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THE LAST WORD: Rebels need more than ‘Corkness’ to get this stuttering campaign back on track

February 23rd, 2024 12:15 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Pictured at the media launch of #2024 - A Five-Year Plan for Cork Football in January 2019 were sub committee members Conor Counihan, Brian Cuthbert, Tracey Kennedy and Graham Canty.

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REMEMBER, without warning, when the word ‘Corkness’ was hoisted upon us all in January 2019? There hadn’t been a collective cringe in this country like it since that minx Fidelma got poor ‘aul Miley all hot and bothered in the hayshed in Glenroe. Well, holy god, indeed.

To refresh your memory, ‘Corkness’ was unleashed on the world when Cork GAA launched its five-year plan that, at the heart of it, had the mission to turn the county’s footballers from pretenders to contenders for All-Ireland honours, the five years spanning 2019 to 2024.

We’re now in the fifth and final year of the plan and Cork’s senior side, its flagship football team, isn’t exactly tearing up trees at the moment, and certainly aren’t ‘regular All-Ireland contenders’. (Granted, we’ll allow some leeway for those Covid seasons, but that was the same for all counties)

Former county chairperson Tracey Kennedy described Corkness as ‘That air of confidence just on the right side of arrogance – an unparalleled pride and our insatiable desire for Cork to be the best at absolutely everything.’

The intent was honourable, but this call to arms didn’t light a fire under Cork’s senior football team. If ‘Corkness’ is an inbuilt confidence in those lucky enough to hail from this county – if you’re even luckier, you’ve a West Cork address or, at worst, connection (even Reggie on Blackrock Road would have to admit that) – it’s not a trait associated with the county’s footballers. Cork hurlers, their fans and that hurling swagger? Yes. The footballers and its seemingly-always strained relationship with their own fans? No.

#2024 – A Five-Year Plan for Cork Football itself had the right ideas, and some boxes have been ticked, including the revamping of the county championships and the strengthening of the coaching set-up. It’s not all doom and gloom.

‘The appointment of a Head of Games Development was followed by the appointment of 14 GDCs. This represents a significant increase on the previous staffing level of six GDAs,’ Cork CEO Kevin O’Donovan said in his address at the 2023 county convention, and the shared hope is that these appointments will bear fruit – but when?

Cork football fans are the most patient there is. There have been brief moments of euphoria in recent times, like Mark Keane’s dramatic buzzer-beater against Kerry in 2020, before reality clipped supporters’ wings again, losing the Munster final to Tipperary. We had the progress of last summer then, beating Mayo and Roscommon in the championship and reaching the last eight. The plan was to kick on in 2024, but this has been a campaign of regression to date. Losing all three Division 2 games leaves John Cleary’s team in a relegation scrap, and at odds with that 1,192-word press release that introduced us all to the five year plan in those early days of 2019. Its first bullet point read: ‘Cork will be regular All-Ireland contenders in all grades of inter-county football, including club championships, within three to five years.’

Has that been delivered? An unequivocal no that should shake the doors in the corridors of power at Cork GAA HQ.


Cork were a Division 2 team in 2019 and five years on, still are. Cork reached the last eight of the All-Ireland series in 2019 (Super 8s) and in 2023 (All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals). It’s a damning sign of where Cork football is this year, after three league losses in a row, that there is growing talk of a Tailteann Cup campaign. 

In the first year of the plan (2019) the Cork footballers were relegated to Division 3 of the league after a disastrous campaign, and there is the possibility that the final year of the plan could be bookended with another demotion to the third tier. Hardly the progress the Cork five-plan envisaged.

The All-Ireland success of the Cork minors and U20s in 2019 was an instant boost to this plan, but it’s been slim pickings on the All-Ireland front at both levels since – Cork have won two Munster MFC titles since (2021 and ’22) and one provincial title (2021) in the past four seasons.

The plan also teased of a ‘clear player development pathway’ that would produce ‘a regular supply of quality footballers within the next five years’. Five years on from Cork’s All-Ireland U20 win, only Colm O’Callaghan, Sean Meehan and Maurice Shanley from that team are serious contenders for a championship starting spot now. Cathail O’Mahony has been unlucky with injuries, while the likes of Mark Cronin, Fionn Herlihy and Blake Murphy have been in and around the set-up for a while now without ever catching fire.

The disconnect between supporters and Cork football teams was highlighted as a major concern in the original plan, and, ambitious to say the least, we were told ‘support for Cork football and the profile of our inter-county footballers will grow significantly within one to two years.’ Again, this hasn’t happened. The football fans at SuperValu Páirc Uí Chaoimh are lost in the emptiness of the stadium on match-day – we were told there were 3,533 fans at Cork v Cavan last Saturday, while the night before 5,507 watched Cork City defeat Kerry in the First Division opener. Cork football has long existed in the shadows, and that was one of the original reasons for the five-year plan, too, to show them some love, but that’s in short supply right now. As for raising the profile of the footballers, it might help if they were allowed to step outside the inter-county bubble for interviews, instead of being cordoned off from the fans that then pay to watch them. One of the idiosyncrasies of the inter-county world is how players/adults who are happy to chat to local media when it’s club season are suddenly told they can’t when it’s county time – how can you grow a relationship between fans and a team when those fans never hear from players who are not allowed to talk? 

Ultimately, fans want their team to be successful, and on that front the Cork five-year plan has not delivered a winning football team that is putting arses on seats at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, that is also in the contention for All-Ireland honours and that has closed the divide between the team and its supporters. 

John Cleary won’t be bothered about the 42-page five-year plan, all that he is focussed on now is Fermanagh this weekend and getting a result, but the longer Cork continues to struggle, the louder the grumblings will grow.

‘Cultural change is a slow process so the sooner it begins, the better,’ Tracey Kennedy said at the time, so perhaps five years was always too aspirational and not grounded in the reality of where Cork football is now and has been for these past five years: a mid-table Division 2 team capable of fleeting moments but lacking the consistency needed to contend. The body of evidence doesn’t suggest a huge upturn is around the corner, and not even ‘Corkness’ will make a difference here.     


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