How important is it to win your away league games? DENIS HURLEY looks at Cork’s recent record
IT’S a hardy annual at the outset of each Allianz Football League campaign, managers making clear the importance of their team winning their home games if they are to be involved at the business end of the table.
Counter-intuitively, it stands to reason that, if everyone is focusing on winning their home games, any victories achieved on the road are of vital importance. As well as getting the win to boost your own morale, you have dealt a blow to a rival and made things difficult for them.
In Conor Counihan’s tenure, when Cork won three league titles – Division 2 in 2009 and then a three-in-a-row in Division 1 – Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Páirc Uí Rinn were fortress-like, and that continued even when the silverware stopped.
While in the top flight, from 2010-16 inclusive, 49 regular league games were played with 17 of those lost but just five came at home – Mayo in the final 2010 game after both counties had reached the final, Kerry in 2012, Kildare and Mayo in 2013 and Roscommon last year. Twelve away defeats in seven league seasons is less than two a year, and it’s a figure that is skewed by the three losses to Donegal, Dublin and Kerry in 2016.
Such consistency was what made Cork one of the top sides in the country, with no team ever to take anything for granted against them. To be fair to Brian Cuthbert, Cork finished top of the table in both of his seasons too – he never oversaw a home defeat – but those performances were overshadowed first by league semi-final and final losses to Dublin and then underwhelming championship campaigns.
With the good home record in place, it was on their travels that Cork were able to propel themselves to the upper echelons. That first season back up in 2010 commenced with a win away to Monaghan while Derry were beaten in Celtic Park and only the concession of three goals prevented a clean sweep of Ulster away wins against Tyrone.
By the end of that year, they would be All-Ireland champions and that momentum was carried into 2011, with late points from Donncha O’Connor and Daniel Goulding securing a first win against Kerry in Tralee since 1982. The fixture list had them away in their next outing too, against Dublin, and though that was lost and Mayo would also triumph against Cork in Castlebar, revenge over the Dubs would be gained in the final following a stirring comeback.
Ultimately, a raft of injuries to key forwards did for Cork in the championship but it didn’t affect their status by the time 2012 came around. Along with 2009, it ranks as one of the great ‘lost’ years for that Cork team, in hindsight a great chance to really confirm their greatness with another All-Ireland.
Unfortunately, Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final would prevent that dream from becoming a reality. Apart from a league loss to Donegal in Ballybofey and that aforementioned home Kerry defeat – perhaps a case of shadow-boxing, as the counties were to meet in the Munster semi-final that year – Cork had been excellent in the league.
Perhaps, then, it’s no coincidence that the county’s slide in championship performances – they haven’t reached the semi-finals since 2012 – coincided with a poor league in 2013, the only time in Counihan’s tenure that they failed to make the knockout stages.
A hammering away to Dublin was followed by a home defeat against Kildare. While away wins against Down and Tyrone threatened to get them back on track, losses away to Kerry and then at home to Mayo gave them four defeats for the first time since 2007 – even in 2008, when two walkovers had been given, Cork had only lost three.
With this year’s Division 2 campaign beginning with trips to Galway and Kildare, Peadar Healy has acknowledged that at least one of them must be won. Anything less and promotion will be difficult to achieve, proof of the importance of winning away.