Cleary: This is chance to test ourselves against a top team

June 2nd, 2023 7:00 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Cork manager John Cleary.

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BIG picture thinking, John Cleary wants his Cork football team to reach a level where they hold their own with the top teams – like All-Ireland champions Kerry – on the big days in Croke Park, but the Rebels boss accepts there is a road to travel to reach that destination.

Cork will get a taste of life at the highest level over the next few weeks when they play two Division 1 sides, Kerry and Mayo, in Group 1 of the All-Ireland senior football championship.

First up, neighbours Kerry on Saturday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh (3pm, live on GAAGO), the Kingdom needing a result after losing their first game to Mayo whereas Cork have last weekend’s win away to Louth to build on.

This derby has been one-sided in recent times, given Cork football’s struggles, but Cleary and Co are working hard to climb back up the ladder.

‘In the last few years they have been operating at a slightly different level to where our lads are at the moment, but that’s our aim: to try and get back to there,’ Cleary told The Southern Star.

‘It would be fantastic to go toe to toe with them and the only way we can see where we are at is to play them. Down the line, we want to be going toe to toe with them in Croke Park in the latter end of the Sam Maguire. We are definitely a work in progress and we are looking forward to testing ourselves against them on Saturday.’

The dynamics for Saturday’s game are interesting – Cork have a Group 1 win already under their belt (1-19 to 1-17 away to Louth) while Kerry need a result after losing their opener against Mayo.

‘We are facing the All-Ireland champions and it was going to be difficult enough without them being a bit wounded,’ Cleary admitted.

‘We will focus on what we can do and what we can bring to the table. We know we have areas to improve because we weren’t perfect against Louth.’

Cleary points to Cork’s mini slump in the second half when Louth came from 1-11 to 0-8 down to lead 1-14 to 1-13, before Cork responded well. The Cork boss knows a team like Kerry – spearheaded by David Clifford – will punish a repeat on Saturday.

‘We went from six points up to a point down so we need to improve how we manage a game when things go against us,’ Cleay said. ‘I thought we left a few scores behind us – one or two half-goal chances, and definitely five or six point chances. We are not there with it yet but we’re working on getting better and trying to improve those various areas.’

The bus journey home from Navan to Cork on Saturday night, after beating Louth, was the polar opposite of six weeks earlier on the way back from Ennis after losing to Clare in the Munster SFC. There was a buzz in the bus, Cleary says.

‘Everyone is relishing having a crack off Kerry and Mayo in the next couple of weeks,’ he said, and the win against Louth eases the pressure as three teams will advance to the knockout stage.

‘At the start of the season, our aim was to get into the round of 16 and we knew we would be playing at least one top team. It just so happens we are in a group with two top teams and the bit of a cushion we have now is that we have a win under our belt before we actually play them. Hopefully it will allow us to play without fear and the big pressure of having to get a result so we might be able to express ourselves better.’

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