Get over it, Cork
THEY beat Kerry more often than anybody else in the championship throughout the last decade; they are odds-on to win again in tonight's televised league clash in Pairc Ui Rinn and are favourites to take the Division 1 crown in April.
They are marginal fancies ahead of Kerry for the Munster title and are right alongside them in the betting for the All-Ireland crown. Yet, despite the heavy layer of positives currently underpinning Cork football, all assessments of their prospects for the year ahead still come with an asterisk.
That's accompanied by an explanation that if Cork are to end a 20-year wait for an All-Ireland title, it will only happen if they don't have to play Kerry in Croke Park. In other words, they are reliant on some other county eliminating Kerry from the All-Ireland race, something which only Meath, Armagh and Tyrone achieved in the last decade.
Six defeats -- by margins ranging from four to 15 points -- and a draw (chiselled out in unlikely circumstances in a manic lunge over the last few minutes) is Cork's miserable return from seven attempts to unseat Kerry in Croke Park since 2002. In the same period, Cork have won four, drawn three and lost three of their 10 Munster clashes with Kerry.
The difference between what happens down south and in Croke Park is so stark that, while they are understandably determined to eradicate negativity from their psyche at the start of a new season, the truth appears to be that once Kerry are down the corridor in Croke Park, a large psychological stone rolls itself against the Cork door.
It has to be more than coincidence that whereas Cork hold the edge on Kerry in Munster since 2002, they haven't come close to matching them in Croke Park. Meanwhile, Tyrone beat Kerry three times in Croke Park since 2003 and will be confident of maintaining their superiority whenever they clash there again.
Ironically, Cork sorted out the Tyrone question quite efficiently in last year's All-Ireland semi-final.
It's extremely disconcerting for Cork that however hard they try, they appear incapable of working through the Kerry puzzle in Croke Park. Conversely, Kerry have grown so accustomed to beating Cork in Croke Park that the confidence engendered there is worth a few points per game.
It's a problem recognised in Cork, although finding an answer is not easy.
"There's no doubt that it has become a big psychological issue for this squad. It's something they really need to sort out because the longer it continues this way the more damage that's being done" said Tony Davis, a dual All-Ireland medal winner with Cork in 1989-90 and a current analyst with RTE on 'The Sunday Game.'
Pre All-Ireland qualifier days, Cork knew that anytime they won the Munster championship, they had nothing to worry about from Kerry until the following year. Now, it's all so different and is leaving Cork with that awful feeling that however well they play in Munster, their relentless tormentors will return to punish them in Croke Park.
Kerry have beaten Cork in Croke Park over the past five successive years, thus establishing a trend which carries huge psychological implications for both sides.
"It works two ways," said Davis. "Kerry have now reached a stage where they believe that, whatever happens in Munster, they will beat Cork if they meet them again in Croke Park, while Cork fear the worst against them in Croke Park.
"There's no logical explanation for it, but it has become a fact of life in recent years and is something Cork have to sort out if they are to win an All-Ireland. Cork have made solid progress over the last few years, but still haven't broken the Kerry barrier in Croke Park. Everything else seems to be in place to win an All-Ireland, but they've got to sort this out."
Last year's All-Ireland final was a classic example of how psychological demons corrupted the Cork mindset just when it looked as if they were ready to make the dramatic breakthrough.
Leading by 1-3 to 0-1 after 11 minutes, Cork had made a better start than they could possibly have hoped for. They were in full control of the levers of power and looked poised to press on for an impressive win. Instead, they lost confidence and momentum and were outscored by 0-15 to 0-6 over the next hour.
"The trouble with that sort of thing is that it leaves scars. Lads begin to question are they ever going to deliver. That's where they need real leaders to stand up and take charge.
"Conor (Counihan) was always a great leader in his playing days and has plenty experience of winning wars in Croke Park, but all he can do is get the team right for any game. After that, it's up to the players on the field. That's where leadership comes in.
"You can't leave it to a few -- it's up to everyone to deliver. Look, for instance, how 'Gooch' (Colm Cooper) and Declan O'Sullivan react when the occasion demands for Kerry. Cork need their forwards to be doing the same thing," said Davis.
After the first 10 minutes, there was certainly a marked absence of responsibility-takers in the Cork attack in last year's All-Ireland final. They had gone into the game with big reputations, but then it was relatively easy to impress when such huge momentum was being created from the half-back line and through midfield.
Kerry targeted the half-back line of Noel O'Leary, Graham Canty and John Miskella and with that trio busier on defensive duties than they had been all year, the Cork attack had to fend for themselves and were like little boys lost. They succeeded until the game settled down, but disintegrated from there on, averaging just one point per 10 minutes over the last hour.
Five months on at the start of a new season where -- unusually for defending champions, Kerry have quite a few gaps to fill -- Cork are again seen as most likely to break the Tyrone-Kerry All-Ireland monopoly which has applied since 2003.
"There's no doubt they have an awful lot going for them -- on and off the field -- but from a Cork perspective, all we can hope for is that those Croke Park defeats by Kerry haven't caused so much psychological damage that it hits them against other teams too. You'd hope it wouldn't.
"As for beating Kerry in Croke Park, there's only solution -- go up there and do it. Only the players can sort that out," said Davis.
Both teams show several changes from the All-Ireland teams for tonight's clash but, as ever, markers will be put down.
Cork can't replay any of the games they lost to Kerry in Croke Park over the last seven years, but this is a new season in a new decade.
It's important for Cork to grab any psychological advantage they can so that, in the first instance, they remain confident about playing Kerry in southern territory.
Even if both teams stay sound in the championship, it will be August at the earliest before they meet in Croke Park.
Meantime, it's all about bedding down the many other anchors that go into making a successful season.