The Athletic Grounds has been a happy hunting ground for Cork football in the past but it’s a daunting place Sunday. A win there combined with a Tipperary victory or draw against Clare in Thurles can save Cork from Division 3. And yet that sense of foreboding is difficult to shift.
So how did Cork get here?
Four defeats and just one win from six games, dummy. No, we know what you mean. It’s not a malaise that began during Ronan McCarthy’s reign — there had been more than enough tell-tale signs under his predecessors. Peadar Healy (11-point loss to Kerry in 2017) and Brian Cuthbert (12-point defeat to Kerry in 2014) also had their gloomy episodes and Healy suffered relegation in his first season, even if was a dreadfully unlucky one on score difference. Then again, Cork just about stayed in Division 2 last year, their win over Down in Newry ultimately saving them on the head-to-head rule. Also, who will forget McCarthy making five half-time substitutions against Cavan in Páirc Uí Chaoimh so bad was their first-half performance? But this recent spell of poor form stems back to last summer and those scarring back-to-back defeats to Kerry and Tyrone where their deficits were 17 and 16 points respectively.
Just how damaging were those defeats?
They appear to have knocked the proverbial stuffing out of the group. The loss to Tyrone was a symptom of what transpired in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Consider this was the first Munster final in the newly-developed stadium and how eager the Cork players would have been to mark it in style only to be schooled by Kerry. “We have a choice here: we can lie down and die now or we can turn around and get ready for two weeks’ time,” said McCarthy afterwards. As it turned out, Cork died and there have been no signs of a resurrection yet.
So how has McCarthy tried to change things?
Speaking after losing to Tyrone in Portlaoise, McCarthy said he had a clear picture of what Cork had to do. “Being more defensively sound,” is how Paul Kerrigan described the aim of Cork’s pre-Christmas training. Cork have toggled between one and two sweepers as a means of making themselves more difficult to beat. Forwards are lying deeper too but the team are conceding an average of 15.8 points per game this year compared to 15.4 points in last year’s Division 2. What’s more stark is their average return of scores, 12.16 per game compared to 15.85 last year. The balance between defence and attack is clearly not right.
What will be bugging McCarthy the most?
Cork mightn’t be where they are now but for their inability to hold onto leads and indiscipline. Both have gone hand-in-hand in the results against Fermanagh and Donegal. Had a ball not been slapped out of Conal Jones’ hands in Round 1 in Enniskillen after he claimed a mark and it was brought in for the Fermanagh man to score the equaliser, Cork would have toppled a team who now have designs on promotion. Granted, they were facing a wind-assisted Donegal in last Saturday’s second-half in Páirc Uí Rinn and their five-point lead was going to be challenged but Mark Collins’ second yellow card was the last thing they needed. Their finishes in those two games as well against Kildare, Clare and Meath have been less than satisfactory. But with all their substitutes on the field, it suggests the depth simply isn’t there.
And Clare are a real thorn in the side, aren’t they?
They surely are and Cork can consider themselves fortunate not to be on their side of the Munster SFC draw. Three league defeats and the McGrath Cup final loss to the Banner County would suggest Cork are no longer the second best team in Munster. Whichever of the three from the province who remains in Division 2 after Sunday might claim that title.
But haven’t other traditional football counties fallen to Division 3 in recent times?
Of course. Down, Cork’s 2010 All-Ireland final opponents, were relegated from Division 2 last year but are set to make a quick return. There’s also Armagh (2014 and ‘16), Meath (‘12) and Kildare (‘15) and no stone has dropped quicker than Derry. However, the demise of Cork is that much steeper considering they were top of the heap at the start of the decade.
Is McCarthy’s position safe should Cork go down?
As Colin Corkery pointed out last month, you have to consider what McCarthy is working with but then Cork have featured in two of the last six All-Ireland U21/U20 finals. At last month’s county board meeting, chairperson Tracey Kennedy said in the face of disgruntlement about how the team was being managed: “We have put a manager in place and we have to back him at this point. We’ll have that discussion at another date, but not right now. I do understand people’s frustration, I share it. We have a plan for Cork football. That plan is being put in place. So it is not like we are doing nothing.”
The reality is there is no Ole Gunnar Solskjaer figure that is suddenly going to redeem Cork’s season. McCarthy has invested too much to be jettisoned now.