IN AN ATTEMPT to divine the outcome of Cork’s next championship outing, let us review their last. It was an uncertain Kildare outfit that came to Croke Park for the quarter-final, but Lilywhites might have comforted themselves at the throw-in with the knowledge that their team had never exited the championship under Kieran McGeeney by more than a score.
Seventy minutes of play later, and instead they might have reflected that Kildare had had about as much hope as a man sprinting at a speeding train.
Cork had beaten them to the point where even feeling humiliated must have seemed pointless, akin to feeling slighted for jumping off a building and losing the resulting match with gravity.
It was Kildare’s worst championship defeat, not only under McGeeney, but since 1983.
Cork scored two goals in four minutes, followed later with 10 points in a row, and kept the all-whites scoreless for 29 minutes.
Only hindsight wisdom and “ah, but” analysis suggests that Kildare are a bad side. It is comforting for the other three teams left standing to think that Cork so ruthlessly destroyed a poor side; the possibility that they might have ruthlessly destroyed a pretty good one is more disquieting.
Yet Jim McGuinness and his disciples will come to Dublin 3 on Sunday wary but hardly spooked. They will know they face opposition of intimidating size, pace and power, a collection of outstanding footballers. Cork perpetrated such a relentless beating on Kildare while indulging in the luxury of not starting Paddy Kelly, who is high on many shortlists for All Star half-forwards.
Here’s one slightly more run-of-the-mill weapon in the red arsenal that could prove the most crucial before the autumn is out: their free-taking.
Once they got over the shock and checked out the black box from their particularly nasty crash, Kildare might have concluded that the trouble began from as basic a thing as placed-ball kicking, like a bushfire from as commonplace an object as a matchstick.
Cork’s two first-half goals in that game are seen as a crucial turning point, and of course they were, but just as hurtful to the losers was the contrasting fortunes from still footballs.
For Kildare, you might have forgotten, played well before those goals, leading 0-2 to 0-0, and recovered after them, racking the final five points of the half. Four times, however, they sent scoreable frees astray. While Kildare missed the scoreable, Cork found the improbable.
Donncha O’Connor kicked a 45; Aidan Walsh sent a free to its reward from outside 50 metres; and Colm O’Neill exercised the umpires from 40 metres out, close to the sideline.
There were a host of differences between Cork and Kildare that day, but if you had reversed the free-taking fortunes, Kildare would have been four points up instead of three behind at the interval.
This is an aspect of football that gets sporadic attention but in an era when no stone is left rooted in the effort to improve physical fitness, psychological resolve or tactical know-how, it is worth pondering why any effort should be spared in the mission of cultivating an expert free-taker. One of the first things Kevin Heffernan, that wiliest of mangers, undertook with Dublin in the 1970s was cajoling the overweight, half-forgotten, dead-ball expert Jimmy Keaveney to the football pitch.
Someone of Keaveney-winter-1973 physique would hardly get a look in most inter-county panels in 2012. Yet there is enough evidence of free-taking’s importance to suggest that inter-county managers should scour their local club scene for someone who can kick the leather over the bar from frees within 50 metres with any sort of regularity; that not alone should they not be put off if that player is a slightly chubby man who can play more than a fair bit, like Keaveney was, but that they should be willing to turn a blind eye to everything from a lack of ability in general play to a serious personality disorder.
Ask Wexford; if they had had a Keaveney in their ranks this year, they might have beaten the All-Ireland champions in the Leinster semi-final.
The statistical evidence supports this logical conclusion. The higher level a game is played at, the more important frees become.
A survey of a round of NFL matches in 2010 found that 41 per cent of points in Division One came from frees, compared with just 21 per cent in Division Four. Yet the fascinating “dontfoul” football blog reports that the conversion rate of frees from the ground has dropped from 64% to 54% in the past two years.
One of the leading exponents of the art, Oisin McConville, has a theory on why that might be, which he expressed to the Irish Examiner last month. “If I were managing a senior team — and I’m just spouting this — I would make free-taking a part of the session,” he said. “[When I was playing for Armagh] you’d usually have to do it on your night off. County players these days don’t have those nights off. They have weights, normal training sessions and a workload all to fit in. That’s the reason why free-takers are suffering.”
Judging by their victories over Kildare and Kerry – in the latter game, the Kingdom missed four frees they might have expected to get – it is not a trap Cork have fallen into. It is one of the many reasons they are the All-Ireland favourites with the bookmakers, and, if you’re interested, with this column.
A warning, however: if free-taking is a barometer of the many reasons for Cork to be confident, it also provides a reminder that at this stage of the All-Ireland series, the margins thin out like air at altitude. Another statistic on “dontfoul” shows why Cork could do worse than adopt the name of that blog as their mantra; in their first three games this summer, Donegal’s Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden attempted 16 frees, and scored all of them.
Follow Eamonn O’Molloy on Twitter: @eamonnomolloy