Rebels in midst of an 'annus horribilis'
Published 14/06/2016 | 02:30
Roll the clock back almost a year to Killarney and the 2015 Munster final. Colm O'Neill is standing over a '45 in added time with Cork leading by a point.
Kick it dead and Cork will surely prevail. It drops short instead and play develops to present Fionn Fitzgerald with an opportunity. Whether he intends it as a pass or a shot is immaterial, the ball flies between the posts and Kerry have forced a replay back in Killarney 13 days later.
Even allowing for the penalty that shouldn't have been earlier in the game that James O'Donoghue converted, Cork were that close to being Munster champions for the first time in three years. In that scenario Brian Cuthbert would still, in all probability, be manager and we might be viewing Cork football through a different prism.
Instead, it has precipitated a championship run that has thrust them back to where they were in 2003 and 2004 when they exited to Limerick, Roscommon, Kerry and Fermanagh in successive Munster Championship and qualifier campaigns. Cork football is not immune to this type of slump.
Allied to the hurling side's tame exit to Tipperary in the recent Munster quarter-final and it's as early as both flagship teams have been idle in Munster in modern times. Only twice previously since 1937, in 1997 and '98, have Cork failed to have a representative in the Munster senior football or hurling final.
That represents a stark crisis. Of course they followed up that absence in 1997 and '98 by winning the 1999 All-Ireland hurling title and came close to doing the double two weeks later when the footballers fell just short against Meath. And when they last lost to Tipperary in 1944, they recovered to win one of only seven All-Ireland football titles the following year.
Optimism, based on that kind of tradition, always abounds. Cork is the country's largest county in terms of size but also in terms of GAA footprint, has more clubs than anywhere else and more teams registered, the 2,200-plus in 2015 outstripping even Dublin. It's never hard for them to come from off the pace.
But their track record in both codes over the last 11 months has been abysmal. From the All-Ireland hurling quarter-final defeat to Galway to the Kildare loss and then relegation from this year's Allianz Division 1 football league, albeit a little unluckily, the only bright light on the horizon was a hurling relegation play-off win in Galway.
But that was preceded by a five-match losing sequence in the league and that subsequent loss to Tipperary. The county's former All-Ireland winning captain Dinny Allen has put some of the blame for the latest football defeat on excessive preparations, claiming the players are being treated "like boys, not men".
Cork was always a county that struck what seemed like the right time balance between club and county for players but Allen says it has turned in a different direction and players are suffering.
"They're being taken away for eight weeks' training and clubs then are pleading with their players," he said. "I'm involved with the Nemo junior hurling team and we had a championship match last Friday night week. It was a fight to get Stephen Cronin, one of the subs on Sunday. We eventually got him alright.
"But they're taking these fellas away, like they're taking them to boarding school. They don't play any matches with their clubs. There used to be an impression out there that the clubs were controlling the county which wasn't true. It was 50/50.
"Now the players at inter-county haven't the will to say to them, 'I want to play for my club'. They're going into matches after six or seven weeks together and they're half bored," he claimed. "Even professionals aren't locked away to that extent. We feel the balance is wrong and our players aren't producing it.
"Billy Morgan always had a quote, 'What would I want fellas for any longer than two weeks before a Munster final. I wouldn't know what to say to them.' The way I see it, they're overcooked. There's too much talking and the appetite is suffering in my opinion."
That said, Cork still have the players to recover through the qualifiers and in the mid-term the resources look well stocked with five successive Munster U-21 victories over Kerry since 2011. They were only denied an All-Ireland U-21 title by some calamitous defending.
"It's different to the hurlers who I don't think have the personnel in the short term to turn it around," said Allen.
If the success of 'Rebel óg' teams on one weekend last September, when they claimed all seven national tournament blitzes from U-14 to U-17, is anything to gauge by that situation is being addressed in the long term.
Allen worries about the draining interest in the city and feels the disconnect he talks of has created apathy regarding the county teams which filters down to the players. "The players feel it but for obvious reasons, they can't say it," he said.
He wonders if the absence of Kenneth O'Halloran and Michael Shields has hung over them. The Cork management deny that the pair have been off the squad since the training camp to Portugal for a breach of discipline, citing injury and a return to clubs for game-time instead. But Allen says it's time to start treating the players like men. "It's time to lighten up a bit. It's not boarding school."