Cork may have lost their opening two home games in this year’s Allianz National League, but there was no comparison between the feelings in the aftermath of the Meath defeat and yesterday’s loss to Dublin.
The loss three weeks ago, as already mentioned, had plenty of reasons to leave us all feeling deflated as the game felt like another act of self-combustion that compounded all of the problems that we knew existed, but couldn’t seem to find a solution to.
The loss was followed by an outstanding win on the road in Newbridge, the type of win that we haven’t experienced in a long, long time, and although I wasn’t there, it was clear from listening to John Cashman and Jim Nolan on C103 that the Cork that travelled to the short grass county was a very different one from the one that got caught out in the long grass by Meath.
And so we waited to see what Cork would turn up when the Dubs came to town and we can all take a level of satisfaction from the fact that it was the same Cork that came home from Newbridge. They did so much right in the game. All the things that one would expect as a minimum were present in abundance as Cork played with pride, structure and, on occasion, panache.
They played the modern game as they defended in numbers, hunted in packs, surrendered kickouts, planned their kickouts and, crucially, had a plan going the other way too. At times things went a bit too lateral, but there will always be periods like that in contemporary football, but when Cork moved the ball with pace and purpose, and trusted in their medium to long distance footpassing, they looked really dangerous.
In a highly encouraging first-half they created three clear-cut goal chances and one half-chance when a probing ball went just beyond Seán Powter. Chris Óg Jones was central to the three real chances as he should have scored one after a beautiful sidestep, gave the perfect pass to Eoghan McSweeney for Cork’s goal and created the goal that wasn’t for Maurice Shanley.
And yet, they went in a point behind as Dublin were far more clinical with the chances that they created. As ever, the excellent GAA Statsman on Twitter laid bare the difference between the sides as Cork scored 1-6 from 16 efforts on the target while Dublin kicked ten points from fourteen shots. The outstanding Brian Hurley was the exception to the rule, as he went four-for-four, in an exhibition of forward play.
Dublin travelled south with an extremely strong 8-15 and in the second half, as they played with the wind, perhaps we all expected them to push ahead, especially after Ian Maguire was inexplicably given a second yellow card. Cork then continued to falter in front of the posts as Dublin tacked on four points and the game seemed to be meandering towards its logical conclusion.
However, Cork dug in and stuck at it. Another inexplicable second booking, this time for Lee Gannon – though the point that resulted after his collision with Powter still stood, inexplicably – made it fourteen men each and then Mattie Taylor cracked home a brilliant goal and Cork were level. On came the greats, McCarthy and McCaffrey, as Cork showed themselves more than willing, and able, to take it down the stretch.
The atmosphere from here to the end was the best I experienced for some time at a Cork football league game. Dublin are, and always will be, box office but when the Cork crowd were given something to be excited about, they were more than willing to get involved. Gone were the groans and the guffaws, back came the gusto and the giddiness. Inexplicably, there were boos, and these must be stamped out immediately, but the overwhelming feeling was one of excitement.
From there to the end was a microcosm of the game as a whole. Dublin took their chances, Cork managed to create more but didn’t take them. Cork deserved a result, Brian Hurley deserved the goal but neither materialised. While they didn’t get the result that they desired, and they will have regrets about aspects of the performance, there’s no doubt that they are in a decent position as they move into the defining phase of their league campaign.
The loss brought the curtain down on our liaisons with Leinster and there’s much to take from them in terms of our aspirations. Ultimately, the glimpses of the great Dublin side that we saw yesterday is where we want to be when we are at our very, very best, while the respective recent league graphs of Meath and Kildare are where we should be when things are at their worst. Cork should always be in the top eight to twelve teams in the country, even when at a low ebb, and whenever we do break back into that zone, consistently, it’s imperative that we stay there.
The next three games, however, are all about where Cork are at the moment; just behind where they need to be and yet not secure enough in their position to be able to ignore what’s happening behind them. Limerick come to town next weekend, then there’s a trip to Clare the weekend after before, after a break, Cork head for Ardee in County Louth.
Cork has the greater resources and the greater tradition, but none of the trio will afford them much respect. Cork, however, can attack these games from a position of strength, level on points with Clare and Louth and two clear of Limerick while also having the superior scoring difference.
We all know what Cork should be capable of achieving in these three fixtures, and there has been enough promise shown during the dying breaths of winter to suggest that Cork could be looking forward instead of backward when Derry come south at the end of March.
Now they must go and fulfil that promise, starting down the Páirc on Sunday.