The Cork footballers find themselves in unfamiliar territory this weekend.
No, it is not the fact that they are bound for Carrick-on-Shannon for a rare joust with Leitrim, the last such meeting between the counties being all of 19 years ago, but rather that Cork head into the second round of the league with a win under their belts.
Last weekend’s victory over Offaly was the first time during Ronan McCarthy’s tenure and, indeed, the first time since 2016, that Cork took full points from the opening round of league action.
Following the seven-point win over Offaly, McCarthy noted — and he was very much speaking from experience when doing so — that failure to win your league opener means “you are immediately under pressure” and how “a tenseness then comes about the next match”, which, if not won, leaves you in “deep trouble”.
Having avoided such a scenario developing, Cork are on the front foot heading up west this weekend. The Rebels would typically be expected to have enough in their locker to deal with Leitrim, but the latter’s 2-11 to 1-14 draw away to Derry last weekend, a game they were most unlucky not to win, suggests the visitors to Carrick-on-Shannon won’t have it all their own way as they chase a second league win in their push for promotion. Accumulating 10 points is the target McCarthy has set his players for the campaign at hand.
When asked if Leitrim’s result against Derry had Cork forewarned ahead of their journey to Carrick-on-Shannon, the manager replied: “It seems to be me forewarning everybody about [the strength of opposition in Division 3] and nobody seems to believe me. They will some day.
“I’m sure people think I’m saying it just to say it, but when I was playing and Cork were a Division 1 team and we were winning Munster Championships and playing in All-Ireland semi-finals regularly, we were beaten above in Wicklow and beaten above in Westmeath. This notion that you can just show up and it’ll be yours… I think the Offaly game is a good example that there’s quality throughout the divisions.
“Maybe we had a bit more than Offaly but we had to make it count. Leitrim drawing with Derry is another example of that. There are no gimmies. You have to go out and earn your wins.”
He displays much the same attitude when discussing the cohort of All-Ireland U20 winners who figured last weekend. Transitioning from underage to senior level, the same as promotion from the third tier, will be anything but a walk in the park.
“Some of our newer players, it was a baptism of fire, straight into senior inter-county football. It was good for them to see it. It was a hard night for some, but that’s why we put them in. They’ll learn and come back stronger from it.”
Cork’s second half against John Maughan’s Offaly was most impressive, a 35-minute period they won by 0-12 to 0-4, but it is the creases from the opening half which Cork will look to further iron out on Sunday.
“We carried the ball into contact, we turned over the ball, and were hit on the counter-attack a lot of the time. If you give the ball away high up the pitch, between the 45- and 65-metre lines, you are wide open at the other end no matter how many players you have back.”
Leitrim boss Terry Hyland envisages a busy Sunday afternoon for his defence.
“Cork will pose a totally different challenge from Derry. They are an open running team, big units running at you at pace. They also would be less defensive-minded so that could create opportunities for our forwards, but our defence will probably have to step up another bit.
“We have the toughest opening two rounds in the league. People will say that you meet the strong teams at some stage, you just have to be prepared for them,” Hyland told the Leitrim Observer this week.
Reflecting on last weekend’s stalemate with Derry, he added: “I felt we were the better team. We gave away the ball sometimes when we didn’t need to. In Division 4, you probably get away with that. In these divisions, you won’t. It’s a learning curve.”