James Loughrey pondered whether it was worth continuing to play football for Cork. In the days and weeks following their tame championship exit at the hands of Tyrone, last July, retirement heavily weighed on the full-back’s mind.
Between Antrim and Cork, he’d had well over a decade of inter-county service given and, understandably, the appetite to go on for another season wasn’t exactly ravenous, not in the wake of 17- and 16-point thumpings by Kerry and Tyrone, respectively.
He describes as “embarrassing” the 3-20 to 0-13 hammering by the northerners, his assessment, mind you, not half as blunt as that of his wife, who told Loughrey that, “basically, I was a disgrace in the game”.
She also reckoned her husband would regret stepping away from the inter-county scene.
And whatever about her appraisal of Loughrey’s display against Tyrone, she was bang on the money with the latter viewpoint.
There was also a conversation with Brian Hurley, at Colm O’Neill’s wedding, in Spain, last September.
“Brian cornered me at the wedding and he can be quite aggressive,” quipped 32-year-old Loughrey.
“Hurley’s a great guy for speaking honestly and bluntly to you, but it was nice that he did.
“I would have regretted [leaving], because you are a long-time retired.”
Jamie O’Sullivan, who was beside him in the full-back line that difficult day in Portlaoise, last July, pulled the plug on his inter-county involvement during the off-season and, coupled with Kevin Crowley’s injury woes, the faces around Loughrey in the Cork defence this summer are considerably different, and younger. Liam O’Donovan is in his first year out of U20, while Kevin Flahive is almost 10 years Loughrey’s junior.
No question, though, those new kids on the block have given him a new lease of life.
“We did this fitness test a couple of months ago and I was treating it like a bloody All-Ireland final. There was food prep for three or four days before and I was [sleeping] in the other room, because I wanted to get nine or 10 hours of sleep. But that’s what they do to you. I’d be like, ‘is he challenging me? He probably thinks I’m fat’. These things go on in my head, but it’s just what the young lads bring. They’re mad for road.
“I like watching Liam [O’Donovan], because he’s just so bloody aggressive. And he actually hasn’t had the opportunity to show how fast he is. He is lightning quick. But all of them are great. It’s new energy, it’s mixing it, it’s challenging, it’s great competition for places, and no-one really knows where they are, which is what you want.”
From the starting team to face the Dubs this evening, the Belfast-born accountant, who made his Cork debut in 2013, is the only player north of 30, and the only married man in the squad. At times, yes, he can feel his age, when in and around the Cork camp.
“Aye, well, I’m still watching Love Island at home, so I have something to talk about [at training]. I say, ‘Love, I have to stick this on here’.
We were doing things about player profiles and I got told I couldn’t send through a page of stuff, because people won’t read it. They’re all smart lads, went to college, but I was told, no, it had to be a snapshot, because their attention span is two or three seconds.
He added: “When you look at it now, compared to how last year ended, and we’re playing three top teams in the next month, training in the sun, you don’t realise how lucky you are.”
The wheel took its time in turning for them. Loughrey has always believed that a defensive approach does not suit Cork football, irrespective of who is trying to implement it. Their play, during the early rounds of the league, he added, was nothing short of brutal.
“There was a lot of frustration, obviously, over how last year ended. Our tactics were very defensive during the first couple of league games this year, and I felt, no matter how hard we tried, your structure has to be suited to what you are doing.
“In one of the games, we had a great turnover, high up the pitch, and we didn’t even get into our positions.
"It didn’t even cross our mind. I’ve always said it, when someone ever brought up the blanket defence with Cork, I don’t think it’s in our psyche to do it, which is great for a full-forward; maybe not great for a lonely corner-back.”
And as Seán White explained, following the opening four rounds, which threw up three defeats and a draw, there was a collective pronouncement from the players that enough was enough.
“Yeah, we did come together. It wasn’t a case of screw whoever was saying what in the papers, because they were 100% right. We were playing brutal. We didn’t have anyone to blame but ourselves. But we had to change it or else we would just be doing the same thing again and again.
"There’s a great group here. We know very quickly how bad we can be, which is quite a useful skill to have. We know what makes us bad: giving the ball away, not working hard enough. It’s basic stuff. You go to an U10s match and that’s what you’d be telling them not to do.
“It was probably player-led that they were identified, and then management has taken them on. The only way we can play well is to play on the front foot and with aggressive, attacking football. I can’t see us going with 12 or 13 men (in defence), just because it’s Dublin. It is an unbelievable opportunity for us to have a cut off three top teams over the next month.”