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THE LAST WORD: His biggest win yet, but Cork manager John Cleary stays grounded, focused on battles ahead

June 6th, 2024 6:30 AM

By Kieran McCarthy

THE LAST WORD: His biggest win yet, but Cork manager John Cleary stays grounded, focused on battles ahead Image
Managers John Cleary and Jim McGuinness greet each other at the final whistle after Cork's against Donegal at Páirc Uí Rinn. (Photo: George Hatchell)

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DECIDING to take the post-match media interview with John Cleary out of the spotlight of the sun, the Cork football manager, though dressed for the summer in a Cork t-shirt and his familiar navy GAA baseball cap, led the way upstairs at Páirc Uí Rinn HQ on Saturday afternoon. 

It’s a cosy building, tight on space, but an empty room was found on the first floor, just at the top of the stairs, with the windows facing out onto a pitch that was still swarmed with fans surrounding Cork players for selfies and autographs.

Just outside the door, Donegal manager Jim McGuinness was chatting to RTÉ. Inside, Cleary, spotting a swivel chair resting behind a desk, sat down and tried to make sense of what had just unfolded – his Cork team had defeated Ulster champions Donegal (unbeaten in 2024 before their trek to Leeside) by 3-9 to 0-16 for Cleary’s biggest win as Cork manager, and also a result that guarantees the Rebels progression from Group 3 to the knockout stages of the All-Ireland series. There was a lot to unpack.

‘The biggest win since 2020?’ Cleary was asked, a reference to Cork’s behind-closed-doors, snatch-and-grab Munster semi-final victory against Kerry on a wet and dark winter’s night at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. That was under Ronan McCarthy’s watch. 

‘Only time will tell,’ the Cork boss replied, before planting his two feet on the ground. 

‘Where we are standing now, if we lose to Tyrone we will be third again.’

The Cork boss was not getting carried away. He stayed ice-cool in the heat of Páirc Uí Rinn, and struck the right tone: happy with the win, delighted for the players and the fans, but cautioned it all as there’s more work to do.

He knows that consistency – or the lack of it, to be more precise – has been the scourge of Cork football teams in recent times, and he also knows how important it is that this group can back up the wins against Clare and Donegal when they meet Tyrone on June 15th. 

It’s now a huge game for this group, even if a spot in the knock-out stages is already assured. Beat Tyrone and Cork will top the group and go directly into the All-Ireland quarter-finals with growing confidence and belief. Lose to Tyrone and Cork will play in a preliminary quarter-final; not the end of the world, but there will be some dangerous ties waiting there. 

‘We needed it (the win against Donegal), there is a feel-good factor, but you can be damn full sure that will stop this (Saturday) evening,’ he said, matter-of-factly.

‘This morning, we could have lost to Donegal and beat Tyrone and we were at home in a preliminary quarter-final. If it flips the other way, it makes things a lot more difficult. We could end up in Derry or Galway or Mayo.’

It’s to Cleary and his players’ credit that Cork are in a conversation that includes counties like Derry, Galway and Mayo, who are all Division 1 teams, and that there’s now an expectation that Cork can challenge Tyrone, another Division 1 team, on Saturday week. This is the level that Cleary wants Cork to compete at, not to enter these contests with a puncher’s chance but to have a realistic chance of winning. The key is consistency – and the Cork boss knows this. We’ve seen bursts of consistency, like last summer’s All-Ireland campaign that had back-to-back wins against Mayo and Roscommon before an All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Derry where Cork felt they left themselves down. Albeit not under Cleary’s watch, rewind back to the 2020 win against Kerry that was followed by a Munster final home loss to Tipperary; that was a sickener, a high followed by a low. 

‘Look, it's great today, we’ll enjoy it, but it's back to brass tacks now and preparing for Tyrone. I'm sure the lads will come in with a pep in their step but it's our job now to get them back on solid ground because we want to try and see how far we can go,’ Cleary explained.

‘At different times we've tested the Kerrys, we’ve tested the Dublins, but then we've let ourselves down at other times. Consistency is what we're looking for. We always want to see if we can put two or three or four performances together.

‘I think that's eight matches now and we have only had one defeat, to Kerry, so we're beginning to build a bit of momentum. We'd love to see if we can go on a bit further. Making Croke Park again this year is definitely one aim for us.’

It’s almost gone under the radar that Cork have just one loss in eight games. Beat Fermanagh away. Defeated Kildare at home. Won away to Meath. Drew at home to Armagh. Beat Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Lost to Kerry in Killarney. Defeated Clare in Ennis. Quietened Donegal in Páirc Uí Rinn. While this hit-list is a mixture of Division 2 teams mainly, with two from Division 3 and one from the top tier, the reality is Cork are a mid-table Division 2 team. They must start consistently beating teams of a similar standard to start moving forward and have a realistic chance of taking out the genuine title contenders.

‘We are slowly climbing the ladder,’ Cleary added. He’s right, it’s been a slow-burner, sometimes like a game of snakes and ladders when progress hits a snaky setback, but days like last Saturday, against what he described as ‘the best team in the country’ on recent form, add credibility to Cleary’s belief that this group is moving in the right direction. The tussle with Tyrone will be the next opportunity to prove the foundation is solid, and how Cork handle the increased expectation will be another challenge. In Cleary, they’ve a man who will make sure the group stays grounded. Last Saturday was his biggest win as Cork manager, but his mind was already focusing on the next game. So too was his captain Brian Hurley, cut from the same Castlehaven cloth and with a similar mentality.

‘Morale is going to be very high after that, but I don’t think anyone is overly surprised. We targeted this game, but there’s another big test to come (against Tyrone) no matter what happened against Donegal. We need to get the bodies right and go again,’ Hurley said, having made his way to the Cork dressing room in a short walk that took a lot longer than usual.

Forty-five minutes after the final whistle, and as Páirc Uí Rinn emptied, there were still Cork footballers on the pitch with family, friends, and fans. It was a result and performance to enjoy, and Cleary’s aim is to make these days the norm, not the exception to the rule. The next opportunity is a big one, in front of a guaranteed packed stadium, whether it’s in Portlaoise or Tullamore, as a double-header with the Cork hurlers on June 15th. It’s a chance to show the small ball support that the big ball is moving forward too.

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