Mayo 1-13 Cork 2-6 FT
Cork: A. Quirke; M. Shields; E. Cadogan; E. Cotter; N. O’Leary (G. Canty); J. Miskella (0-1); P. Kissane; A. O’Connor (N. Murphy); A. Walsh; F. Goold (0-1f, D. O’Sullivan); P. O’Neill; P. Kelly; P. Kerrigan (1-2); F. Lynch (M. Collins); D. O’Connor (1-2; 1-1f).
Mayo: R. Hennelly (0-1f); T. Cunniffe; G. Cafferkey; K. Higgins (0-1); R. Feeney (L. Keegan); D. Vaughan; T. Mortimer; A. O’Shea; S. O’Shea (R. McGarrity); K. McLoughlin (1-1, A. Campbell); A. Dillon (0-1); A. Moran (0-1); A. Varley (0-1f; Doherty 0-1); A. Freeman (P. Gardiner); C. O’Connor (0-6; 0-5f).
A suprise defeat for Cork to the Connacht champions on Sunday put an end to our search for a coveted two in a row. The victory for Mayo was every bit as complete as the scoreline suggests as Cork were completely out fought and out thought throughout. Even though Cork were ahead at half-time and even though Fintan Goold spurned one clearcut goal opportunity after the break, Cork’s second half performance was one of obliteration for our middle third and panic when in possession. All in all it was a dour ending to what was looking like a promising year.
Possibly this was a performance that we should have expected at some stage. This is a Cork team that has been going strong for 3-4 years, making four AI semi-finals in a row, while winning two All-Irelands in a row is an extremely difficult job that requires considerable luck and probably more talent then this Cork team had at its disposal. I noted two things earlier on in the year – first, the half-back line that played against Kerry in Killarney would not do if we wanted to win an All-Ireland and secondly our incredible depth was a myth played up the media and opposition teams. Regarded the first point, we have a half-back line made up entirely with attacking half-backs, Miskella and Kissane in particular the type of players who excel by going forward. What was needed was a physical dominant leader at 6 to hold the center and ensure the half-back line didn’t get dragged out of position or pushed up the field – the failure of our half-back line to close down the massive amount of space in front of our inside backs on Sunday a result of a half-back line that lacked balance and that was generally too aggressive. With this in mind, the failure to get Canty back to full fitness was a huge blow, but it should also be noted that the fact that we are reliant on lads getting well into their 30s (Miskella, Canty) and players out of form (Kissane) further suggests that we were short in depthat half-back.
Bringing this point about depth further, we need to look at our midfield and defense. Aidan Walsh’s form – understandably considering his youth and many pressures – has been pretty poor all year but Alan O’Connor’s exceptional form has ensured we have still dominated in the air in midfield. Unfortunately yesterday both players had off days and our options off the bench were pathetic – Nicolas Murphy has barely played any football this year while the talented James Fitzpatrick wasn’t blooded enough in either the league or the championship. Ultimately, our midfield struggled throughout and we had pretty much nothing in reserve to solve this problem. The same can be said for our defense – although Denis O’Sullivan looks like a quality player, he is in the mould of a Kissane or Miskella, best on the ball going forward and too often prone to being pushed physically off the ball. Canty unfortunately, like Murphy, was never match fit or a real option while inside Ray Carey and Jamie O’Sullivan had poor form all year. Up front, we have been desperately unlucky to lose two starting forwards along with two back-up players, and when we have a fully fit forward’s division I have no doubt that we will have the depth to compete in attack – however, its clear that this year, and going forward, a lack of options and back-up was and is a serious problem defensively.
Its interesting that Saturday represented a reversal of all the things we have done well under Conor Counihan. We play a pretty dull but effective style of football – we suffocate teams, win first time ball in the air, win breaking ball and when that isn’t happening win short kick outs or drop our half-forwards short to win kick-outs wide. We play the ball slowly up the pitch with constant hand-passing and then get handy frees or create space with hard running, or give simple twenty yard passes into O’Connor and Goulding in space. More then anything this style is patient, intelligent and based completely around maximising possession and exemplifying our main attributes – our power and athleticism. Unfortunately none of this happened on Sunday. Bar the opening ten minutes, our middle third got destroyed, with neither of our midfielders winning any first time ball and both our half-back and half-forward lines failing overwhelmingly to win breaking ball. Moreover, and particularly in the second half, we panicked badly with possession, getting dispossessed due to lethargy, or often kicking long balls on top of Donnacha O’Connor (not the greatest in the air), usually being marked by at least two men.
