The road to Tier 1 salvation will take the Cork footballers to the heart of Division 3 in Longford, by way of Tipperary and Leitrim.
En route, they’ll need to negotiate obstacles provided by tonight’s opponents Offaly, Down, Derry, and Louth.
But nothing will throw them off-track as much as the faintest whiff of what-the-hell-are-we-doing-here?
Ronan McCarthy’s squad are the marked team in the third division of football’s Allianz League, the ones with a target on their backs.The ‘scalp’, as McCarthy called it.
And while the cursory examination that most have afforded to their situation concludes Cork are sure things for promotion and a place in the Tier 1 Championship, any closer-to-the-bone scrutiny delivers a more hesitant confidence.
After they’d beaten Manchester United in the Premier League recently, the new Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta sensed his players dropped their intensity for the next game at home to Leeds United in the FA Cup.
“We aren’t good enough to relax,” he admitted.
Cork’s surprise loss in this month’s McGrath Cup final to Limerick confirmed to Ronan McCarthy that if his players aren’t ‘at it’, they remain vulnerable to the sort of underwhelming performances and surprise defeats that have landed them in this historically-low league fix.
And he has warned them as much.
“There’s this kind of expectation because of Cork and size of the county, and the fact we haven’t been here before, that we have some kind of right to come straight back up,” McCarthy said this week.
“All you’ve to do is look at Derry and Down, who didn’t come straight back up. You have to earn the wins and they’re all difficult games. The Limerick game showed if you’re not right and if you’re not performing at the highest level, you’re vulnerable and that’ll be the case. (So) we will try and make sure we’re at the top of our game.”
Coach Cian O’Neill travelled to last weekend’s O’Byrne Cup final to run the rule over Offaly in their defeat to Longford. He came away cognisant that John Maughan’s side can make tonight’s opener at Páirc Uí Chaoimh fine and tricky if Cork’s resolve is diluted.
“They’ve a big scoring threat inside,” McCarthy reported.
“I suppose we’d be viewed as a scalp. The players have to be good enough to deal with that and go out and match the intensity and commitment that (the opposition) brings — I suppose earn the right to play our football.
We’ve real quality throughout the team but that’s not enough. You’ve to go out and win the battle first.
The unexpected uppercut in the final aside, the McGrath Cup was a beneficial pre-cursor to the real business of 2020, which assumes earlier and greater importance for Division 2 and 3 counties than heretofore. McCarthy and his selectors are without standouts like Kevin Flahive, Nathan Walsh, Mark Collins and Brian Hurley, but the U20 talents have shown in recent weeks that they are worthy of starts tonight — namely defender Paul Ring, midfielder Brian Hartnett and inside forwards Damien Gore and Cathail O’Mahony.
There are good hopes for Aghabullogue’s Ring.
The balance between injecting a surge of fresh talent and achieving early consistency is one that Cork management hopes it has got right.
“Since we lost to Meath (last spring, in Division 2), we’ve played about 20 games all told. To be fair to the players, we’ve been highly consistent in all of them whereas early on in my stint in charge, you didn’t know what you were going to get on any given day.
“An example? We played Cavan here in Cork in my first year, and we were really poor, very passive, lacked energy. Then we went up to Meath seven days later and it’s like a different side.
“We were inconsistent but I do think it’s something we’ve grown out of. There’s also more stability in the set-up.
I’m in year three and we’ve had no turnover of players this year. All our senior citizens have stayed on and we’re delighted to have them.
“We’ve obviously had an injection of players from the U20s and we’ve two or three key players back like Ciaran Sheehan, Sean Powter and Kevin Crowley. So my sense of the team is that they’re stable, they’re consistent, and it’s just about getting the message to them.”
Which is? “That it doesn’t matter if it’s Division 3 or Division 1, we must go out and perform every time. You can look at an experienced side, say Mayo, that’s been on the road a long time. Maybe they can graft out a victory in a game where they’re not playing to 100%, but they’re experienced enough to get out of it.
“With us, we have to be on the money every time we go out. And that begins this Saturday.”
It’s not that the Cork manager is oblivious to the debate around the new rules, especially the advance mark, but consistency of performance and attitude from his own players is pre-eminent at the moment.
If they get out of the blocks quickly in their opening run of three games, he may lift his head and re-engage with the outside world.
“You saw Corofin (last Sunday) against Kilcoo, in a game that on paper they should have won comfortably. But you saw a great side who just weren’t quite at it on the day and (then) you’re vulnerable. That’s the reality.”