A THIRD consecutive win over Northern opposition has propelled the Cork footballers from relegation candidates into leading contenders for a place in the league semi-finals.
With two series of games remaining in Division 1, the Rebels are occupying fourth position in the table on six points behind Dublin, Tyrone and Kildare all of whom are locked together on the eight-point mark. Another victory would almost certainly guarantee Cork inclusion in the play-offs, leaving Donegal as the only team capable of denying them providing Jim McGuinness' men collect maximum points from their last two outings away to Mayo and at home to Dublin
It's obvious that Cork are in a very advantageous position now, and the momentum accruing following successive wins over Down, Tyrone and Donegal suggests they won't be easily foiled when they bid to achieve the desired results against Kerry and Mayo over the next few weeks. They were lucky to get over Down, and, preceded by defeats at the hands of Dublin and Kildare, they were clearly under pressure to produce the goods away to hitherto unbeaten Tyrone in Round 4.
They proceeded to upset the form-book in no uncertain manner, however, and they came up trumps again in what – in terms of their hopes of advancing to the business end of the league – was possibly a defining game against Donegal at Pairc Uí Rinn last Saturday night. The victory came at a price, however, as Colm O'Neill sustained a season-threatening injury early on the match, and team boss Conor Counihan conceded it overshadowed the result against the All-Ireland champions.
"It was great to get the two points, but to get Colm right would be a bigger bonus for us. We're just trying to be confident about it, but it beggars belief," Counihan commented, a reference to the fact that the 24-year old Ballyclough man has suffered two cruciate ligament injuries in recent years.
On the game itself, Counihan said he was a bit disappointed with Cork's display in the first half, stating that they wasted a lot of chances, as well as affording Donegal too much scope.
"We have been working hard on our defence, and, in fairness, we tightened up well in the second half, although Ken (O'Halloran) must be credited for making two very good saves. I suppose it was sheer grit on the part of all the lads that eventually turned it around for us, and it was good to see some of the newcomers stepping up to the mark. We're looking at a lot of players, and hopefully it will give us more options later in the season," he said.
The form produced by comparative rookies Tomas Clancy of Fermoy, Andrew O'Sullivan, Barry O'Driscoll, Liam Shorten, who came on for Colm O'Neill, and Mark Collins was certainly encouraging, with the latter especially influential in the role of a wide-ranging wing-forward.
In effect, Cork played Donegal at their own game, packing their defence when they didn't have possession, and Collins was a central figure in the majority of their purposeful raids from the back.
To reach the play-offs would obviously benefit the management as they attempt to gauge the true potential of their new material, and Counihan suggests it's what the league is all about for Cork this season. It's very much a realistic target now, but the Cork boss was in no mood to get carried away by the win over a near full-strength Donegal, making the point that home advantage counts for a lot in the league.
"You'd expect to win your home games, and it was a solid enough performance tonight. We'd obviously be hoping for another one the next day, but it isn't going to be easy against Kerry in Tralee," he remarked.
As much as those of the newcomers, the displays from the experienced Graham Canty, Paudie Kissane, Michael Shields and Eoin Cadogan against Donegal were particularly pleasing, and, aside from Colm O'Neill's injury, Cork can take a lot of positives from developments last Saturday night. Paul Kerrigan made his presence felt too in attack, while Aidan Walsh came into his own in the second half at midfield where his partnership with Canty continues to blossom.
Damien Cahalane is bound to come into the reckoning once Cork complete their championship campaign at u-21 level, and Donncha O'Connor, who didn't start against Donegal, is close to full fitness again. So, the indications are that competition for places is likely to intensify in the lead-up to the championship, particularly up front now that Daniel Goulding is back in the equation after injury, and Ciaran Sheehan and Patrick Kelly are also on the mend.