When Cork football rolled out its 2024 vision document last month, it was generally applauded how pragmatic its proponents like Graham Canty were by acknowledging that Cork were now outside the top 10 teams in the country, in truth, a mid-table Division Two side, and a distant second in Munster.
Looking at it now, was even that assessment too kind? Not only are Cork light leagues behind a Kerry side with grander designs beyond winning a seventh consecutive Munster title, but are Ronan McCarthy’s team even leading the chasing pack in the province?
This is no hot take or rhetoric from the last Cork footballing atrocity. Instead it is now the third year straight Cork have lost to Clare in Division 2, by a combined 19 points, not to mention last month’s defeat in the McGrath Cup final out in Milltown Malbay. Although in recent years Cork usually tend to beat Tipp — though they infamously didn’t in Thurles in 2016 — and Tipp have tended to prevail in their league jousts with Clare during Colm Collins’ tenure, throw everything into the mix, such as last year’s Division 2 standings, and Clare probably edge it as the second-best team in the south. Even as bad as things were at times in the pre-Morgan era, Cork football at least always had that consolation.
Yesterday perfectly illustrated how Clare have pushed on since reaching the 2016 All-Ireland quarter-finals and Cork have regressed even further.
Two years ago in Ennis, when Clare registered their first win over their traditional oppressors from Leeside in 20 years, Colm Collins spoke afterwards about how Clare had stood off and shown Cork too much respect in the opening half.
Yesterday, with the sight of a red jersey triggering no hint of apprehension, they went for the jugular from the get-go. “We asked the lads to bring energy to the game at the start,” the Clare manager would tell reporters afterwards. And that they did — ransacking Cork for two goals in the opening five minutes.
What was particularly pleasing for Collins and the home crowd of 1,182 was how prominent so many new, young players were involved in the creation of those two early strikes, even if the first was finished by David Tubridy and the second assisted by fellow veteran Gary Brennan. The first began with Cian O’Dea picking out Conor Finnucane with a diagonal footpass and Finnucane then feeding Jamie Malone, whose ground shot was parried to the net by Tubridy. Four minutes later then wing back Conall Ó hAinféin burst upfield to take Brennan’s pass off the shoulder and blast past Mark White.
As Ronan McCarthy would point out though, Cork still had plenty of time to turn this around. On 20 minutes the score read like an U12 game, 2-0 to 0-3.
But then Clare reeled off six fine scores before the break, with Dean Ryan joining fellow wing back Ó hAinféin on the scoreboard, with newcomers Finnucane and Dale Masterson popping up too.
And central to all things Clare, as usual, was the tandem of Brennan and Tubridy. While Brennan didn’t attempt any trademark point on the run, he was quietly imperious, constantly showing for and winning kickouts — feeding Tubridy who’d score 1-7 from all angles.
Cork, in contrast, were blunt in attack, with Luke Connolly and half-back Stephen Cronin their only scorers from play in a first half which ended with them trailing 2-6 to 0-6. They were even more tepid upon the resumption, summarised by Connolly declining to go for the posts five metres inside the 45 and instead kicking backwards to Conor Flahive’s toes 10 yards behind it, causing the St Finbarr’s man to initially fumble the ball.
That passage of play was a perfect snapshot of this Cork team: tentative, going backwards. Even when Ian Maguire would move to the edge of the square and palm home a beautifully-flighted ball from Connolly with 12 minutes of playing time left to whittle Clare’s lead down to five points, the home side responded instantly, perfectly. Again, Brennan showed for and won Pierce DeLoughrey’s kickout, O’Dea won a free, and then Tubridy nailed it off the ground from 40 yards out.
The same trend would repeat itself twice more before the end, a Cork score at one end immediately made redundant by Clare going downfield and scoring themselves, with substitutes Cormac Murray and Kieran Malone combining for a goal in the dying seconds.
Clare’s individual and collective tackling and defending was excellent, something Collins would later attribute to his newest coach, Brian Carson. “There was good contact. One of the things last year we would not have been too happy with was we felt we were a bit porous. Brian has done a lot of work on that and it’s showing.”
And so the Clare manager is buzzing, yet grounded. “This division is absolutely unreal. There’s very little between all the teams in it. There’s only one game [we’re interested in] now and that’s the next game, against Kildare. It would be insane to look at it any other way. You can’t look any further than your next game and you can’t get ahead of yourself because the moment that you do, you’ll be in for a kick up the behind. It’s cup final after cup final after cup final. And sure, bring it on. It’s great.”
As for McCarthy, he bounded out of the dressing room yesterday to face the media, but he’s hardly buzzing. All he can have in common with Collins is the view that his team’s next game — home against Meath — is a cup final. Because lose that too, and Cork mightn’t even be a Division 2 team for much longer.
Scorers for Clare: D Tubridy (1-7, 3 frees, 1 ’45); C Ó hAinféin and K Malone (1-0 each); C Finnucane (0-2); D Ryan, D Masterson, J Malone and S Collins (0-1 each).
Cork: L Connolly (0-3, 2 frees); I Maguire (1-0); M Taylor (1 free) and S Sherlock (2 frees) (0-2 each); S Cronin, L O’Donovan and M Hurley (0-1 each).
CLARE: P De Loughery, K Harnett, C Brennan, G Kelly, D Ryan, A Fitzgerald, C Ó hAinifein, G Brennan, D Bohannon, C O’Dea, K Sexton, J Malone, D Tubridy, D Masterson, C Finucane
Subs: P Lillis for Bohannon (half-time), S Collins for Sexton (half-time); C Malone for Lillis (53, inj), A Sweeney for Masterson (63), C Murray for Finnucane (76) (Roscommon)
CORK: M White, K O’Donovan, K Flahive, C Dennehy, J Loughrey, S Cronin, M Taylor, I Maguire, R O’Toole, R Deane, L Connolly, M Collins, M Hurley, T Clancy, S Sherlock.
Subs: L O’Donovan for Loughrey (10 mins), A Browne for Cronin (47), P Walsh for O’Donovan (47, inj), P Kelleher for Clancy (60), D Gore for Sherlock (60)
Referee: P Neilan