The Cork footballers need to get “tough upstairs”, according to captain Ian Maguire, who believes the team too easily collapsed in recent years when hitting a sticky patch during games.
Cork enter tomorrow’s Munster SFC final having won three of their last four competitive outings, their best run of form in two years, but preceding this upturn in results was a run of six games where they failed to secure a single victory, losing to Kerry, Tyrone, Kildare, Clare, and Meath, and drawing with Fermanagh.
Having twice rattled the Kerry net inside the opening nine minutes of last year’s Munster final, Cork manager Ronan McCarthy said his players were “a bit shell-shocked” to then find themselves seven adrift at the break. They never recovered in the second period, with Maguire, present at midfield for that game, acknowledging Cork’s need to collectively improve their mental durability.
“What we have shown over the last couple of years is that we’ve had 10-minute patches where we’ve played well and 10-minute patches where we’ve played poorly. And we seem to collapse after the poor patches. That shows where we need to improve our mental strength,” said Cork’s 25-year-old captain.
“John Cleary used to say to us when we were U21 that the opposition player has the same amount of bones in his body as you do and it is just about being tough upstairs, taking on the challenge, overcoming mistakes, and keep doing what you are doing in training.”
Although clearly outclassed by Kerry and Tyrone in last year’s championship, two games which Cork lost by an aggregate total of 33 points, Maguire claimed they were the architects of their own demise during that aforementioned run of six games without a win.
From those defeats stemmed criticism with regard to the team’s physical conditioning. Former Cork player Paddy Kelly, writing in these pages following last year’s 3-20 to 0-13 fourth round qualifier defeat to Tyrone, said “serious questions” need to be asked of Cork’s “physical conditioning”, remarking that “physically, it looked like men against boys” at O’Moore Park.
Maguire, who says he has never played with a better bunch of lads, believes such “perceptions”, which he wouldn’t agree with, arise from poor play and poor results.
“You look at the Tyrone game last year, the Kerry game, and some of the early league games, there is a difference between a turnover and an unforced error. I think we were creating so many mistakes on the pitch, mentally and physically, that they were just accumulating and the perception comes in then that Cork are small, they are not doing the weights, they are not fit enough.
“When we take the pitch the next day, I’ll be marking someone like Jack Barry or David Moran. I’ve marked them before. I don’t think they are much bigger or stronger or faster [than me]. But if you make mental mistakes, all of that accumulates.”
Though unable to stave off relegation to Division 3, Ronan McCarthy’s side have lost just once since March 2. There’s also been a string of challenge game wins against counties higher up the ladder in recent weeks. Cork turned a corner, according to Maguire, that Saturday evening in early March when claiming a much-needed three-point win away to Tipperary.
“You can only create confidence by winning. Moral victories are a load of pipe, in my opinion. Obviously, we were playing defensive football at the start of the year, but that aside, as players we were playing absolutely rubbish and we just had to own up to it.
“We got relegated, deserved to be relegated. We got crucified, deserved to be crucified. But we stuck together, trained hard, and we think we’ve rectified it. I know we’ve rectified it. It is just getting that big performance to turn it right and then we’ll reap the rewards of what we’re doing. It is about performing in the Munster final and then we drive on from there.
“We had a bad 15 minutes against Donegal [in round six of the league], but since then, we’ve been playing some super football as a group of players. It hasn’t been two or three individuals, it’s been 26/27 fellas absolutely hopping every time we take the field, whether it’s a training game, a challenge game, or championship.
With the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch proving unplayable in early spring, added to the Rod Stewart concert which forced their Munster semi-final against Limerick to be moved to Páirc Uí Rinn, the Cork footballers have played only once at Páirc Uí Chaoimh since last year’s provincial decider. Not ideal, said Maguire, who is facing into his third Munster senior final tomorrow.
“Look, it is frustrating when you’ve such a good stadium and a good pitch — to be fair, it has improved tenfold since last year.
“It’s just like Kerry, they haven’t had an opportunity to play here, we haven’t had an opportunity, so there’s no advantage or disadvantage by not playing here.”