Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
This was not a vintage Cork City performance by any means. Beset by unforced errors, the off-colour Leesiders required Kieran Sadlier’s decisive impact to preserve their perfect home record. Limerick, error-prone as ever themselves, let the league leaders off the hook.
Wisely, given the Bank Holiday weekend heat, Tommy Barrett’s side took more care of the football than usual here. Average passing distances were noticeably shortened, aided and abetted by Barrett’s surprising decision to start four central midfielders.
Initial suspicions of a Waterford-esque diamond proved unfounded, however, as Shane Duggan assumed an unusually narrow right-wing role. With Kilian Cantwell, not a natural attacker by any means, at right-back, Limerick therefore carried absolutely no wide threat whatsoever on that flank.
To the left, to the left
As such, the Shannonsiders funneled almost all their attacks down the left, where 18-year-old Will Fitzgerald combined well with Billy Dennehy in the early going. The in-form Colm Horgan, whose mark-them-tightly policy has been an unqualified success in recent weeks, certainly had his hands full with the lively teenager. And it was Horgan, in taking Fitzgerald out from behind on 32, that ultimately cost his side parity.
Alas for Limerick, Horgan’s foul also cost them Fitzgerald’s continued presence on the field. The injured winger’s replacement, Karl O’Sullivan, proved nowhere near as effective; hampered, admittedly, by a lack of quality service into feet.
Danny Morrissey’s athletic scissors kick turned the resultant Billy Dennehy free-kick into gold. But that was as good as it got for the burly 24-year-old, whose ever-present lack of match fitness inhibited his disappointingly languid efforts to trouble the Cork centre-backs.
One of those centre-backs, surprisingly, was Alan Bennett, appearing for the first time since Cork’s late-February win over Sligo Rovers. Conor McCarthy looked on from the bench as his replacement, 16 years his senior, marked his return from injury with an atrociously error-prone showing; replete with underhit passes, missed interceptions, and iffy penalty-box defending.
Of course, when it comes to individual defensive errors, no-one has Limerick beat this year. It took the not-so-Super Blues, through Cantwell, all of nine minutes to cough up their seventh penalty-kick of 2018; their third in three games.
Referee Tomás Connolly penalised the ex-Finn Harps defender for a perceived jersey-tug on Steven Beattie — not seen since early-March — who marked his return with a wonderful dribble, originating in the Cork half. Here, John Caulfield learned the lesson of March’s 1-1 draw at the Markets Field, in which the Cork manager’s reluctance to let his full-backs go played into Limerick’s hands.
Horgan, too, overlapped for fun on the right-hand side, creating two headed chances for Cummins with well-judged crosses. The second, worked from a short throw-in at which Limerick fell asleep, saw the former Preston striker instantaneously cancel out Morrissey’s opener with a deft glancing header.
Cummins nipped ahead of Tony Whitehead to head home; a common theme of Saturday’s game, in which Limerick’s defence continually wilted in the face of the 30-year-old’s physical and aerial potency.
Canny Caulfield changes
That state of affairs only worsened for Barrett’s side in the second-half, after Darren Dennehy’s latest injury breakdown. Subbed at half-time, Dennehy’s centre-back mantle was assumed by the positionally unsound Eoin Wearen, whose first-half stint as a holding midfielder was lowlighted by letting Garry Buckley turn him embarrassingly easily on the edge of the area.
Wearen, like Clifford, is a technically impressive footballer, who appears to possess little acumen in either the physical or defensive departments. Caulfield’s judicious decision to pair Cummins with the equally powerful Josh O’Hanlon on 69, therefore, made a lot of sense. And within seconds, the former Pat’s striker had towered above Wearen to nod home Cork’s winner.
Sadlier was the provider, with a byline cross, after emerging from the dugout himself on 51. Benched in three of the last four games, the out-of-favour winger evidently had a point to prove. Cork’s new look left-side, comprised of the 23-year-old and the energetic Jimmy Keohane, immediately went about terrorising Cantwell — whose early yellow-card limited his options.
Billy Dennehy, arguably Limerick’s best performer here, intervened decisively to block Buckley at the back-post, after a free-kick won by Sadlier was eventually worked to Barry McNamee at the byline.
The manner in which McNamee ghosted past Morrissey, before picking out Buckley, was criminal. His race long run, it was amazing that the ex-Cork striker lasted until the 64th-minute, when Mark O’Sullivan eventually made his bow.
Unfortunately, the rusty 35-year-old’s finishing deserted him moments later, as it has done so frequently in recent weeks. Bennett, who somehow let Duggan’s typically poor cross-field ball under his foot, was spared again. As was McCormack, whose errant square pass spurred the counterattack in the first place.
O’Hanlon struck his Sadlier-assisted winner just five minutes later, punishing an equally sloppy square pass from Dennehy. And that clinicality, ultimately, was the difference here. In an error-strewn encounter, for which both sides were culpable, Cork possessed the individual talent — and strength-in-depth — to capitalise on Limerick’s mistakes.
Sadlier’s decisive introduction from the bench served as a stark reminder of the relatively meagre options at Barrett’s disposal. With that in mind, minimising costly lapses in concentration, presently rampant in both penalty-boxes, is an absolute must if Limerick are to avoid the dreaded drop.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112