CORK footballers need regular games against the best teams in the country if they are to become realistic challengers for the big prizes, according to former Rebel star Colm O’Neill.
The 2010 All-Ireland winner feels Cork aren’t too far away from the leading pack but they need ‘regular high-intensity games’.
Ronan McCarthy’s side didn’t win promotion to Division 1 this season and will campaign again in the second tier in 2022, lining up alongside Clare, Derry, Down, Galway, Meath, Offaly and Roscommon.
‘I don’t think we’re that far away,’ said AIB GAA ambassador O’Neill, speaking at the regional launch of AIB’s sponsorship of the 2021 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship.
‘Having said that, what do they need to make the step up to be top challengers? I suppose last year playing in Division 3… the main goal for any team is to be playing regular high-intensity games. That’s where you can really judge where you are.
‘You’d be disappointed at not getting promoted, but it is what it is. So for Cork to make the step up, that has to be a real goal in getting up there to test yourself week-in week-out.
‘Dublin obviously are top of the pecking order. Then you have Kerry, Mayo, Donegal and Tyrone, and below that there’s a chasing pack where you could make a case for five or six – with Cork in that bracket. But the goal is to get up to the top division and play regularly against those teams.’
In his prime O’Neill was one of the best forwards in the game – and he feels that Cork’s current attacking options are the envy of many counties. While Cathail O’Mahony is currently injured, Cork can still call on Mark Collins, Brian Hurley, Luke Connolly, John O’Rourke, Ruairi Deane and Co.
‘A lot of them have quality, and with Mark Collins and Brian Hurley coming back making a big impact (against Westmeath), it will be a big headache for Ronan (McCarthy) to settle on his front six,’ O’Neill noted.
‘The challenge then is to find the right balance and get a good mix, but our options would be the envy of a lot of teams. We have conceded more than we would like in some of the games and one thing Cork will be working on is limiting that scoring.’
Asked what he would consider progress to be this year, O’Neill replied: ‘It’s hard to say, really. You’d be hoping to get to a Munster final again this year. It’s knockout, which has pros and cons, but if they do get to a Munster final, it’s down in Killarney. It’s been 20-odd years since Cork won in the championship in Killarney (it’s 26 years) and that will be at the forefront of Kerry minds if they do get there.
‘It will be a difficult task with the form Kerry are in. If they can get over Kerry, and it opens up into an All-Ireland semi-final again then who knows. But it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen until you can get over Kerry.’