Wednesday 24 May 2017

Cork v Meath: The collapse of a great GAA rivalry

Cork v Meath was once the barometer for football - now it's a strictly Division 2 fare

Conor Counihan in action against Bernard Flynn during Cork’s victory against Meath in the 1990 All-Ireland football final. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor Counihan in action against Bernard Flynn during Cork’s victory against Meath in the 1990 All-Ireland football final. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

There was a time when they ruled the football world, their rivalry so fiercely intense that enough electricity crackled from every clash to boost the national grid.

In four seasons (1987-'90), Meath and Cork each won two All-Ireland titles and three of the four National Leagues between them in what was the most successful period in Royal and Rebel history.

Now, it's a very different world for both as they not only find themselves away from Division 1 but outside the top three in Division 2 ahead of Sunday's clash in Páirc Uí Rinn.

Meath (four points) are just ahead of Cork (three points) after four outings and while both harbour ambitions of winning their last three games and squeezing into the promotion zone if other results go their way, the risk of relegation is also lurking in the background.

Indeed, if Cork lose to Meath and Derry beat Galway on Sunday, Peadar Healy's enigmas will drop into the bottom two, exposing them to real danger of falling from Divisions 1 to 3 in successive seasons, a fate that befell Kildare and Westmeath in recent times.

It would be even more embarrassing for Cork, who won three successive Division 1 titles in 2010-'12 and who topped the table in 2014 and 2015.

Battling to avoid the drop into Division 3 is not where Cork expect to be but then they didn't envisage being in Division 2 either. Having been one of the most consistent Division 1 performers for several seasons, they had an erratic campaign last year but were still unlucky to be relegated after winning three of seven games.

Six points is usually enough for survival but not last year when Cork were alongside Donegal, Mayo and Monaghan on three wins. Enter scoring difference, which showed Cork with the worst return.

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"They were a bit unlucky to be relegated. I suppose it sums up the way things have been going for them," said Tony Davis, an enduring presence on the Cork team between 1985 and 1994 and a veteran of many great battles with Meath.

Relegation last year was only the start of a dismal season for Cork, who later lost to Tipperary in the Munster Championship for the first time in 72 years, before exiting the All-Ireland race following defeat by Donegal in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

It made promotion the obvious first requirement this year but a draw with Galway and defeats by Kildare and Clare have left them in a situation where, even if they win their last three games, it may not be enough to secure a top two finish.

"Missing out on promotion would be a big setback - there's no doubt about that. They don't want another year in Division 2. One thing this Cork team needs is to build some confidence. It has taken a lot of battering in the last year or two and not getting out of Division 2 would be a further blow," said Davis.

Like everyone else - inside and outside the county - he finds it difficult to pinpoint why Cork's fortunes have taken such a hit. After losing to Tipperary last year and to Clare this year, it could be argued that Cork are now ranked fourth in Munster, which continues to be dominated by Kerry.

Despite those statistical realities, Davis believes that the situation is not as grim as it might appear.

"There definitely seems to be confidence issues there, which is understandable I suppose after some of the disappointing results they have had in the last few years. They are still very good players though and if they could string a few wins together, it would work wonders. We've seen that with lot of teams in the past.

"In our day, we always felt that playing for Cork gave us confidence, a belief in ourselves that we could beat anybody. That doesn't win games but if you're feeling good about yourselves as a group, you play better and the results follow. That's what this group of Cork players need now.

"It's very easy to be critical of players and management nowadays but it's never as black and white as that.

"We all know that Cork have not been going well but they still have the talent to bring it altogether.

"I would still think that they will be in the last eight in the All-Ireland this year. After that, they can have a real go," he said.

Next Sunday's clash - the first between Cork and Meath since the 2009 league - brings back memories of the great battles in the 1987-'90 period and again in 1999 when they met in another All-Ireland final. They were times which neither set of supporters will ever forget; nor would they have envisaged a decline, similar to what both are now experiencing, albeit with more hope in Cork of a quicker exit from disappointing times.

"There's no point looking back at the past. Cork and Meath have to accept where they are now and do everything they can to get out of it. Winning a Munster title would be massive for Cork and while most people might think they have no chance this year, it's not that straightforward.

"A few wins would work wonders for them. That's why it's so important to win their last three league games. If it's enough to win promotion, that would be great but even if it isn't, it would leave them in a fairly good place going into the championship," added Davis.

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