O’Neill’s former team-mate andcolumnist Derek Kavanagh expressed the concern earlier this month. “One senior All-Ireland across both codes in the last 11 years. Two U21 football titles in the same period. No minor titles. The statistics match our infrastructure. The Cork brand is broken.”
The senior hurlers’ defeat to Tipperary last Sunday, along with their failure to win a round game in Division 1A this spring as well as the relegation of the senior footballers from Division 1 would seem to strengthen Kavanagh’s assertion.
O’Neill, though, said now is not the time to be drawing conclusions as the footballers await the winners of this weekend’s Munster quarter-final clash between Waterford and Tipperary.
“I wouldn’t be worried about the brand as such. We can only look after what we can look after and that’s our own set-up. In fairness, since Peadar (Healy) and the lads came in this year everything so far has been 100%. Fellas are training hard, preparations have been excellent. The time to look at the brand is in the latter stages or when the season is finished. Obviously, the hurlers had a disappointing loss last week but, as regards the brand, I wouldn’t be sure (it’s broken).”
O’Neill, though, accepted Cork can’t afford any luxuries following a spring where they were demoted to Division 2 on the basis of scoring difference worsened by their humiliating 18-point home defeat to Roscommon at the end of February.
If there was a time when Cork expected their class would win them games, it’s gone. Players, O’Neill attests, have “to look in the mirror” and “drive it”.
“It’s probably easier said than done. I think maybe a lot has got to do with each individual’s attitude. If you’re not 100% focused at that level, and maybe for some reason we took Roscommon for granted and similarly you could say something similar happened against Kildare (in the fourth round qualifier) last year.
“Ultimately, that’s up to each individual. We know if we’re not fully focused or going 100% you’re going to be caught. Any team can be beaten on any given day and we just have to remind ourselves of that especially with our first round in the Munster championship playing the winners of Waterford and Tipperary. Against Tipperary two years ago, we probably weren’t at our pace and realistically they should have beaten us that day. If we’re not at championship pace, we will be caught again. I suppose that’s the focus – just getting the heads right for the game.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed by O’Neill that Cork are no longer be referred to as a top-four team. “You’d often hear that talk but I think if you judge it on last year’s performances you wouldn’t say we’d have been in the top three or four. Our performance in the Munster championship was positive enough but once we got out of Munster and into the All-Ireland series, obviously we got comprehensively beaten by Kildare and so took a bit of a dint from lads.”
Cork were buoyed by how well their use of a sweeper worked against Dublin in March before the All-Ireland champions overtook them in the last 10 minutes. Even as a forward, O’Neill appreciates the merits of the tactic.
“I suppose every team really has two or three different game plans. Obviously, one of them will definitely be the use of a sweeper. I think it was probably used in some games in the league.
“We used it to a certain degree against Dublin and I think it worked probably for 50/60 minutes but eventually teams get to grips with the sweeper.
“I don’t think it’s such a new phenomenon now, having a team playing with a sweeper. A lot of teams are rehearsed in terms of how to counteract a sweeper. We’ll just take it game by game. It’ll be up to Peadar and the management team to see what game plan they’ll implement but I think it’s something we’ll have in our locker and we tried it in the league and it worked to a degree.”