Cork may growl but their painful defeat was self-inflicted
Coming through the gates of Semple Stadium on Saturday, it was the first time since my retirement that I had missed it properly.
It might seem odd in a game where you came out the wrong end but with no safety net and no knockout throw, as a player that is precisely where you want to be. I have enjoyed the spectator life so far, but the first of the All Ireland quarter-finals was exhausting. Every shred of emotion within screamed as the game progressed. Harder was removing him as Cork came back in the final stages.
That’s what the KO throw does to you. The safety net of having a second chance is removed. Seeing the mixed emotions of Cork’s men drop to the ground after emptying the tank and the ecstatic Galway players and management as they celebrated together brought back the feeling of what it was like to be there.
There is no hiding place. On good days, the chest is looking for teammates, supporters, family and friends while you enjoy the moment. Full of excitement and energy, feeling no fatigue or pain. But when it’s bad, you want the ground to swallow you up. Body and mind in overdrive. The “what ifs” are triggered too quickly. According to the stage of your career, “was this my last match?” », « have I done enough for the group today? “Why didn’t I go to that ball or take that point?” “, “Have I contributed enough for next year – or will I even be invited back? »
Before Saturday’s game, there was no form. Galway and Cork entered this quarter-final with uncertainties and questions. The electric atmosphere we had been waiting for only really ignited in the 45th minute when Cork started to come back into the game.
The first half gave the impression that the teams were afraid to go there. With errors, too many wide and players holding, trying the perfect pass. Galway’s setup smelt a team preoccupied with Cork’s pace and ability to attack from the 65. Leaving Conor Whelan on the edge of the box, one-on-one, four on the half-forward line and one more down middle of the park, oxygen was at a minimum for Cork to push the running game forward. Add Cork’s three half-forwards almost to the opposing 65 at times during that first half, it meant huge pressure in that third middle zone, forcing Cork to hit long deliveries in three forwards against five defenders of Galway and bodies under the breaks.
On the defensive side of Cork everyone will have an opinion on how Sean O’Donoghue should have handled Conor Whealan better, but when you’re tasked with scoring an attacker of Whelan’s caliber plus 45 yards of green grass, the margin of error is so small that in the blink of an eye you can be made to look very average. For Whelan’s goal, the Inniscarra man lost flight of the ball and immediately, like all good cornerbacks, moved on to step two of the playbook: “Where’s my man?”
Whelan came on the ball and finished at a tight angle.
It happens and when you’re tasked with scoring Ireland’s best inside players no one should forget how good O’Donoghue has been this year when Cork needed him. Damien Cahalane, who cops so much flak, has gone ball after ball and Ciaran Joyce confirmed my opinion that he will become a central defender who we will talk to for a long time to come.
Luke Meade will go unnoticed and unnoticed by most, but throughout the game he tied the game, tracked and did the work that few others will do for the team.
Unfortunately for Cork, only two of the starting forwards scored on Saturday. When I think back to that last league game in March, on Cork’s 1-26, Patrick Horgan made it 1-13 with just three other attacking starters and the rest coming from backs and midfielders. And that may be my biased opinion, but Alan Cadogan’s inclusion in the final 15 minutes was pretty impactful with three points on four possessions. I think it’s fair to ask where has he been all year?
For Galway, as far as general play goes, it’s more about route one to Cooney at 11 and Whelan inside. The physique of the Galway forwards allows them to impose themselves in all aspects of the game, but complementing this with a hard work rate, starting with Whelan, means that the opposition’s short passing game must be perfectly executed.
Ronan Glennon was named wing striker but took on the role I predicted, taking Darragh Fitzgibbon and doing it admirably until his legs started to fade. Shefflin was smart enough to bring in some new man-scoring legs in the form of Jonny Coen, but Fitzy broke free from his clutches for three runs on the stretch. Cathal Mannion was named at 15 and just floated off, picking up four points from the game. More importantly, when Shane Kingston scored that goal on the restart, Eanna Murphy found a Galway player straight out the puck for the reduce to a score of two points. These moments are huge when the margins are so thin.
I had previously mentioned that referee John Keenan’s fluid style made for an exciting final show in Munster because you knew where you stood, but on Saturday some of Paud Dwyer’s decisions at critical moments will add to Cork’s frustration. Robbie O’Flynn’s hand pass, Shane Kingston bringing Padraic Mannion on the baseline in the final minutes but not 65 and Daithi Burke’s questionable collision on Seamus Harnedy in the final minutes were all game-changing moments in such a close game.
Saying, you control the controllables and Cork had the opportunities but failed to finish the job. Kieran Kingson and his teammates will be left with those long-winded reflections on the mistakes that led to the goals, not to mention 17 wides and three good goal-scoring chances that begged. All were under Cork’s control and when the end-of-season margin is one point, it’s hammered even further for the days, weeks and months to come.
For Galway, it’s on to the semi-final at Croke Park – knowing that while their physique can match Limerick’s, can their tactical intelligence and throwing can keep up?
It will be a long winter in Cork as those close to the fire wonder if they will return in 2023.