THESE will be a strange few weeks for the Cork footballers and management. They are in a period of unknown, unsure what their summer of football looks like – will they be hanging out with the big boys in the Sam Maguire or trudging through the Tailteann Cup with many of the game’s minnows?
It’s a limbo Cork have created for themselves.
The recent Munster SFC quarter-final loss to Clare leaves the Rebels relying on the kindness of others to dig them out in their quest to play in the Sam Maguire. It’s out of Cork’s hands, as results elsewhere will dictate whether John Cleary’s men will squeeze into the top 16 teams that will contest the revamped group stage of the All-Ireland championship.
From being in control of their own destiny, after a fourth-place finish in Division 2 that looked enough (and still might be) to see Cork take to the start-line for the Sam Maguire race, this one-point defeat to Clare leaves the Rebels’ fate in the hands of others.
How did we get here? That familiar Cork football failing: lack of consistency.
Cork fans don’t need Marty McFly with his time-travelling DeLorean to come back from the future as the bearer of bad news, because, subdued and scarred after enduring several false dawns in recent times, supporters are now conditioned to expect the worst.
The lack of consistency has blighted Cork football for a decade, accentuated after Conor Counihan’s reign ended in 2013. Since then every Cork manager has strived to make the Cork football team more consistent, but have come up short. The jeopardy of sport is what makes it so gripping, but Cork fans yearn for some predictability, to know they can rock up to Cusack Park relatively certain of what their team will produce.
That’s not what happened in Ennis recently.
This was a Cork team, coming off the back of a relatively successful league – relative to what we’ve endured in recent league campaigns, annual relegation scraps and even one season plodding through Division 3 – that didn’t perform on the day they needed to.
It just felt too familiar, followed by a here-we-go-again shake of the head.
The positive signs we saw during the league showed that Cork were building under John Cleary. There was a consistency to team selection that fed into more consistent performances, and the team was moving in the right direction.
Before the loss to Louth, Cleary told this paper: ‘Bar the one blip, we have been fairly consistent and that was the aim we set out at the start of the year.’ The blip was the first league game against Meath. After that Cork beat Kildare away, lost narrowly to Dublin at home, and then defeated both Clare and Limerick. Since then, results have dipped. Lost away to Louth, drew at home to a Derry team already promoted, and now lost away to a Clare side Cork had beaten twice already in 2023.
Inconsistent Cork, again.
It is to be expected, to a degree, as this is Cleary’s first full campaign in charge, and in a world where everything is expected to be instant, fans can’t expect the team to instantly transform into All-Ireland contenders. It’s a process, and it will have its ups and downs. But the performance in Ennis was a definite down that will raise concerns.
‘Defensively we are so porous when teams run at us. In spite of having almost every player inside the 45 there were numerous occasions when Clare broke through. It’s a huge concern from a Cork point of view,’ former Cork footballer Paddy Kelly told The Irish Examiner Gaelic Football Show.
Former Mayo manager James Horan pinpointed the lack of physicality and presence in the Cork defence. It’s too easy to get through Cork. Watch Cillian Rouine’s 74th-minute winning point for Clare. Look at how much space the corner back had to fist over the score that dumped the Rebels out of the Munster championship. This was the last minute of a championship game that mattered.
‘Some of the scores that Clare got, there are Cork bodies knocking around defensively, but it’s so easy to wriggle past a guy or it’s so easy to get your shot off or the pass you want. The pressure they put on the ball or the physicality that they bring, just around their 45 or outside it, isn’t there,’ Horan explained. John Cleary has work to do in the weeks ahead, as Cork won’t be in action again until mid to late May, depending on what competition they find themselves in.
The break will give injured players like Brian Hurley and Maurice Shanley a chance to recover, and Hurley’s explosiveness and threat of danger was missed against Clare. The Castlehaven man is a game-changer, and the Cork attack needs him. Without an in-form Hurley, the Cork forwards can struggle to contribute enough scores from play. Cork kicked five points from play against Clare – three from forwards (Steven Sherlock and Sean Powter) and two from defenders (Rory Maguire and Kevin O’Donovan). Hurley sat out the loss to Louth when Cork kicked 0-10, with the attack contributing four points from play (Sherlock, Chris Óg Jones and Conor Corbett). Against Derry, Hurley again missing, Cork scored a creditable 1-14, but the forwards combined for four from play (Corbett, Jones and Killian O’Hanlon). This Cork team does carry a scoring threat – they were top scorers in Division 2 – but when a team, like Clare, stops attacking outlets and goal threats like Sean Powter and Matty Taylor (the duo scored three goals against Colm Collins’ men in the league last month), Cork looked blunt. When Cork’s runners hit a Clare wall, the threat the Rebels carried was negated.
If the Rebels advance to the Sam Maguire, the level of opposition they face will be a step up from Division 2 – Cork’s scoring difference was helped by racking up 6-18 against Limerick – so they need Plan Bs and Cs.
Cleary knows there is work to be done, but this was never going to be an overnight success story. Progress for Cork is improvement on 2022, and the league was a step in the right direction; Cork weren’t involved in a final-day relegation scrap like last season. The championship could still see Cork compete in the Sam Maguire with three group games, and progression is a realistic goal; the top three from each group move into the knock-out stages. All is not lost, but it’s the familiarity of the loss to Clare that’s deflating.
Cork fans have been here too often: hopes raised, then dashed. Think of the 2020 Munster championship – beat Kerry, then lose the final to Tipperary. That inconsistency that seems engrained in Cork football teams. Beating Clare in a championship game in Ennis was the challenge for Cork, and they failed it. That will hurt, but there could be a chance to make amends and show this team is moving forward, if results go Cork’s way in the weeks ahead.
The significance of Cillian Rouine’s winning score won’t reverberate like Martin Daly’s match-winning goal against Cork on the same ground in 1997, a shock defeat that ended the Rebels’ season, because Cleary’s men are still alive, and could yet end up where they want to be. It’s not the straight-line journey they wanted, and there is no rattle off Kerry in Killarney to gauge progress, but there may yet be a reprieve. Time to play the waiting game.