SO Brian Cuthbert, would you be okay with winning the All-Ireland final by three points to two?
“For Cork to win an All-Ireland?” he snorts. “In the morning. Not a problem.”
How Cork will win their next football All-Ireland is moot. For a county that’s won one in the last 25 years, when they’ll next lift Sam Maguire is a more pertinent ask. And whether they’ll make sufficient strides in football terms in 2015 to succeed in September is a more seductive debate again.
Cork have beaten each of last year’s four All-Ireland semi-finalists en route to tomorrow’s Allianz League final against one of them, Dublin, in Croke Park. After each game Cuthbert has foul-balled any notions that Cork now look the real deal. “It’s only the League,” has become his go-to mode.
His rookie season as manager was a scarring experience, and as he says now, that championship only finished seven months ago. The haunting defeat at home to Kerry precipitated an urgent and fundamental shift in strategy which has been finessed this year. How far have Cork come? And how far can they go?
“All-Ireland material? We have huge work to do, honest to God,” he says. “Cork, as we have proved in the past, can put together a very strong football team and what we have now could be a strong football force. But we certainly understand we have a long way to go to break into the semi-final teams from last year - Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo. If someone was looking in from the outside, they’d agree we are probably outside that bunch at the moment.”
Cuthbert’s health warnings about League form resonate around a county that has lost faith in its footballers. Having your greatest rivals and the winningmost football county in Ireland looking in over the gap in the fence doesn’t help.
There are signs, though, authentic indicators, that Cork has closed up on the big four from 2014, consistent improvements that deserve more robust scrutiny than “it’s only the league” pap.
Cuthbert’s playbook is expanding all the time when you consider the list of substitutes for the League games at home to Kerry, Dublin and Mayo and last Sunday week’s semi-final victory over Donegal. There are plenty of luminaries too waiting to be called into the final on Sunday.
Cuthbert, his management team, coach Pat Flanagan and the players have moved Cork into a better place to meet the demands of the game but everyone remains sceptical, most of all those whose mood hangs on their success and failures.
“Pat Flanagan will always say ‘just keep winning’, but the thing you can’t forget is that it’s only been seven months since the 2014 competition finished. At that stage our team was, in some people’s heads, a million miles from Dublin, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo.
"I think we have a lot of work to do to be in that bracket. It’s only when this Championship is over, we’ll actually know how much progress we’ve made. I’d be very slow at this moment to say we’ve moved ourselves forward because all we are looking at now is the tranche of preparation time before meeting Clare or Limerick.
"So I’d be reluctant to be talking about that top four bracket. All I know is that we are outside it right now.”
Cuthbert says that next Monday morning, he begins honing his championship strategy. His management team has put square pegs in round holes throughout the league to give Cork maximum flexibility and to make the players better aware of the positional nuances of an ever-changing game.
"The arm-wrestle that football has become is never more suited to a team with lots of power and options.
The modern day Style Council dictates that the six (selected) defenders are inter-changeable, that the half-backs are mobile and are possessed of extra-long battery lives. Midfield must be mobile, rangy, raw and energetic.
"High fielding is a bonus. New half-forwards come out of the wrapper in reverse gear. Again, scoring is a welcome extra. Whatever way the inside line of attack in constructed - fast, big, mobile - they must gobble up a high percentage of their scoring opportunities.
Cork now meet most of those criteria. The O’Driscolls and the Clancys have put meat on the bone. In Colm O’Neill they possess a diamond, their X Factor. Donncha O’Connor can still turn games.
In such a big county, Cork should have more options than anyone apart from Dublin. But numbers hasn’t been an issue in Cork - it’s the type of player selected, physique often trumping finesse.
Cuthbert is still working on that cocktail. It’s only his second season in charge of Cork and he took a lot of learnings from last season.
“The most obvious one was Munster final last year, because it was emphatic. Sometimes winning games can mask issues, especially when games are so tight and are won or lost by a point. Then it’s not easy to pick one issue.
"It can boil right down to whether something’s working or not. And the things that don’t work, you’re asking yourself on the way home, ‘well, with more work, would that work?”
Cork have successfully experimented with Eoin Cadogan as a midfielder and a plethora of defensive combinations. Paddy Kelly and Donncha O’Connor have done enough to show they will make a difference when introduced at the right moment in a game. Paul Kerrigan too. The defensive set-up may still hinge on Michael Shields, but his cohorts are catching up fast.
“Having the capability for the team to play in many different ways and positions adds a nice string to the bow to the team, I think. It means we are not rigid and that makes it more difficult for the opposition to say ‘X is going to play here’, because he might not.
“Tactically, a team can play one way, but there are so many other elements to a team and a game - manliness, courage, team ethic. The people who go to games can associate with all those types of things.
"That’s why I’d take an All-Ireland by three points to two. The tactics are a different branch of the game, an intriguing branch that almost has its own science. But the other things have to be there for that branch to work properly. That’s what supporters can relate to.
