Monday 21 October 2019

Martin Breheny: 'Cork may be in denial but the truth is they are now in second tier'

Startling decline over recent seasons reflects badly on biggest county

Rebel Hell: Eoghan McSweeney leaves the field after Cork’s victory over Armagh which still saw them relegated to Division 3. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Rebel Hell: Eoghan McSweeney leaves the field after Cork’s victory over Armagh which still saw them relegated to Division 3. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Remember it? A spring afternoon in Croke Park and Cork footballers were happily unpicking the most sophisticated locks.

Donegal's defensive system was still a feared contraption in early 2015, but Cork took it apart piece by piece. By the end of the Allianz League semi-final, they had scored four goals and were on their way to a date with Dublin.

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Manager Brian Cuthbert was choosing his words carefully, but after finishing top of the Division 1 table and powering past Donegal, there was every reason to feel confident about the future.

"I suppose Cork would have been looked on as a free-flowing team over the years, but the game has moved on," Cuthbert said.

"Most teams are now defensive in nature and every team has a different system. In the seven league games we played, we came up against seven different systems.

"It's pleasing for us to do so well against Donegal, who are the architects of this in so many ways," said Cuthbert.

'Pleasing for us to do so well.' They are words that nobody in Cork football hears anymore.

As Cuthbert rightly pointed out, they were once regarded as a creative, attack-minded outfit, always operating at the business end of league and championship, but now they are seen as nothing more than a huge county with an even bigger identity crisis.

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You wonder if, on the long journey home from Armagh on Sunday, the squad took a look at the opposition list for next year.

Just in case they didn't bother, here it is: Leitrim, Offaly, Longford, Louth or Westmeath, Tipperary, Derry, Down.

Cork's clash with Down will be interesting. Ten years after meeting in the All-Ireland final, they will be scrapping for points in Division 3, desperately trying to get through one of the escape hatches back into the top 16.

Down blew a great chance of achieving it this year when losing to Louth last Sunday at the same time that Cork were beating an Armagh team that really had nothing to play for.

Safe from relegation and outside the promotion zone, they wouldn't have been as driven as Cork, who were hoping that a win might save them from the drop.

They got the victory, albeit by a single point after leading comfortably earlier on, only to hear in the dressing-room afterwards that a superb late rally by Clare against Tipperary left them heading for Division 3.

Misery

A Tipperary win or a draw with Clare would have saved Cork, even if they had only won two of seven games.

That would have been tough on Colm Collins' Banner, who had beaten the Rebels earlier in the campaign.

It didn't happen, possibly because the gods decided that Cork hadn't completed the full misery course just yet.

Their rate of decline since the heavy 2015 league final defeat by Dublin and the Munster final replay loss to Kerry a few months later has been beyond comprehension.

They have won only nine of their last 29 league games, tumbled from Division 1 to 3, and made no impact in the championship.

Last year was utterly embarrassing as Cork lost to Kerry in the Munster final and to Tyrone in the qualifiers by a combined total of 33 points.

They were lucky to avoid relegation to Division 3 last year, surviving only on the head-to-head rule after finishing alongside Down on six points. At least they managed three wins, compared to two (and a draw) this time.

"There are talented players there. They do all the right things, they're eager for success and we'll keep working with them," said manager Ronan McCarthy last Sunday.

In fairness, what else could he say? Still, if they are so talented, why didn't they average more than 12 points per game in their first six league outings and why didn't they pick up any points in their three 'home' fixtures?

And why have they reached a stage where even mid-ranking opposition fancy their chances against them?

You won't find much sympathy for the biggest county in the country as they slip further down the rankings.

It's nothing personal, but it's up to every county to look after its own affairs, so those with far more limited playing resources cannot understand why Cork have fallen into such a deep trough.

Nor do they care, which is also understandable. Question is - do Cork have any idea why it has gone so badly wrong? And have they any idea how to work through it?

The Five-Year Strategic Plan, published last January, is high on jargon, but utterly unconvincing in terms of practical plans to provide short and or long-term solutions.

Cork's alarming decline is bad for the wider GAA scene, not least the Munster championship, where Kerry's grip has rarely, if ever, been tighter. Even during Kerry's great run in 1975-86, they were always conscious of the Cork threat. Not anymore, because it isn't necessary.

Did anyone ever think the day would arrive when Cork footballers would be priced at 250/1 to win the All-Ireland? Well, it has.

In fact, if Cork don't escape from Division 3 next year, they could find themselves eligible for a secondary championship.

One of the proposals under consideration is that Division 3 and 4 teams, who don't reach their provincial finals, enter a Tier 2 competition, rather than the qualifiers.

Cork in Tier 2? Unless they arrest the decline of recent seasons, it's not that improbable. And if you don't believe it, just look at their results.

Carry on throwing!

So much for hurling referees taking a stand against illegal handpassing!

We were told before the start of the season that they would show zero tolerance towards blatant throwing, the blight on the game which has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The promised crackdown hasn’t happened. With only one game left in the Allianz League, it’s clear that referees are still ignoring the throwing epidemic. Granted, it can be difficult to control in such a fast-moving game where refs are usually behind the play.

However, that’s no excuse for not being more vigilant. If referees weren’t as generous with the ‘benefit of the doubt’ approach, it would force players to be more careful.

As it is, they know there’s a high probability that they will get away with throwing the ball, which makes it worthwhile to take a chance.

The rule states the ball must be ‘released and struck with a definite striking action of a hand’. So why is it not being implemented? And why aren’t the authorities challenging the referees over ignoring a rule?

Either that or scrap it.

Leitrim deserve big Croke Park day

Given that they were in the Division 1 final in 2014, Derry might feel self-conscious about being back in Croke Park for a Division 4 decider five years later, but there will be no such emotions for Leitrim on Saturday.

It’s an occasion to savour after a promotion drive that took them six points clear of Antrim, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow, eight ahead of Limerick and 10 beyond London.

And now they get to play in Croke Park, while it will be the first chance for the supporters to back their team there since the 2006 Tommy Murphy Cup final.

This year’s Connacht championship draw (Leitrim would probably have to beat Roscommon and probably Mayo and Galway to win the title) doesn’t offer much encouragement, making a good league run so important.

Still, not even the most optimistic Leitrim person would have predicted such an impressive run to promotion.

Saturday’s game is bonus territory to be enjoyed by players and supporters. And they will.

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