Of course, most of this was down to the performance of Mayo. Many teams funnel players back and kill space for the opposition forwards – Mayo did this, but they were also extremely aggressive in every part of the pitch, hounding Cork backs throughout and making a mockery out of Cork’s once strong support play. Ultimately, the template for beating Cork was created by Limerick a couple of years back – put a sweeper in front of the full-back line, crowd out the middle of the pitch and controlled aggression everywhere on the pitch. As such, Mayo had fine performers throughout the pitch – the two O’Sheas were excellent in the middle of the pitch, winning considerably more ball in the air then their Cork counterparts, the defence was robust and ably led by Vaughan and Mortimer while up front O’Connor was excellent from the deadball and Moran picked apart the Cork inside backs with non-stop intelligent running. McLoughlin’s goal was also a major turning point as it clearly gave the Mayo team a serious hit of self-belief. Even though Moran and Mortimer in particular stood out as class-acts in the Mayo team this was very much a collective performance exemplifying work ethic and showing considerable tactical acumen.
As for Cork, there were very few impressive individual performances. Eoin Cotter I thought did pretty well at the back and hopefully will continue to mature into a capable inter-county corner back. Both Cadogan and Shields however were badly exposed, largely because of the massive space in front of them throughout the game, and while even though Shields has done good man marking jobs in the past he is really a center-back through and through. Like Cotter Noel O’Leary played well but was (once again) close to being sent off before he was subbed – all in all though the half-back line failed badly to do one of their primary jobs, hoovering up breaking ball from midfield. The midfield itself was similarly dispointing, Alan O’Connor’s dominant form gone, Aidan Walsh, bar a little effort towards the end, capping off a disapointing year with a largely non-existent performance.
Up front, we showed none of the intelligence and guile necessary to open up a energetic and stacked Mayo defence. Large parts of this was done to the un-even balance of the attack – Goold is a nice footballer, but pretty ponderous on the ball and generally moves in and out of the game too much, while Fiachra Lynch, operating further out of the pitch, won a lot of ball to no real consquence. Similarly, Pearse O’Neill’s strong running game was largely rendered mute by Mayo’s discipline in the tackle and their numbers in defence. In reality, when we look at the midfield and half-forward line, there is only one true playmaker, Patrick Kelly, who was essentially marked out of the game. Inside, both Donnacha O’Connor and Paul Kerrigan had the beating of their men, but with Mayo operating with a sweeper in front of the full-back line and Cork panicking with what little possession we had further out of the pitch neither player got any decent ball in the second half.
Without saying any more, this was a game that Cork didn’t deserve to win. Overwhelmingly in Gaelic Football the spoils go to team that is better organised and works harder – this was Mayo 100%. In truth, this is a Cork team that has a right to have one below par game considering how consistent they have been over the past couple of years. There is I think little reason to panic. The management does deserve to be cricitised in two ways – first, the decision to play what amounted to a full team throughout the league, rather then giving first team players a break, had little reasoning behind it and only puts added physical pressure and strain on important players. Secondly, and in connection with the first point, players like James Fitzpatrick, Fiachra Lynch, Sean Kiely, Barry O’Driscoll, Conor O’Driscoll and Mark Collins should have been given more game time both in the league and in the Munster championship to provide greater depth to the squad.
At the same time, over the last few years management has gotten the basics right, they have gotten Cork playing an effective style of football, gotten us motivated, gotten the right players into the squad and gotten us fit and strong. The state we were in before Counihan came was pretty miserable, and even though its accurate to say he has made tactical errors and has had the benefit of some excellent underage crops to work with, he and his management team has gotten the vast majority of things right, while most teams would struggle to deal with losing two star forwards right before the business end of the championship.
All in all this is bump, rather then the end of this Cork team, although management needs to be more assertive in creating depth next year, and will need to find at least two serious defenders (possibly Peter Daly and Damien Cahalane) to re-jig our problematic defense. We need a center-back – hopefully Shields – and a consistent spine to the our defence, and finally we need James Fitzpatrick to be moulded into a viable back up to Walsh and O’Connor. We also need more intelligence in our half-forward line, and hopefully Mark Collins will be given an extended run at center-forward in next year’s league. Having only one true playmaker in the midfield and half-forward line will not do. If Counihan stays on, gets the right balance at the back, gets more depth in midfield and in defense and keeps players injury free, I expect us to be back in the running for AI’s next year. As I said, lets not panic.
Finally, to Mayo, congrats and best of luck in the following championship matches. Personally I’ll be hoping for either a Mayo or a Dublin victory come September.