Tuesday 18 June 2019

Few tangible signs of progress

Sports Review of the Year: 2018 was another difficult year for Cork football as Kerry's dominance of Munster continued

Sean White of Cork following the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Kerry. Photo by Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile
Sean White of Cork following the Munster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Cork and Kerry. Photo by Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Diarmuid Sheehan

At this time of year a quick look back to the previous year's exploits is meant to instil that lovely warm feeling inside.

If you support Cork hurling the chances are you still have fuzzy memories of what went in on 2018 and while the year ended a little prematurely 2018 is still seen on Leeside as one of the best years in many years. Cork's hurlers may not have achieved all that they set out to achieve in 2018 but progress was made and that is what the fans needed to see.

Turn your attention to Cork's senior inter-county footballers and things are a little more on the pessimistic side as 2018 really was another year where things not only didn't go to plan, but progress wasn't clearly evident for all or anyone to see.

Cork really have been in the doldrums since they won the All-Ireland back in 2010 and while it is all of eight years ago now since the men in red claimed the ultimate prize it really does seem to be a lot further back than even that.

Football has changed significantly since Cork beat Down in that showpiece game and while some may argue the alterations in how football is now played are not out-an-out positive, the reality is that whatever the positives or negatives of the modern game Cork have slipped from being one of the powerhouses of Gaelic Football to mid-table mediocrity and while that may be hard for many in the game locally accept the reality is the reality.

August 2017, just one season ago (seems like longer to be honest) Ronan McCarthy took up from where Peader Healy had left off and few would have suggested that the job at hand for the likeable, credible and fresh faced manager was going to be easy but now, after one season at the helm of what is still regarded as one of the hottest seats in football management the gloves will be off and the knives will be drawn if the school principal can't get his side on an upward curve in the next eight months or so.

2018 will have to go down as another hugely difficult season for Cork's senior footballers with the year not only ending with yet more premature disappointment, but it also saw a raft of high profile (but ageing stars) call time on their inter-county careers.

Right from the off last season McCarthy went in search of some new talent as he took Cork into the McGrath Cup, when others decided to forgo the opportunity (Kerry being the main absentee, with Limerick also choosing to give the pre-season competition a skip).

McCarthy stated that he was committed to the competition as it would afford himself and his backroom team more opportunities to try out new and younger players.

Cork started the 2018 McGrath Cup well, hammering Waterford by all of seventeen points in their opening fixture and followed that up with a win over Clare in the final, albeit a one point win, to secure their first piece of silverware for the year.

While all titles are important the victory over the Banner raised more questions than it provided answered as what looked like a relatively strong Cork side were losing after 72 minutes with a last gasp goal from Stephen Sherlock sparing the blushes of all involved in the red camp. All that said, two games, two wins and a small addition to the trophy cabinet.

Roll on a couple of weeks and the traditional pre-season competition, which now seems to have risen in stature and importance, the National League kicked off with Cork again trying to extricate themselves from life in Division 2.

Tipperary were first up for Cork at a sparkling fresh faced Páirc Uí Chaoimh and all in Munster were keen to see just how Cork would perform at their new home - against the side drawn to face them in the opening round of the championship some four months later.

Tipperary had inflicted plenty damage on Cork's confidence in recent years so this was an important one to get right for the home side and, while effort wasn't lacking on the part of the men in red, cohesion definitely was as they got shown the door by 3-16 to 1-16 - a hard one to take for the faithful.

Down were next up for the rebels and while ring rustiness still lingered for the travelling side Cork did well seeing off the northern challengers, in Páirc Esler, by six points, 1-13 to 0-10.

Cork got to bring their new brand of football home to the city again the following weekend with a home fixture against Louth with an even more impressive result - although it took Cork a bit of time to see this one through 2-11 to 0-10.

Nobody was getting ahead of themselves however as neither of the first two vanquished sides would be considered strong challengers - those sides were due up shortly - with Cavan the first of what turned out to be genuine title contenders take on Cork at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Cavan came in more hope than expectation, but left with the spoils and Cork fans' early season cheer tucked away in their pockets. There are no two ways to say this, but on this day Cork were shocking. They were beaten all over the pitch and failed against an Ulster championship side that really didn't fancy their chances pre-game.

The job at hand after the Cavan game was to stamp out the growing sense of negativity that was again surrounding the camp and while an away trip to Páirc Tailteann to play Meath was never likely to be the easiest of tests on the day it proved to be just what Ronan McCarthy's charges needed as Cork played probably their most impressive 70 minutes of the season seeing off the home side by 2-16 to 1-15.

Back to Páirc Uí Rinn on St Patrick's Day for Cork as they faced up to a Clare side that had shown well in parts in their early few games. Championship was getting closer so the stakes were beginning to rise for cork with just one competitive fixture remaining after the Banner clash.

It was a Patrick's Day to forget on Leeside as a really poor showing in the stands was matched by poor fare on the pitch and Cork went down to Clare by 0-14 to 0-12.

This setback was followed a six-point drubbing at the hands of Division 2 runners up Roscommon and Cork had to settle for being the sixth best team of eight in the second tier of league football - some might say just about right with many fans voting with their feet and deciding to stay away from fixtures that might have previously seen multiples piling through the gates.

Hard to put a bright note on the 2018 National League from a Cork point of view however McCarthy's job demanded that he bring some cheer to one of the most disillusioning periods in recent Cork football history - and so, after almost 10 months at the helm, McCarthy headed for the white heat of the Munster Championship and a date with Tipperary, the heir apparent to Cork's position as second best in the province.

Tipp had a great 2017 and were looking to build on that with yet another win over Cork and with most of the bookies and favouring a blue and gold win Cork really were coming into this one with nothing to lose.

Cork had lost to Tipp already in the season however on the Semple Stadium showing in late May they had learned a host of lessons and more importantly were able to put those lessons into their play.

Cork were sharp, they were skilful and after the opening exchanges they were brimming with confidence and after just over 70 minutes of action they had put Tipp to the sword in a way that had plenty standing up to take notice - particularly those residing Kingdom side.

On the other side of the draw Kerry responded to Cork's marker the following by pulverising Clare, scoring thirty two points on the way to a massive twemtu two-point win - and yet again the big two were down to face off the right to be called champions of Munster.

The 23rd of June was to be the day when Cork reignited football Leeside as in front of just shy of 28,000 football fans, many of them for Kerry up for a quick look at the new ground, Cork were going to hit back and rise again - but in front of just shy of 28,000 football fans and tens of thousands around the world Cork got served up another serious footballing lesson as Kerry took them apart, winning out by all of seventeen points 3-18 to 2-04. Doom and gloom returned to The Banks Of My old Lovely Lee.

Two weeks later Cork received an even bigger blow when the drew Tyrone on Round 4 of the qualifiers. Despite losing out in Ulster the Red Hand were still one of the fancied sides to stop Dublin and with a quarter-final place on the line here there was no doubting that the northern boys would be up for this one.

Cork bowed out at the hands of Tyrone after yet another tough, uncompromising afternoon in Portlaoise.

At times it was like to different grades of football were competing for some sort of hybrid prize, but in reality it was a deflated, hurting Cork that faced a dogged, fire in the belly side, that were hell bent on winning, whatever it took.

The sixteen point winning margin was just about right and Cork were out yet again - without firing anything like a serious warning shot.

Difficult to be a Cork football fan right now however there are brighter days ahead, there must be, as anything other than a strong Cork would be seen as a disaster to not only Cork football but to Munster and even nationally as right now bums on seats is the name of the game and when things are going well in the red county few counties can generate as many bums on seats as they can.