Despite relegation to the league’s third division, Cork football manager Ronan McCarthy remains confident his under-fire troops can “mix it” with the top-tier counties this summer.
Cork open their championship campaign with a home Munster semi-final against either Tipperary or Limerick on Saturday, June 1.
The winners, presuming the other side of the draw goes to form, will meet Kerry in the provincial decider.
Last year’s Munster final ended in a 17-point hammering by Kerry, the Kingdom’s third-biggest championship win over their neighbours.
McCarthy wouldn’t be drawn on the size of the gap between Kerry and Munster’s chasing pack, but what he did put on record was his unstinting belief that if Cork can hit form in the coming weeks and months, they’ll hold their own against Peter Keane’s charges and the rest of the game’s leading forces.
The issue there, however, is that incidences of Cork putting their best foot forward on championship matchdays have been few and far between in recent years.
Their defeat of Tipperary in last year’s Munster’s semi-final at Thurles was most impressive, but was undone by the two thumpings that followed.
There was the 2017 extra-time thriller against Mayo in round four of the qualifiers, while, prior to that, you’d have to go right the way back to the drawn Munster final, against Kerry, in July of 2015.
Under McCarthy, between league and championship, Cork have won six, lost 10, and drawn one. The manager accepts the time for talking has passed.
This summer is about churning out performances on a consistent basis.
“If we’re right and playing well, I think we can really mix it with any team,” McCarthy insisted.
“Someone could justifiably say to me now, how could you say that based on some of your results in the league and some of your results in the championship last year? And that would be a fair enough comment.
“We went to Armagh on the final day of the league, who I would think are a very decent team, and we won without the likes of Luke Connolly, Paul Kerrigan, Sean Powter, and having lost Brian Hurley and John O’Rourke in the middle of it.
"They are all quality players and yet we still won the game.
“I am still convinced the talent and quality is there, but I can only talk about it for so long and, at some point, it is my job as the manager to get the players to deliver. If they don’t, then I have to look at myself.”
McCarthy is in firm agreement with Mark Collins, who told this newspaper a day after Cork’s relegation from Division 2 that league demotion would not impact on the county’s championship endeavours.
Yes, players will want to show that what materialised during the spring was not a true reflection of Cork’s collective worth, but, by the same token, if a couple of championship wins are strung together, the setbacks endured during February and March will be quickly forgotten.
“It is a bit like the Galway hurlers when they were in Division 1B [in 2017]. Suddenly, being in Division 1B wasn’t an issue anymore because they had gone on and won the All-Ireland.
"I think we could have a strong run in the championship and then people won’t get too excited about what league we’re in.
Morale-wise, McCarthy is content with where the camp is at.
“We are only back a week. The natural break after the league comes at a great time.
"Just even from the point of view of mental freshness, sending fellas back to their clubs [is important] as you are together from the beginning of December right through to the end of March.
“If we had been together again for a period after the Armagh match, maybe it would have been harder to deal with [the disappointment stemming from relegation]. But there was a natural break.
"They have come back in and you just start looking forward to the championship.
"They are in good spirits. They are training well. We’ll go from there.”