WE didn’t believe it at first, but grainy television footage has confirmed what eye-witness accounts and newspaper reports first suggested: Cork have dropped “the blanket”.
There were Donegal, frustrated by encountering a wall of 13 red jerseys last Saturday, there were Tyrone, left demoralised and disillusioned and with a measly eight points to show for 70 minutes of toil and trouble against a Rebel outfit that counterattacked for 14 points in round four.
The purists talk about it as if we are dealing with the US deciding to use torture at Guantanamo; can the ends justify the means? Cork supporters’ answer to that question will be a resounding “hell yes”.
They are scarred to such an extent by having watched their team outplay Donegal in the first half of last year’s All-Ireland semi-final only to somehow trail at half-time before being blown away in the second, one suspects they would keep an open mind on the use of actual torture if they thought it would bring glorious revenge this autumn.
Now De Rebels will roll into Tralee on Sunday in optimistic mood; it is hard to believe that less than three weeks ago, they were facing a third league defeat running, two points behind in injury time in Newry against Down, usually their favourite clients.
Ciaran Sheehan intervened with a winning goal and now Cork have three straight wins under their insurance logos. That success in Omagh, as assured as victories in the football hotbeds of the North get, was the biggest statement made in the league to date outside of Dublin’s hugely impressive start to the campaign. They followed up with a grinding 0-12 to 0-10 home win against Donegal.
It is not the fact of these past two wins that has football aficionados in the deep south daring to mention the Sam word. After all, this is a team that has won league silverware four seasons running. It is the way they were achieved. Cork are like a before-and-after character from fad diet advertising. “My new blanket has changed my life, darling. I feel younger, more confident and with fuller lashes. My only regret is I didn’t get one five years ago.”
The logic is that Cork, with such a talented squad, needed only to bring their gameplan into the 21st century to become the football force they have so long threatened to be; and now we have arrived at a confusing juncture where Conor Counihan is being praised for his tactical acumen.
The one dark spot, at the time of writing, is the anxious wait for news of how serious Colm O’Neill’s latest injury is. O’Neill is potentially the best of a good bunch of Cork forwards. Here’s hoping that this is not his third serious cruciate injury.
Nonetheless, the general enthusiasm can surely only grow in the next few weeks. Victory over Kerry on Sunday seems highly likely, as does success against the Kingdom in the Munster championship. Sheehan, Donncha O’Connor and Paddy Kelly are set to return from injuries of varying seriousness — Daniel Goulding is already back in harness for the first time this year.
Eoin Cadogan’s shackling of Michael Murphy last Saturday suggests he has lost none of last year’s form, while Aidan Walsh seems to have upped his game to fresh heights. Graham Canty is alongside him at midfield, making it surely the most physically punishing such partnership in the game. Talent coming through? Well, Darragh O Sé’s Kerry U21s have been dispatched and players such as Damien Cahalane and Tom Clancy (the Fermoy version) bring badly needed options at the back.
All that considered, surely Cork are the smart bet for All-Ireland glory, seeing as Dublin have been the only team to consistently impress so far this year?
Well, it is a tempting conclusion. But there is a key difference between Cork this year, Donegal last year, and Tyrone in their pomp of a few years ago. It is comfort on the ball.
You might argue that the gameplan was the difference between Donegal and Cork last year, and you might have a point, but the more marked contrast to us was both sides’ comfort on the ball. Donegal scarcely gave it away under pressure; Cork did little else when the stakes were upped in the second half.
It is an area of the game that Dublin are also good at, that Mayo work hard on, that Tyrone mastered between 2003 and 2008.
And for all their strength in depth and good forwards and imposing athleticism, Cork still harbour many players too prone to giving the ball away through inadequate skill or poor decision making. We are thinking here of Canty, of Noel O’Leary, of Paudie Kissane, of Michael Shields, even of Walsh, for all his brilliance.
These players, through their character and bravery and strength, are warriors, Cork heroes. If it was hard enough for Counihan to contemplate going without a couple of them before, it is harder now that Cork will seek to erect a wall of defensive muscle in big games.
But aside from the fear of injuries to their top attackers, Cork’s biggest worry must be whether many of their players can find a pass under intense pressure, can be disciplined enough not to foul, can be comfortable enough off both hands and both feet. That, in the living minutes near the end of the biggest contests, it will be about the ball skills, not the blanket.