Colm Keys: What has gone wrong with Cork football?
Eight-point defeat to Clare casts new spotlight on Rebels
After four rounds of the 2014 League, Cork were out in front at the head of Division 1 - not a point dropped from the visits of Westmeath, Kildare and Derry to Páirc Uí Rinn or, more significantly, their trip to Croke Park to play Dublin, one of only two League losses the All-Ireland champions have incurred there on Jim Gavin's watch.
At the same stage of the same competition, Clare were also unbeaten as Colm Collins' Banner revolution began to gather pace. The difference was they were three divisions lower and the only way was up. But how far they could reach wasn't quite apparent then.
Nor was how deep Cork could drop.
There's been a lot of turbulence in Cork football since. The League semi-final and final losses to Dublin in successive years took a lot out of them, but they still went within a controversial penalty and freak equalising point in Killarney of loosening Kerry's grip on Munster in 2015.
But since then, their demise has been steep and the stagnation appears to be setting in.
The loss to Kildare in a subsequent qualifier, relegation from last year's top flight (albeit unluckily given that they finished on the same number of points as Donegal, who made semi-finals), the loss to Tipperary in a Munster semi-final, the struggle against Longford in a third round qualifier and now a Division 2 campaign that has yielded three points from a possible eight, culminating in defeat to a Clare team minus Gary Brennan.
If anything sets the context of Cork's fall, it is Clare's leap above them in the League order of merit last weekend, given their respective positions three years ago. But then there is scarcely a better example of a team maximising its resources around than Clare.
One look at their record in the Munster U-21 Championship over the last five years, four of which have been won outright by Cork, reflects that.
In successive years they have exited by 12 points to Cork (2012), eight to Tipperary (2013), 20 to Tipperary (2014), eight to Tipperary (2015) and 15 to Cork (2016). These were the feeder teams to the Clare seniors that Collins has managed to mould so well, yet on Sunday they were able to give Cork a three-point start and win by eight.
Cork's failure to build on the success of 2010 and that bounty of five of the last six Munster U-21 football titles contrast sharply. In terms of playing resources and population they are closest to Dublin and their fall is creating anxiety. Unlike the hurlers, they are actually producing competitive underage teams.
The necessity for the footballers to improve competitiveness was a theme of Cork chairman Ger Lane's address to their convention last December.
Lane played a key role as a liaison officer to Conor Counihan's teams and has been closely aligned to the footballers, so his message was pointed.
"The team is in transition, but we have the players and we should be much more competitive," he said. "This team is fully resourced and financed and we must see a major improvement from our team management and players in the League and championship in 2017.
"Cork football should be in a much better position and questions have to be asked if it doesn't happen in 2017."
The board and its long-serving secretary Frank Murphy are often in the firing line when county teams suffer, and their commitment to redeveloping Páirc Uí Chaoímh has been a recurring theme - especially in light of the footballers having to source a makeshift gym in a Fermoy warehouse, close to where they have block-booked a pitch for some permanency this year.
But to look at the accounts of Cork GAA at the end of last year, money doesn't appear to be a central problem, with €1,378,135 spent on preparations, third on the overall list.
That sense of transition is further franked by the departure, to retirement, of Paddy Kelly, Daniel Goulding and Fintan Goold since last year.
But their team-sheet on Sunday hardly lacked experience: Michael Shields, Paul Kerrigan, Donncha O'Connor and Aidan Walsh all survive from 2010; Tom and Tomas Clancy and former Antrim player James Loughrey have earned a few stripes in recent campaigns.
At local level Peadar Healy's management is becoming a focal point too. But the rot that has set in is deep-rooted.
There's a persistent gloom over Cork football, a dark cloud that's letting so little sunlight in these days.
In the days after his retirement Kelly spoke of an 'apathy'; last year former Kerry footballer Tomás Ó Sé wondered about the disconnect between the club football he plays with Nemo Rangers and the county team, registering that the those in red had become "a ghost of themselves."
It was Ó Sé who, in the middle of the 2015 Munster Championship, threw an incendiary device Cork's way with some stinging criticism - describing them as rudderless and having a tendency to lie down when things go against them.
Ó Sé sought to qualify his comments in the weeks afterwards.
But they are more relevant now than they were then.