Monday 22 January 2018

Martin Breheny: Why have Cork failed to reach full potential?

Leesiders lumbered with unwanted tag as football’s serial underachievers

The last time Cork were All-Ireland champions, Conor Counihan’s men made a poor defence of their title, with a gutless quarter-final defeat against Mayo
The last time Cork were All-Ireland champions, Conor Counihan’s men made a poor defence of their title, with a gutless quarter-final defeat against Mayo
Some believe Cork’s All-Ireland’s successes of 1989 and ‘90 wouldn’t have been won without the imports from Kildare, Shea Fahy and Larry Tompkins, pictured lifting the Sam Maguire Cup at Croke Park in 1990
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Were the 2010 All-Ireland football championships the worst for many years? Would Cork have won either the 1989 or 1990 All-Ireland titles if they weren't reinforced by Kildare imports, Larry Tompkins and Shea Fahy?

Why did the Cork team that won the 1973 All-Ireland stall so quickly?

Three posers that will always remain unsolved, but which form the intriguing backdrop to the even bigger question: why is Cork football such a spectacular underachiever?

It's fertile territory for an array of theories, based on the premise that Cork should have done a lot better over the years, including in the current era.

Let's consider the facts. Without an All-Ireland win between 1945 and 1973, a period in which nine other counties shared the titles, Cork appeared set for a golden period when they finally ended the barren run.

The 1973 side, which beat Clare, Kerry, Tyrone and Galway by a combined total of 48 points en route to winning the All-Ireland, were hailed not just as the best outfit ever to come out of Cork but as a squad with the potential to add quite a few more titles to their haul.

Instead, they won just one more Munster crown before losing to Dublin, which was followed by a lengthy wipe-out as Kerry marched into a golden era, which delivered eight All-Ireland and 11 Munster titles between 1975 and 1986.

By the time Kerry lost power in 1987, Cork were ready for a big push, helped enormously by the recruitment of Tompkins and Fahy from Kildare.

They were massively important acquisitions, the soccer of equivalent of a club signing multi-million-pound players for free.


Their impact was immediate and immense and Cork went on to win two All-Ireland and seven Munster titles between 1987 and 1995.

Mick O'Dwyer is among those who believe that neither of the All-Ireland titles would have been won without the Kildare duo.

"I know Cork people don't like to hear it, but the reality is that without the Kildare pair, Sam Maguire would have found another home in 1989 and 1990.

"Cork had some good players, but they needed an inspirational talisman, the type who didn't entertain the thought of losing. Tompkins fitted that mould perfectly.

"Fahy was a fine midfielder, who played a sensible, intelligent game. He was great for Cork," wrote O'Dwyer in his autobiography.

If O'Dwyer is correct - and the evidence in his favour is pretty convincing - then Cork would have been seeking their first All-Ireland for 37, rather than 20 years, in 2010.

That brings us to the quality of the 2010 championship. It's more than suspect and while that's irrelevant to Cork, it may offer a good indication of why they failed to thrive afterwards.

None of the four provincial winners survived the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-finals. That left Cork, who lost to Kerry in the Munster semi-final, joining Dublin, Down and Kildare in the semi-finals.

Earlier, Dublin had lost to Meath by 11 points; Down were dumped out of Ulster by Tyrone at the semi-final stage while Kildare didn't even survive the Leinster quarter-final, losing by six points to Louth.

It wasn't exactly a vintage semi-final line-up and while the semi-finals and final were quite close, they won't feature on any all-time list of outstanding contests. Still, it was thought that having struggled for so long to win the title, the experience would be overwhelmingly positive for Cork, enabling them to develop into a consistently powerful force.

Instead, they made a poor defence of the title in 2011, losing to Kerry in Munster and to Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final, after scoring just a single point in the second half. It was an utterly gutless performance against a Mayo team that was very much in the formative stages under James Horan and which later lost the semi-final to Kerry by nine points.

Since then, Cork's only championship win against the elite came in the 2012 Munster final when they beat Kerry. It's a miserable return for a county which is regularly tipped as potential All-Ireland winners.

The high rating is helped by Cork's reliability in the group league games, territory which they find very fertile. They topped Division 1 this year and last year, winning 10 from 14 games over the two seasons.

That's high consistency but the scene changed in the knockout stages. Cork surrendered a 10-point lead and lost by seven to Dublin in last year's league semi-final and were worse in this year's final when they made no impact whatsoever on Dublin.

In between, Cork had collapsed to Kerry in the Munster final, losing by 12 points.

"We went out and tried to play attacking football. Kerry sat back a bit and kept catching us on the break. Before we knew it, we were six or seven points down. We went for it even more then and Kerry exploited that too. It was a big learning curve for all of us," said team captain Michael Shields before this year's league semi-final.

Yet, two weeks after beating Donegal in that game, Cork were back to their frustrating worst against Dublin.

It raises the question: what did they learn from last year's defeat by Kerry? There was certainly no evidence of a new sense of steeliness in the league final.

On the contrary, Cork capitulated so easily that Dublin never had to reach full menace to run them out of town.

What makes it all so disappointing for Cork is that, technically, they have a lot of top-class players, men who can do real damage when they're on their game.

However, as a team, they are hopeless at improvising once the flow begins to go against them. Therein rests the difference between them and the other main contenders.

Whether that's down to mental softness is a moot point, but a stage has now been reached where the opposition expect Cork to go through a spell where they leak heavily and score very little.


They scored only one point in the opening 25 minutes of this year's league final, by which time Dublin were six clear and well on their way to the title.

And when Cork came out for the second half, facing a seven-point deficit, they went 13 minutes without scoring, while Dublin added another six points.

It leaves Cork heading into tomorrow's Munster final, knee-deep in uncertainty. Of course there are plenty examples of where they delivered stunning displays when least expected against Kerry.

However, in general terms, the most apt depiction of Cork football is as a serial underachiever. Even a win over Kerry can't alter that.

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