Martin Breheny: 'Rebels are dreaming big for double return to Croke Park'
Brian Cuthbert had no doubts about what the future held for Cork footballers as he talked of how well the transition was going, while pointing out that nine of the team had made their championship debuts over the previous 14 months.
"They showed today they are up to the standard. They lost by just a point and I would be very hopeful they would be there or thereabouts very, very soon. We will dust ourselves down and go again," he said.
Cuthbert was speaking in the Croke Park Press room after Cork lost the 2014 All-Ireland quarter-final to Mayo and, based on that performance, his optimism appeared well-founded.
How wrong everyone was. This evening's clash with Dublin will be Cork's first championship game in Croke Park since then, ending five years which have seen them tumbling down the rankings.
Cuthbert resigned in 2015, replaced by Peadar Healy, who presided over two disappointing seasons before handing over to Ronan McCarthy in late 2017.
There was no improvement in his first season, where Kerry and Tyrone beat Cork in the championship by a combined total of 33 points. The decline continued last spring when Cork dropped into Division 3 after winning only two of seven games.
It left Cork heading into the championship with no obvious prospects of making progress. Yet, in the space of a few months, much has changed, or at least that appears to be the case.
They scored a total of ten goals against Limerick, Kerry and Laois to book a Super 8s slot and an opportunity to test if the surge is real or merely the product of a fortunate set of circumstances.
An encouraging performance against Kerry in the Munster final left them eagerly looking forward to the Round 4 qualifier, where they could have drawn Mayo, Tyrone, Clare or Laois.
Luck bounced their way as they were paired with Laois, the lowest-ranked of the quartet. They seized the opportunity, running in 4-20 past the overwhelmed Midlanders.
It took Cork's total to an average of 3-15 for their last four games, having also scored three goals against Armagh in their final league outing.
Seven of their 13 goals were scored by Brian Hurley, whose return from a serious hamstring injury which kept him out for most of two seasons has been very significant in the recovery. Mark Collins has also been highly productive in attack.
"These two guys have really stood up this summer. They have been scoring for fun and will test any defence, including Dublin's," said former Cork captain and manager, Larry Tompkins.
"Fair play to Brian. He got some terrible setbacks with injury but was always determined to get back. You'd be concerned that he mightn't be as good as he was before but that's not the case. Ruairi Deane has been in flying form too. Midfield is solid and there there's lot of pace in the half-back line. It will be very interesting to see how the team as a whole perform against Dublin. From listening to people down here in Cork, there's a good feel about the footballers again. It's long overdue."
Tompkins has always insisted that there were enough top-class footballers in Cork to deliver better results than recent years suggested and praises Ronan McCarthy for how he has turned things around.
"People were complaining when Cork dropped into Division 3 earlier in the year and while it shouldn't be happening, a lot of good work was done during the league, getting lads really fit and making changes to the panel. The whole set-up looks a lot stronger in every way now," he said.
The big question is how they will cope with the ultimate test of playing Dublin in Croke Park.
Cork haven't beaten a Division 1 team in the championship since 2012, so expecting them to seriously challenge possibly the best team of all time is the tallest of tall orders.
"Cork teams always liked playing Dublin and while their paths have gone in different directions in recent years, I'd be hopeful that the forward line can build a decent score and really put it up Dublin," said Tompkins.
"After that, the test will be whether the defence holds up. One way or the other, this is a great chance to learn and bank experience. Whatever happens on Saturday, Cork still have two games left to try and reach the semi-final, which would be a fantastic breakthrough."
When Cork hurlers look back on 2017 and 2018, they probably feel that they let two All-Ireland titles slip away. Motoring nicely against Waterford in the 2017 semi-final, they were a point up heading into the final quarter. Then full-back, Damien Cahalane picked up a second yellow card for a clumsy head-high tackle and suddenly everything changed.
Waterford exploded into overdrive, leaving Cork in their wake. Would it have all been very different if Cahalane hadn't been sent off? Would they have won and gone on to beat Galway in the final?
Last year, Cork led Limerick by six points just past the hour mark, only to be pegged back, taken to extra-time and beaten. A wonder save by Nickie Quaid and a series of injuries played major parts in Cork's demise, leaving them cursing their bad luck once again. Based on Galway's poor performance in the final, there's every reason to believe Cork would have beaten them, adding to Leeside frustrations.
Of course, there's no point looking in the rear view mirror, except perhaps to use it as a motivation for the road ahead. So while Cork were deeply frustrated by events over the past two years, they accumulated a huge amount of experience, which should be standing to them now.
They readily admit that they allowed great opportunities to slip away in the last two seasons.
"We've a few wrongs to rectify. We were in a good position last year against Limerick and we lost it. We were in a good position against Waterford in 2017 and we lost it," said John Meyler after last Sunday's canter in Mullingar. Their performances in the four Munster round robin games underline the complexities in a squad that can mix the excellent with the mediocre almost from game to game.
Poor against Tipperary, super-charged against Limerick, functional against Waterford and out-worked against Clare, it's impossible to predict which Cork will turn up in Croke Park tomorrow.
Their game with Limerick, which they won by seven points, is the template they want to work off every day, but for some reason it hasn't happened.
They know that Kilkenny will bring a fierce aggression to tomorrow's game, requiring them to react better than they did against Clare in Ennis. A win that day would have taken Cork into the Munster final, but they never hurled like a team for whom such a big prize was on offer.