We probably didn’t think it could come to this.
Just over two years ago we visited the topic of Cork and Down meeting in the more humbling platform of a Division Two game — eight years after their 2010 All-Ireland final.
That weekend, Cork came up to Newry and beat the hosts by six points. By the time that league was complete, both teams finished on six points, Cork’s win on the head-to-head saving their skin.
That stay of execution was only temporary, however. In 2019, Cork fell on the other side of that equation, a humiliating thumping from Clare enough to keep their Munster rivals up when both ended with five points.
As for Down, they started the last day of the 2019 league on top of Division Three. A one-point defeat to Louth later and they were still joint top on points, but their score difference (+13) was behind Laois (+14) and Westmeath (+15).
“It’s gutting”, said their manager Paddy Tally afterwards.
And so it’s come to this. A full decade after contesting the greatest day of all, they meet in Division Three. If either team cannot get up or make their provincial final, then the Tier Two Championship is their punishment/fate.
There is a certain breed of Down fan, all swashbuckle and swagger, who regards that prospect to be akin to leaving the house in the morning only to trip up on a bucket of vomit left on the doorstep.
“It goes back to tradition and history,” Tally acknowledges.
“People growing up and watching their football in the ’80s and ’90s when the Down team were winning All-Ireland titles, competing regularly in Ulster finals.
“Even with 2010, it was 10 years ago, that was Down back in Division One, playing football at the top level and for a number of years stayed there. So there’s only a natural thing among Down people that feels they should be at the top, that Down should be competing against the best teams, based on their history and tradition.”
Cork are the only side in the top three divisions to have won their opening two fixtures, but must-do is a good master. There has never been more skin in the Division Three game than now.
It’s curious, and yet another example of how small the world of Ulster football is, that it’s the slim, baseball-capped figure of Tally who is now Down manager.
A squad player with the Tyrone team that reached the All-Ireland final in 1995, he was still in his late 20s when he trained Tyrone to their first All-Ireland in 2003.
After a parting of ways, he was always in demand and the Down management of Ross Carr and DJ Kane brought him in for the 2009 season.
While there, he could see there was talent. He was also privy to the ongoing cross-hemisphere charm offensive Carr was conducting to woo Marty Clarke home from his life playing Aussie Rules with Collingwood.
But then Carr and Kane were removed from their post. ‘Wee’ James McCartan got the gig for 2010, asked Tally to stay on, benefitted from Clarke returning, and they fetched up through the backdoor in an All-Ireland final like it was the most natural thing in the world.
McCartan kept Down at a serious level. They reached an Ulster final in 2012 and the year after, solved the Donegal puzzle in an Ulster semi-final, but didn’t have the finishing power to take them out.
Thereafter the county board lurched into tragicomedy.
Jim McCorry came in and lasted a year. The late Eamonn Burns took over and they dropped two divisions in three seasons.
There was still considerable goodwill towards Tally in Down. He had performed a footballing miracle of guiding the relatively minuscule St Mary’s teacher training college to the Sigerson Cup in 2017 and had coached with Derry and Galway to a high level.
This would be the first time where he was front-of-house, though.
It wasn’t straightforward. During his first year, he had to hand debuts to 19 players in the league and 13 in the championship, and fell just the wrong side of the fine margins in both competitions.
“I think people realise that there is a job of work to do here… We are trying to manage expectations as best we can, out there with the people,” he says.
“That it is a bit of a process and it does take time to develop young players that they will be able to do that in time.
“But certainly, I think Down wouldn’t fear anybody in terms of their record and traditions and we have to harness that. In how we carry ourselves, how we play the game.”
He’s not naturally given to ‘gee-whizz’ notions, but the fact that it’s Cork, 10 years on, well, it does prompt a certain wistfulness.
“When you see Cork over the last few years you know there are some really good players with the minors and the U20s coming through …
“Sometimes you just can take the eye off the ball for a year or two and can be relegated from the league.
“Certainly Cork would not be satisfied to be there, but you can see the way they are approaching things at the moment, they are focussed on getting back up into the higher leagues.
“I’m sure, in their minds, it is a temporary fix.”
It’s only when you are down among the have-nots for a sustained spell that you begin to realise that your season will actually be judged on what you do in February, rather than the height of summer.
“And it’s so early in the year (for this pressure) too,” exclaims Tally.
“It is really important that you do have a good league, because it is a completely different situation this year for anyone in those two divisions.
“This is going to go right down to the wire in, with score difference and head-to-heads coming into play.
“I really cannot look further past this game at the weekend, and all we can do is prepare as best we can for a monster challenge in Cork.”