Perhaps the most telling takeaway from Cork’s All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Dublin didn't come during the 70-odd minutes of play, but after it. After the handshakes between the opposing players, and a gentle acknowledgement between the managers, the Dublin players trundled off down the Hogan Stand tunnel while Dessie Farrell went to do his post-match interview with Sky Sports.
Meanwhile, every Cork player, substitute and member of the back-room staff gathered into a large circle out on the pitch, tight as a drum, held together by interlinking arms around shoulders. In the middle of them stood the baseball-capped John Cleary, talking. The interim manager looked like he had a lot to say to the group. Not in any bombastic way, or with any anger or aggression. And certainly not with any defeatism or self-pity.
Cleary revolved around himself, talking at once to the collective and to the individual. He gestured a lot with his hands, and a lot of time he raised those hands up above his shoulders. While no words could be heard from our vantage point in the Hogan Stand it was still clear what the interim manager was saying.
The elevated hands spoke of a place this group of Cork footballers need to get to. Cleary was almost certainly using words like ‘up’ and ‘standard’ and ‘level’ and ‘higher’.
Despite having just seen his team lose by 11 points to a Dublin team playing well within themselves, there was a defiance in Cleary’s body language. This wasn’t a post-defeat ‘thank you for your services, lads’ kind of speech. This was a rallying call. This was John Cleary telling every single Cork footballer gathered around him that there could, and would, be more days like this – knock-out championship games in Croke Park – if the group sticks together and works towards it.
A few minutes later, at his press conference in the Hogan Stand, Cleary gave some idea of what he probably said to his players out on the pitch.
He told the media: "Hopefully going forward, the idea is to get up to the top of Division 2, and then maybe ultimately try and get into Division 1. We know that a team has no hope of coming up here in quarter-finals and semi-finals unless you’re at the top of Division 2 or competing in Division 1, because that’s where it’s at, and that’s where you learn, and that’s where the winning teams are going to come from.
"The next level that Cork need to get to is that, try and get up to the top of Division 2. And hopefully that can happen over the next couple of years. It’s going to take an awful lot of hard work to do that. So that’s the next item on the agenda."
Cleary spoke of the poor National League campaign, and he is cognisant that that must improve next year, but getting to the top division is a given if Cork football is to progress. Needless to say, that won’t be easy. Saturday’s opposition – Dublin – will be League opposition for Cork next year, as will Kildare, Ulster champions Derry, Clare and Meath, among others.
Cleary spoke, too, of the amount of injuries the squad had this year – both in number and severity, and while he wasn’t offering that as an excuse in the grand scheme of things, it was a an aggravating factor in their poor league campaign.
The stepping aside of manager Keith Ricken towards the end of the league campaign was another unexpected blow for the players and management to deal with, and while Cleary has fitted in seamlessly to the role, he – as much as every one else – will surely want to see Ricken back involved in a full capacity before the next season starts.
"Hopefully there’s an awful lot of learnings for the guys inside the Cork dressing room,” Cleary continued in his post-match media briefing. “Hopefully, they will be in a better position to do something better in the years going by if they can learn from what happened today, because it’s a relatively young team. But that doesn’t matter if they can’t learn from what happened here and from what happened against Kerry, and try and get onto the next level.”
That word again: level. One he certainly repeated out on the pitch to the players. The high hands were the tell tale sign. And of course he is right.
This week Dublin and Kerry and Galway and Derry will be plotting to get to the next level – the All-Ireland Final. Cork have played the first two in the Championship and lost by 11 and 12 points respectively. They played Galway and Derry in the League and lost by 8 and 9 points respectively.
That’s the gap between Cork and the last four teams left in the race for the Sam Maguire. That’s the level the have to get up to.
No one knows that, or wants that, more than John Cleary. All concerned know there is a long and hard road to be travelled to get there. At least Cleary’s post-match speech to the players looked and felt more like the start of a journey than the end of one.