Cork players need to face up to the reality of another flop
In the post-match interviews on Allianz League semi-final day, Cork manager Brian Cuthbert spoke of the importance of coping with big tests.
"The more times we play in Croke Park, the better it suits us. It's important that when we get here, we perform," he said.
Cork had beaten Donegal by four points and while there was no evidence that Rory Gallagher or his players were distraught over the result, Cuthbert had good reason to feel pleased. His team had functioned well, building on the solidity that helped them beat Dublin, Monaghan, Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo earlier on.
"The overall feeling is that we're happy with the progress. We'll keep our heads down and work away," he said.
Two weeks later, it was all so different. Cork hadn't just under-performed in Croke Park, they hadn't performed at all. As for progress, it had been washed away by a blue tide.
"Obviously, confidence is going to suffer when you have a defeat like that, but it's not like we're playing next week - we're seven to eight weeks away from the Munster championship," said Cuthbert.
He defended the squad's character, which is perfectly understandable for a team manager but, frankly, it seemed like an overly generous gesture.
Ultimately, players have to sort out problems as they arise. Plans and structures are important, but so too is raw determination and a relentless zeal to make the best of a very bad situation.
Cork didn't do that last Sunday. Once it became apparent that Dublin were playing better, many of the Cork players reacted as if they didn't have the heart for a tough battle.
Try this as an enlightening example. In the 44th minute, goalkeeper Ken O'Halloran took the ball out almost as far as his '45' before checking his options. He toe-tapped the ball for seven seconds, all the time scanning the pitch ahead of him, looking for a colleague to make a run.
Eventually, he booted the ball down the left and wing and it was knocked out over the sideline as Brian Hurley and Cian O'Sullivan challenged for it.
Why was there so little movement ahead of O'Halloran? Were many of his colleagues dodging responsibility, hoping someone else would make a run? Cork were nine points behind at the time, scarcely an unbridgeable gap if the attitude was right.
After all, Dublin recovered from a 10-point deficit to beat Cork by seven points in roughly the same time span last year.
Managers always carry the can nowadays so, no doubt, Cuthbert will take criticism for last Sunday's collapse, but don't players have obligations too?
It's not as if this Cork squad haven't stood accused of opting out in the past. The 17-point turnaround against Dublin in last year's League semi-final was followed by a 12-point defeat by Kerry in the Munster final.
Add in last Sunday's game and the scoreline for the three ties reads: Dublin/Kerry 3-65 Cork 4-32. That's a 30-point differential against opposition that Cork had beaten earlier.
It's one thing to lose narrowly after remaining stubbornly competitive, but the reality for Cork in the three wipe-outs by Dublin (twice) and Kerry (once) is that they capitulated completely.
"Today, we didn't give ourselves a chance to be in the game," said Cuthbert last Sunday.
Only the players can explain why that was the case. They will need to offer very honest answers to the management and each other if this season is to be salvaged.