again. Mark Collins has either been placed between the two half lines, or as a traditional centre-forward, depending on how defensive Cork have to play. Colm O'Driscoll has been the out-and-out sweeper, but John O'Rourke, Paul Kerrigan and Kevin O'Driscoll have also often played more like fourth half-backs than wing-forwards. Cork’s tactical set-up is also primarily designed to open up space for Brian Hurley and Colm O'Neill, while the best football Cork have played this spring is when Donncha O'Connor has been introduced as a playmaker.

This time last year, Cork went into the league semi-finals on a high after topping Division 1A. They were on fire in the opening half of that semi-final until Dublin cut them to ribbons, outscoring Cork in the second half by 2-13 to 0-4. Then Kerry wiped them out three months later.

Another clash against Donegal on Sunday will offer further evidence as to how Cork are evolving along the path of this new journey. Nonetheless they’re still trying to get to their final destination by being somewhat faithful to their true identity.