OpinionPat Spillane

Jim's enigma machine can crack Cork's code

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
Jim's enigma machine can crack Cork's code

WHEN IT comes to predicting results in the Allianz Football League, I reckon that not even Nostradamus could cope!

Oscar Wilde hit the nail on the head when he suggested that to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.

The problem with the league is that it is a complete lottery. 

Even though only six counties at most have any chance of capturing the Sam Maguire Cup, the majority of teams still use the league as a kind of field experiment ahead of the championship.

Teams conduct heavy-duty, physical training sessions during the competition, while others try out new players or experiment with different formations or tactics.

Of course, counties would like to win promotion or reach the knockout stages. The ideal scenario for team managers is to achieve these goals without their players busting a gut or having to show their full hand ahead of the championship.

Results in this spring’s Division 1 campaign illustrated the craziness of it all. Kerry were brilliant against Dublin, but then got hammered by Cork a week later.

Mayo were majestic in the first round against Kerry in Killarney, but were totally clueless at home against Tyrone’s blanket defence in the next round.

It gets crazier; Derry scored four points in a damage-limitation performance against Dublin in Croke Park, which ended their chances of avoiding relegation, but then in the final match they threw off the shackles and scored 2-15 against Cork. Figure that out!

Dublin, though, are the biggest enigma of all. Atrocious against Kerry in Killarney, mediocre when drawing with Tyrone in Croke Park, but then superb when hammering Mayo and Monaghan away from home. 

Then they struggled against the Farney County in Croke Park in the league semi-final a week later. 

The Dubs may be going for a historic third league title in a row, but I haven’t a handle on where they’re at right now.

Previewing any Dublin game is all the more difficult as you’re never sure what team will take the field given their now standard practice of naming dummy sides. 

It appears as if the Dubs have yet to pick their best 15 and they don’t keep their best team on the field for the full 70 minutes.

During their first match against Cork, for example, they substituted two of their best players on the day, Shane Carthy and Jonny Cooper, when the game was in the melting point in the second half and lost.

Much depends on what state of mind the Dubs are in. When they are motivated and play with a high tempo they are virtually impossible to beat, but when the intensity levels drop, as happened in the semi-final, they are vulnerable. .

Form-wise Cork were the most consistent team in Division 1 this spring and were the Division’s highest scorers, averaging over 18 points a game. 

Few teams can put four goals past Donegal and in Colm O’Neill and Brian Hurley the Rebels possess two of the country’s form forwards.

Of course, the big change is that they have perfected their defensive game plan and now focus on a counter-attacking style of football, with sweeper Mark Collins playing a pivotal role.

In the semi-final against Donegal Collins was on the ball a remarkable 47 times and the impetus for most of the Cork’s attack comes from their defence.

Against Kerry the Rebels were far more attack-minded, scoring 3-17 and winning by 11 points when they clashed earlier this spring.  

Perhaps Dublin boss Jim Gavin hasn’t fielded his best 15 this season because he doesn’t know his best 15.

Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly have yet to scale the heights they reached last year, while Bernard Brogan struggles against a blanket defences. 

Midfield remains problematic and as we saw against Monaghan the defence looks vulnerable when Rory O’Carroll is absent.

The biggest change, however, is that they are no longer as attack-minded. For example, they created 28 chances against Monaghan, but last year they were creating 40-plus scoring chances in most games.

Cork could do worse than borrow the blueprint used by Monaghan to frustrate the Dubs: Man-mark Flynn and Connolly which will reduce their influence and win your own kick-outs. 

Cork failed to do this in their key matches last year, but this season they are going short with virtually all their restarts.

And don’t try and defend a lead against Dublin. Monaghan tried it and handed the initiative back to the Dubs.

Overall the jury is still out on whether Cork are the real deal. Even though Donegal had little interest in winning the semi-final, they still hit 19 scores against the Rebels. 

At the other end of the field, Cork’s conversion rate of 43 per cent won’t suffice today. Their ratio of hand passing to kick passing is totally askew. They hand passed the ball an astonishing 251 times against Donegal and only kicked the ball on 51 occasions.

Against a physically powerful team like Dublin this over-dependence on the hand pass could land them in trouble and their refusal to kick means that they struggle to get their two marquee forwards on the ball often enough.

I fancy Dublin today. They are beginning to get into championship mode and when the game was slipping away against Monaghan they moved up a gear.

They have the best defensive record of any team in the league, conceding just two goals. They are less naive than a year ago and don’t leave as many gaps at the back.

They are also more composed now when facing the blanket defence, but their ace card could turn out to be the return of Alan Brogan. He is capable of penetrating anydefence with his off-the-ball running, superb vision and brilliant kick passing. 

Better still for Dublin, Bernard plays better when his brother is around to link up with him. So provided the Dubs bring their A game to Croke Park today, I fancy them to win with a bit to spare.

Verdict: Dublin.