Sunday 22 July 2018

Comment: Love for Cork football is always in short supply – so they can’t afford another false dawn

Analysis

Conor Counihan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Conor Counihan. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

They're just catching their breath again in Cork after an exhilarating ride through the inaugural Munster round robin hurling championship.

Among all the storylines, Cork's defiance as champions has been a central one and, accordingly, the crowds have responded, just as they did during last year's three-match campaign.

Another Munster final, another trip to Thurles, a lot to look forward to on Leeside over the next week-and-a-half.

Thus, it seems to have escaped the public's attention that the footballers managed to string back-to-back performances, as opposed to wins, together for the first time in quite a while, albeit in different years with a troubling Division 2 league campaign in between.

After taking Mayo to the edge in last year's fourth round qualifiers in Limerick, Cork followed up last month with a stirring performance against a Tipperary side that was fancied and had a scheduling 'cause' to fire them.

In the years that have followed Conor Counihan's serene spell in charge, that represents a something of a milestone.

True, they bounced out of a dispiriting 2014 Munster final display against Kerry, when James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney went to town on them, with a win over Sligo and a performance against Mayo again.

And after crushing Clare by 12 points, a result they'd treasure now after back-to-back league defeats to the Banner, they had Kerry on the rack in the 2015 Munster final in Killarney before Fionn Fitzgerald's unorthodox equaliser forced a replay that Kerry won convincingly.

But generally Cork have staggered through league and championship with every sliver of light shut out by darkening clouds over the last four-and-a half years.

Brian Cuthbert's two-year reign brought hope in the shape of reaching a league semi-final and final against Dublin, neither of which went well, and then that July 2015 performance against Kerry. But the loss to Kildare in a fourth round qualifier tripped them up again.

When they beat Mayo in the opening game of the 2016 league, they followed it up with a 10-point defeat to Donegal and an 18-point defeat to Roscommon and were subsequently relegated.

With each poor performance and defeat, the criticism has accelerated, making them the game's most accessible punchbags. No team, it seems, has been easier to land blows on.

The former Kerry footballer and Irish Independent columnist Tomás ó Sé, who plays his club football in Cork where he has resided for the best part of two decades, has never hidden his belief that Cork should be outputting more than they are, laying the blame at successive managements.

In 2015, he described them as "rudderless" prior to the Munster final and stepped it up again in 2017 after they escaped with a one-point win over Waterford, comparing them to a "herd a sheep going into the field for the first time and cutting loose around the place. There is no organisation or anything there."

That same outcome prompted former Donegal footballer Rory Kavanagh to suggest on 'The Sunday Game' that there was "no cut, no edge no ruthless streak to them." He recalled the 2016 fourth round qualifier with Donegal in Croke Park where there was "not a hand laid on you. It typified this Cork mentality at the minute," he suggested.

The manner of their subsequent defeat to Mayo left things in a better place as Peadar Healy vacated the management seat and the emphatic nature of their win over Tipperary invites the prospect of another recovery. But could it potentially be another false dawn?

Former Cork player Joe Kavanagh feels their semi-final win hasn't been enough for the public to sit up and take notice just yet and the crowds won't respond until they see something more tangible.

Love has always been hard won by them. A performance on Saturday night may change that, Kavanagh suggested.

"It's too soon for this group (to expect to beat Kerry), it's year one of a two- or three-year plan, they have some great forwards, a young midfield that will develop but defensively I'm not too sure can they hold that Kerry attack," said Kavanagh.

He offers the possibility that nerves might get to some of those Kerry players, offering a better chance of parity but a "two- to three-point defeat" would offer a decent signpost after some of their recent experiences in this fixture," he suggested.

If ever a structure like the 'Super 8s' was designed for a county, it's surely Cork and Kavanagh is adamant they can't miss out.

"They have to take a positive frame of mind into this game, go out and play a bit of ball, take them on and see, ultimately, can they get those three extra games and the progression that will go with it. Then win Division 2 next year and take it from there."

The 'rudderless' team of 2015, the lost 'sheep' of 2017 appear to have found leadership in Ian Maguire and Ruairi Deane, while Luke Connolly's blistering form against Tipperary has built on what he did with Nemo during the winter.

Cork may also have settled on a goalkeeper, Mark White, having used six in league and championship over the last two-and-a-half years.

Their win over Tipperary was their most convincing in championship, relative to the opposition they have faced, since the Counihan years. But taking the next step has always been the issue.

Irish Independent

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