Footballers need to make a statement
National Football League Division 2, Rd 5
It might have been viewed as a relatively easy assignment for Cork a few weeks ago, but there is little reason for undue optimism now regarding their prospects of coming up trumps in next Sunday's National Football League clash with Meath at Pairc Ui Rinn.
Cork v Meath, Sunday, March 19, Pairc Uí Rinn, 2pm
In their opening game against Galway up in Salthill, Cork delivered a highly creditable display and it was primarily due to poor finishing that they were forced to settle for a share of the spoils.
On the same weekend, Meath were on the receiving end of a 3-17 to 0-16 drubbing from Kildare on their home patch in Pairc Tailteann, a result that suggested the Royals would have their work cut out to make an impact in Division 2 this season.
Developments in the interim have changed the picture considerably as far as Cork and Meath are concerned, dispelling the notion that there is any sort of a gulf in standards between the sides.
Meath have won two of their last three games, picking up their first brace of points by virtue of a resounding triumph over Derry in Round 2, and grabbing a late goal to pip Galway by the minimum of margins last time out.
They were beaten by two points on the road against Down in between, but they are now back in the promotion picture, and they will make the trip to Leeside next Sunday with a spring in their step in the wake of their morale-boosting victory over the Tribesmen.
Following their encouraging opening performance against Galway, Cork were hugely disappointing in their Round 2 encounter with Kildare up in Newbridge, but they were comfortable winners over Fermanagh at Pairc Uí Chaoimh after that, and it was expected they'd deliver the goods again when they squared up to Clare in Ennis two weeks ago.
True, Clare couldn't be taken for granted, given that they had made great strides last year, winning Division 3 before advancing to an All-Ireland quarter-final, but, in the absence of their talismanic midfielder Gary Brennan due to his involvement in Ballyea's preparations for an All-Ireland club hurling, their chances of registering a first win over Cork in 20 years appeared to be diminished significantly.
It turned out to be a humiliating experience for the visitors, as, not only did they lose to Clare, they finished eight points adrift of the Banner men, and their spiritless showing has led to all sorts of gloomy predictions as to what the rest of the season has in store for the team.
The ante-post favourites to top the group, they are currently joint second from bottom along with Derry, a point above Fermanagh, and even if they win their last three games, there's no guarantee it will be enough to earn them a place in the Division 2 final.
They can certainly kiss goodbye to their hopes of making a quick return to top-tier league football if they falter against Meath - a game that has taken on massive importance now, as, with an away match against Derry to follow before they play host to resurgent Down in their final game in the group, the threat of relegation in successive seasons will loom large for Peader Healy's side should they drop another two points.
It goes without saying there will be immense pressure on the players to produce a strong performance against Meath, but they responded admirably after slumping to Kildare to see off Fermanagh with the minimum of fuss, and maybe their desire to atone for their tame capitulation to Clare will prompt them to put their best foot forward again on Sunday.
The likelihood is that Meath will be a harder nut to crack than Fermanagh, but, at their best, Cork would be well capable of putting them to the sword. After the Clare game, selector Eoin O'Neill admitted he was at a loss to explain why Cork's form overall in the league so far has been so patchy and disappointing.
"We are all working hard, the players, the management and the backroom team, so it's very frustrating that we aren't getting the sort of performance we want and expect from the lads on a regular basis.
"We're all doing our best, everybody is giving it a lot of effort, and we have to believe things will eventually come right, although the odds are stacked against us now in terms of gaining promotion," he remarked.
Having had their pride so severely dented by Clare, Cork are bound to be highly motivated for the must-win showdown with Meath, and, on home soil, they would have to be fancied to achieve the desired result providing they produce anything close to their full potential.
Needless to say, the doom and gloom merchants will be in full cry in the event of Cork being forced to endure another defeat, and, in truth, there would be justifiable cause for apprehension about what lies ahead for the team in the summer if they don't manage to arrest their slide over the next few weeks.