CORK footballers have three games to save their season.
The misfiring Rebels are in a serious battle to avoid relegation from Division 2 – but the good news is that they have their destiny in their own hands.
Over the next three Sundays, starting this weekend at Páirc Tailteann in Navan, Keith Ricken’s young charges will play the three teams that are also ensnared in this relegation scrap.
First, it’s Meath away this Sunday. The following Sunday, 20th, Cork host Down at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The Sunday after, 27th, Cork’s final game is away to struggling Offaly.
This Season of Three Sundays will define this group’s season. If they pick up enough points to sidestep the trapdoor, it will save this season and impact the next, as this inexperienced squad needs consistent games against Division 2 opposition right now.
But if Cork, winless after four games in Division 2, fall into Division 3, it will be a significant blow to the development of a team that is trying to find its feet and its identity.
Relegation this season would also result, in all likelihood, in Cork competing in the second-tier Tailteann Cup later this summer, and not the All-Ireland championship, unless the Rebels pull off the shock of the year and stun Kerry in the Munster SFC semi-final on Saturday, May 7th, at Páirc Uí Rinn. Current form lines suggest that’s a long shot.
That’s why these next three Sundays matter. A lot.
‘It would be good for the lads to stay in Division 2,’ Cork boss Ricken said after the recent loss to Galway, as he faces three crucial games.
What could potentially work in Cork’s favour, too, is that they have played the top four teams in Division 2 so have an easier run-in, on paper. While two of Cork’s final three games are away from home, at least they are not playing a team striving for promotion. Meath have Cork (home), Clare (away) and Derry (home). Down will play Offaly (home), Cork (away) and Clare (home). Offaly’s fate will be decided by Down (away), Roscommon (home) and Cork (home).
At the end of the next three games we will have a clearer picture of the immediate future for Cork football. This is a long-term project. There is no magic button here for Ricken to press and instantly metamorphosize his young group into contenders for the big prizes. Good timber takes time to grow, he says. Patience is key. But results matter too, as does the difference in quality between Division 2 football and Division 3.
‘You need a couple of years of regrouping and you want to do it definitely in Division Two against better opposition and then, like those guys, try and get out of Division Two into Division One and start mixing it. It’s going to take a number of years,’ former Cork star Joe Kavanagh told The Irish Mirror.
Interestingly, Kavanagh also feels Cork competing in the Tailteann Cup could actually help the team in the long-term.
‘Do we need to go down to the Tailteann and play in it and win it? It wouldn’t do them any harm, this bunch of guys. Long-term, if you look at the bigger picture, that wouldn’t be the end of the world,’ Kavanagh mused.
Ricken, too, said recently that playing lower football is not something he fears, but what he does fear is a lack of consistency. Cork football fans know too well about the inconsistency of this team’s previous incarnations in recent times.
‘I am trying to bring consistency and I see us trying to be consistent and trying to play a good brand of football. That is a fear, that if we don’t do that we will end up in the same place next year. In 12 months’ time I want us to be in a better place, in relation to structures, footballers, fitness and all that. That is my aim and hope.’
Cork’s development would be better served in Division 2. Slip back down to Division 3 and there are no guarantees the Rebels will bounce straight back like last time. Relegation would also impact the mood music surrounding this team. The season rests on the results over the next three Sundays. Starting away to Meath this Sunday (2pm throw-in).