“When you’re watching a team hand-pass the ball back and forth for six minutes, that’s not entertaining. I understand that, and it can be frustrating. But 90% of supporters, if the team wins, are happy for that moment.”
Cuthbert was Cork minor coach up to 2011, a life a world away from the pressure-cooker of senior inter-county. Even that recent, he struggles to compare the free-range style with the gridlock of today’s game.
“I saw an under age game last week, it was Under 15, where a team had a blanket defence. I watched the Hogan Cup final a few weeks back where Roscommon CBS more or less had a defensive system. This is meandering right down through all levels of the GAA. The philosophical question is: is that the right way to be coaching gaelic football? I guess it depends on the level.
“I came away from the 2012 semi-final, Dublin and Donegal thinking ‘yeah this is different. It creates a different challenge. We are all adapting our plans. Once one team sets up in a particular way, you have to set something similar.”
He nods in approval when I tell him that his club colleague, Conor Dorman, rates wing forward as the toughest gig in the modern game.
“It’s a tough ask, but doable. If you take Donnchadh Walsh, he ticks all the boxes, and also crops up in space to score. Paul Galvin used do it. Our wing forwards (primarily the O’Driscoll brothers, Kevin and Colm), have been adding one or two points to the scoreboard every game in the League. That’s very important. But it’s a tough ask.
“But the game is cyclical. Brian Dooher and Paul Galvin were probably the architects of modern day wing-forward play. It depends on the game, I make this point all the time. The game is cyclical. You watch All-Ireland Gold on TG4, the games in the seventies, the ‘Classics’. Were they really? The game was played a certain way - you got the ball, kicked it down the field, you fought for it, you got scores out of it.
“The eighties was different too, as were the nineties, the noughties and up to now. You have what you have, but it’s not going to last forever. Armagh and Tyrone brought a certain distinction to their game, then Jack O’Connor’s Kerry made themselves tougher to beat. This is a follow on from that era.”
HERE’s a haunting image of a helpless manager on the sideline from last year’s Munster final that anyone who has been embarrassed in such a role can relate to. Cuthbert is talking quietly to selector Ciarán O’Sullivan, but I wouldn’t bet either could tell you now what they were saying.
They finished the season with unsatisfactory respectability against Mayo in Croke Park, the kind that sustains you for no time at all. It was a long winter of foundation-building.
After a year and a half together, the managerial dynamic on the sideline is an area that must be working well. Cuthbert believes it is.
“The four lads (Eoin Sexton, Ciarán O’Sullivan, Don Davis and Ronan McCarthy) would have known each other very well from playing together, but in relation to tactics and game plays, a lot of these things are decided before the game even starts.
"It’s a case of ‘that’s now happening, so let’s do it.’ The window for decision-making is tiny, and the longer you take, the more costly the decision can become.”
A key addition to Cork’s squad won’t kick any score this season, but Pat Flanagan, the fitness coach, has worn the September tee-shirt and gets results.
“The players took to him after one night,” Cuthbert says. “Players are smart, they’d see through someone very quickly. He’s a genuine man who’s work is excellent. He is easy-going and doesn’t portray that he has science behind what he’s doing, but it is very scientific, in fact. For me, it’s a good feeling having him there, I know he’ll have the team right. That’s one bit boxed off.
“There’s a huge amount of administration in this position, but we have a full backroom team and I delegate. I’d have to be more on the field. You could consume yourself with all the other stuff, but that can be done by somebody else.”
Year Two is moving season for Cork and their manager. From the All-Ireland winning team of 2010, only Michael Shields and Eoin Cadogan remain in terms of starters for tomorrow’s League final.
“That brings a sense of reality to what we’re trying to do, doesn’t it?”, the manager says. “Where we are in terms of where we want to be, I can’t answer but we had four tough away games in the league and three very good teams at home.
"The Cork team over the last five or six years have been a super team, an absolutely brilliant team, one of the most successful in the history of Cork football and this team is following on from that team with some left over. There’s a huge job to live up to.”
What has impressed most is the side’s flexibility and their staying power. Not just physically, but mentally. They should have lost to Dublin, Mayo and Tyrone, and could have lost to Monaghan, but won all four games with late scores.
“I think there’s a real belief in the squad that we can go to the very end,” Cuthbert nods. “It’s a good trait of the team, that they will go to the very, very end. If the opposition knows that they’re against a team like that, they’ll have to stay on their toes until the end of the game. With us, we’re at the stage where there’s nothing lost until the whistle blows.
“All the [League] games have shown us different things about the group. Travelling to Ulster for four matches, being together for 48 hours at a time and coming away from two with tight wins — they showed we can compete, and I use that word in a narrow sense rather than a broad one.
"A long way from home, conditions poor, opposition with the bit between their teeth, and you come away and still win. That gave us plenty of encouragement as a group, none more so than the Tyrone game. We took a lot out of it.”
The League’s like the weather forecast. You can’t rely on it, but it’s not always wrong.