BY KIERAN McCARTHY
JOHN Cleary plans on using the McGrath Cup in early January as a tune-up for the bigger challenges that will follow.
Even though Cork footballers open their 2023 season with a McGrath Cup clash with neighbours Kerry in Páirc Uí Rinn on January 4th followed by a trip to Clare on January 15th, Cleary’s attention is firmly on the opening rounds of the national league.
The Rebels begin their Division 2 campaign against Meath in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on January 29th, followed by an away day in Kildare the following weekend, before the Dubs venture outside the capital on February 19th.
‘Our big emphasis is on the league and the first couple of games,’ Cleary told The Southern Star.
‘We have Meath, Kildare and Dublin – the three toughest games in Division 2, probably – up first, so we really need to hit the ground running. Those three games are in a four-week period. The first two are back to back, then we have a break and then it’s Dublin at home.
‘With the McGrath Cup we will use it to have a look at fellas but our sole aim is getting ready for the league. Add in the Sigerson Cup in early January and there will be a lot of tired bodies before the month is over. Our big emphasis is on the league and we will hopefully get our full team for the Meath match.
‘The McGrath Cup is not a priority but we can’t play challenge games before January 1st, so the Kerry and Clare games are two games we can get before the league so we will use them to get a bit of teamwork and cohesiveness, but the results there are not the be-all and end-all.’
Speaking in the aftermath of Cork’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final loss to Dublin in the summer Cleary admitted that the Rebels are currently a mid-table Division 2 team. The aim, he says, is to have Cork competing at the top end of Division 2 with a view to winning promotion to the top tier. That’s why the opening three games against the Leinster opponents are important – it gives Cork an opportunity to see where they stand in the pecking order.
‘Without a doubt, we want to see progression next season,’ the Cork boss said.
‘Our focus is on giving our best shot to the league. We fully realise what is before us. We have three hard games to start with, and then we have Derry, Louth, Clare and Limerick. We played Clare, Louth and Limerick last season and there wasn't a kick of a ball between us in those games. Unless we push on a bit, it won’t be easy.
‘It’s a great challenge, and we will see if we can develop a squad and a team, and the type of opposition we have in those first three games will tell us where we are fairly quickly.’
As well as shaking up his squad, Cleary has made additions to his backroom team, notably bringing in former Galway and Sligo manager Kevin Walsh as football coach. The Cork boss has already seen Walsh’s impact with the Rebels.
‘He has been an inter-county coach and an inter-county manager, and he has been through a lot with Galway and Sligo, and with various club teams. He brings a lot of experience, and he has been there and done that. We think he will be of enormous benefit to us. It’s early days yet but we are very encouraged by the way it is working out,’ added Cleary, as he gears up for his first full season as Cork football manager.