Seán White, like many of his Cork teammates, has never played an inter-county fixture at Croke Park.
Now, he did get there once, as a 16-year old, but having seen only 12 minutes of action in the 2011 All-Ireland Vocational Schools senior football final, a game Clonakilty Community College came off second best in, it’s not exactly a memory he holds dear.
Time spent inside the whitewash at GAA HQ needs improving. He’s the first to admit as much.
Having made his inter-county debut when introduced as a second-half substitute during the 2016 Munster semi-final defeat to Tipperary, opportunities to pull on the red shirt above in the capital have since been few and far between. That summer’s fourth-round qualifier defeat to Donegal was the last time a Cork football team lined out at Croker, the Clonakilty man reduced to a spectating role on that occasion because of injury.
From the team named for today’s fixture, over one-third of its composition — the White brothers, Mark and Seán, corner-backs Nathan Walsh and Kevin Flahive, and half-backs Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor — has never played a senior inter-county fixture at Croke Park. Mark White, Walsh, and O’Donovan all played minor for Cork at GAA HQ, but, as you can imagine, there’s an ocean of difference between a minor game and taking on reigning All-Ireland champions Dublin in their own backyard.
Moreover, and somewhat of a surprise given the prominent roles they hold down within the current set-up, the trio of Luke Connolly, Ruairí Deane, and Killian O’Hanlon have not yet been exposed to senior championship football at Croker.
All that changes with a victory at Thurles, a result which guarantees two trips to Dublin in the space of a week — to take on Jim Gavin’s men on Saturday, July 13, and either Cavan or Tyrone on Saturday, July 20.
“A lot of us have never played senior in Croke Park. I played around 12 minutes of a schools game when I was 16, but that’s the height of it. It would be a massive opportunity for me and the rest of the team if we were able to get there. It would be massive for the development of this team,” said the older of the White brothers.
Despite being regulars at the quarter-final stage throughout the noughties and earlier part of this decade, the decline of recent seasons means it has been five years since Cork reached the last eight of the championship. White, on the field when they were thumped by Tyrone 12 months ago, reckons Cork are in a good place to buck the trend of four straight fourth-round qualifier defeats.
“The last few years haven’t gone our way. We just haven’t been able to get over this particular line. Hopefully, we can push on on this occasion. That’s the aim, of course, to push on.
“The performance in the Munster final was definitely one to build on, whereas last year, there weren’t many positives to build on other than the first six or seven minutes. It gives us a platform and will definitely help in terms of confidence going into the weekend.
“That said, I saw the analysis of Laois’ win on The Sunday Game. They have momentum and are going to bring something we haven’t faced this year. They have some fabulous players and the two Kingstons kicked some fabulous scores against Offaly.”
The quiet confidence in the Cork camp that they will make the Super 8s is far removed from where this group of players found themselves at the end of February. Rooted to the bottom of Division 2 having taken a solitary point from their opening four games, Cork had not won a competitive fixture since May of 2018. It was a further two months back to the victory before that. What it meant was that in a 12-month period, Cork had played 11 games between league and championship and won just two.
The back-to-back defeats to Meath and Clare in February of this year gave rise to a collective cry of ‘no more’. They’d had their fill of beatings, criticism, and trudging off the pitch each weekend knowing they had not done themselves justice.
“We knew ourselves the performances weren’t coming together the way we would have liked. As a group, we kinda just decided we had enough of the way things were going. We pulled together and worked for each other from then on.
“Thankfully, we managed to get things going for the Tipperary game in round five and it has been great to put a run of performances together. We’re just hoping we can keep up that level of performance that we have been delivering over the last number of weeks.”
The 24-year-old added: “It wasn’t that people didn’t want to come into training when we were going through a bad spell or anything like that, it was more that it was just hard to pick ourselves up when things weren’t going great. Thankfully, everyone stuck together and we pulled each other through it.
“There were a few small mistakes throughout the whole Munster final that we can rectify the next day. If we had taken a few chances when the game was very tight, maybe the result could have been different, but it will definitely stand to us. Hopefully, the next day, if we find ourselves under pressure again, we’ll be able to pull through and get over the line.”