Fits and Starts
Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before. Last Sunday’s action pretty much followed the template that Cork have laid down since the start of the year. A decent start, a poor middle, and a rousing finale that just about did enough to save the day. However, for the first time this year, that rousing finish just wasn’t enough. Oscar Wilde told us that he could resist everything, except temptation, and it turns out that our old friend, fate, is similarly flawed.
While trying not to sound like a stuck record, it has to be said, again, that Cork’s spirit cannot be questioned. It has been evident in the Munster League, throughout the Allianz League and in the first three rounds of the Munster Championship. This is, obviously, a good thing. In every game this year, even in Nowlan Park, they have kept going until the bitter end. They’ve won games against the head and found a way to get a result when all occasions seem to be informing against them.
What is concerning is that Cork are reliant on that spirit, that they keep allowing games to slip away from them, that they keep giving themselves mountains to climb. Just like against Tipp, it all looked so good after the first fifteen minutes in Ennis. There was a brilliant goal, a goal that wasn’t, a shot saved and a possible penalty call while all over the field, Cork were playing with aggression, drive and even the occasional dash of panache.
The one shadow hanging over that opening quarter was Tony Kelly. He tapped over the opening score of the day that bit too easily and after all of the pub talk, and all of the car talk, and all of the train talk, it became clear that Cork weren’t going to detail anybody to try and curtail his considerable influence on proceedings. As he roamed across the half-forward line, he was picked up by whoever was in charge of that sector of Cork’s defence.
The logic of that can be easily understood, that you should trust your players to be able to do whatever is asked of them. However, Kelly’s talent is probably too effervescent not to tackle directly. Of course, if you do specify somebody to follow him, you also have to be aware of the potential consequences, something Cork didn’t do ten years ago the last time we got close to winning a major. With all that considered, not tagging Kelly certainly felt like a mistake and his 1-4 from play somehow felt fatal, even at half time.
This is, obviously, an excellent Clare team and there’s many ways in which they can hurt you. And they hurt Cork as Cork seemed to drift out of the game, just as they did against Tipperary two weeks previously. They gradually took control of the middle third and Clare’s half back line became more and more of an issue. There was a gentle foreshadowing of what was to come on the verge of half time. Cork trailed by four, and Clare had a free out that should have seen the half peter out. Instead, Diarmuid Ryan found himself in glorious isolation and four became five all too easily.
The 0-6 that Ryan and David McInerney hit between them was one of the most frustrating aspects of the day as Cork seemed to lose their shape in the forward line completely as the game wore on. What trumped the allowance of those shots from distance was, again, Cork’s penchant for making unnecessary mistakes and taking the wrong option. Too many balls slipped from the hand, too many passes were that bit off and in general, just like two weeks ago, there were too many errors.
The concession of the soft point before half time was made worse by the concession of a penalty on the resumption. A needless pass across the defence followed by an error under pressure sent Shane O’Donnell through on goal and a lead that was manageable at four had now become eight.
But again, they dug in. They got themselves back into it. They may have rode their luck in terms of the chances Clare wasted, but in the final analysis there wasn’t a massive difference between the teams in terms of profligacy. Declan Dalton made amends for the missed penalty, Seamus Harnedy came so close to conjuring a goal out of nothing and Patrick Horgan brought Cork level.
Sunday wasn’t Horgan’s best day ever in the Cork jersey. There was a couple of balls he was beaten to, a couple of balls that didn’t go to hand and a couple of frees that went astray. Yet he still hit 1-3 from play and, when the pressure was greatest, nailed the frees that nearly rescued a point for Cork. Fifteen years after his debut he was Cork’s top scorer with 1-9 and that is both a testament to his brilliance and major worry in terms of what we’re going to do when he’s gone.
His goal came from a brilliant diagonal ball in from Niall O’Leary. Unfortunately, such a delivery was an exception rather than the rule. Too often in the second half the ball came back into the Cork defence too soon after it had left. Before the trip to Limerick, that problem needs addressing. Was it poor delivery? Poor shape in the forwards? Not enough pace in the forwards? Not enough graft? Was the ball being delivered from too far back? A mixture of all of the above?
And still we were level. And again we gave it away all too easily before getting level again, and giving it away, again, as Cork’s right flank seemed to go missing in action down the stretch. After getting level, they should have got something out of the game, the goal, in particular, should have given us the momentum. But we are still only playing in fits and starts, showing glimpses of our true self.
One doesn’t need the gift of foresight to know that fits and starts won’t be enough this weekend against the big green monster that has haunted us these past five years. They’ve had their own troubles and, much like us, haven’t quite clicked, yet. It will take a seventy minute performance to get what we need from Limerick. It will take a considerable reduction in unforced errors and an ability to ride the wave of momentum to the full when the wind is in our sails. It will, most likely, take goals and a greater spread of scoring across whatever twenty players take to the field in the Gaelic Grounds.
The romantic in us might see the game as an opportunity for this group of Cork players to cathartically dump Limerick out of the championship. The realist in us might fear what happens should Limerick bring some form of total war with them on Sunday. The pragmatist will hope that Cork will play to their potential on Sunday, and that Limerick will continue to flounder, and that that will be enough to prolong our summer.