delivers his mid-term report card on the wellbeing of Cork football.
Paul Ring, Brian Hartnett, Cathail O’Mahony, Colm O’Callaghan, Tadhg Corkery, and Ryan Harkin all made their league debuts in recent weeks. All bar O’Callaghan and Harkin started at least one of Cork's opening three league games. Corkery, who’s a year older than those making the step up from the All-Ireland winning U20 class, has presented himself, even at this early stage in the season, as a viable option in the half-back line. So too has corner-forward Cathail O’Mahony, even if he may drop slightly down the pecking order when the sickbay empties out. O’Mahony’s booming second-half point against Down was suggestive of a player at ease with the transition from U20 to senior inter-county level. We haven’t included Damien Gore in this category as he featured in four league games last spring.
A welcome strength - the bench supplied 0-9 against Offaly and 0-6 against Leitrim. What has been overlooked during the county’s three from three start and the blooding of so much U20 talent is that Cork are without a number of first-team regulars. 2019 first-choice goalkeeper Mark White is no longer part of the set-up; corner-back Kevin Flahive will miss most of the league after undergoing shoulder surgery; James Loughrey (returning Saturday evening), Mark Collins, and Brian Hurley have yet to kick a ball in earnest. That’s a third of last year’s team. Moreover, injury has meant Eoghan McSweeney has yet to see game-time while Killian O’Hanlon has played just 11 minutes this spring. The depth of Ronan McCarthy’s panel will be further tested in Thurles as knocks and bumps have robbed him of defenders Kevin Crowley, Liam O’Donovan, and Corkery.
Cork spurned four goal chances on their travels to Carrick-on-Shannon this month while Ian Maguire and Ciarán Sheehan failed convert great opportunities against Offaly and Down. The end result is that Cork have managed just one goal from their three outings. A poor return. Ronan McCarthy hit the nail on the head following the succession of missed opportunities against Leitrim: “We want to be classed as a top eight or top four team, and if you are in that bracket, you must be clinical and ruthless when you have the opportunity." Must do better.
Twenty-six players, in total, have seen action in the League. Most encouraging of all is that Sean Powter, for the first time since the summer of 2017, has had a run of inter-county games under his belt. It is clear that management want to utilise him as a free-licensed defender, with permission to drive forward at every opportunity. But whether he fulfils that role from corner or half-back has not yet been determined. Liam O’Donovan, a regular at number five last year, is being tried at centre-back, a switch partly motivated, perhaps, by the desire to accommodate Powter on the wing. Ciarán Sheehan has owned the number 14 shirt since his return, but what does that mean for Brian Hurley when he's fit? Would stationing the Castlehaven man at corner-forward, rather than full, lessen his goal threat
Case for the defence.
We reckon management know at least four, if not five, of their starting back six, but, aside from Tom Clancy at full-back and Mattie Taylor at left wing-back, are not entirely sure which the other pieces of the jigsaw fit. The defence was unconvincing in the first-half against Offaly but were much more assured in their second outing at Páirc Uí Chaoimh against Down. The chief concern is the jump in class from Division Three action to Championship grade.
Impossible not to mine improvement here given the low base from which they were starting from - Cork won only two of 11 home games during McCarthy’s first two years in charge. His side now boast a 100% league record in 2020, but there is still a long road to be travelled to make Páirc Uí Chaoimh the fortress McCarthy wants it to be.
Escaping Tier 2.
Top of the class, as well as the Division 3 table. Cork are one of two counties, along with Limerick in Division 4, to take maximum points from their opening three games. At half-time against both Offaly and Down, Cork did appear in a spot of bother. But within 10 minutes of the restart in either game, the Rebels had made the decisive break to all but settle the outcome. Their unbeaten start means that even if Cork come away empty-handed from Thurles, they will continue to occupy one of the promotion places heading into round five.