Life off-Broadway begins this afternoon for the Cork footballers.
There are many who would argue that Cork drifted off the main stage sometime in 2013, but whatever about their failings on Munster final afternoon or the August Bank Holiday weekend at Croke Park, their performances in the league’s top tier saw them going toe to toe with Kerry, Dublin and Mayo… during the spring at least.
But three defeats on the road, coupled with an 18-point hammering at home to Roscommon, saw Peadar Healy’s men plummet through the trap-door and into Division Two of the Allianz League
During the previous six seasons in Division 1, Cork had never failed to pick up at least one win on their travels. Failure to do so in 2016 means this spring will see Cork on the road to Salthill, Newbridge, Ennis and Derry.
Kerry and Dublin are no longer on the guest list at Páirc Uí Rinn, rather Fermanagh, Down and Meath. The crowds will be noticeably smaller, the cameras less and the expectation less again.
Perhaps, this is exactly what Cork football requires. Life off-Broadway gives them the breathing space to rebuild, reboot and relaunch.
That there’s as much interest as to what’s happening inside in that gym in Fermoy as their results on the field tells a tale or two. They’ve been written off in several quarters and despite their strong league showings in recent years, Meath and Galway are expected to keep them out of the two promotion places. And there’s certainly no one suggesting they’re a sure bet to exact revenge on Tipperary when the Munster championship swings into action.
Again, this could work in their favour.
The absence of Eoin Cadogan, Alan O’Connor and Brian Hurley will be felt in the early rounds, but the door opens for John Mullins to be given his chance in the full-back line, Aidan Walsh in the middle of the park and Niall Coakley in the corner.
Management, though, are not keen to experiment. Their target has to be promotion back to the top rung. But if you’re not willing to cast the net, you’re effectively saying that Cork’s strongest team is the group of players who were responsible for their relegation.
“We are certainly not thinking about experimenting. We want to go out there and get the team as settled as we can as early as we can with the players that are available to us,” said selector Eoin O’Neill of Cork’s priorities this spring. “It would be a setback if we didn’t achieve that.
“We had a lot of injuries last year. Trying to get fellas fitter was our focus at the start of this year and keep them fit. We are trying to get our best team on the field as much as we can. That has got to be our aim.”
These comments are linked to management’s belief that you cannot underestimate the challenge Division 2 brings.
They have a point. 2017 represents Galway’s sixth successive year in the second tier, fourth for Meath.
Armagh got promoted from Division 3 in 2015, only to go straight back down a year later. Fermanagh, meanwhile, have lost only two matches at Enniskillen in the past three years.
“I do think people underestimate Division 2,” continues O’Neill.
“It is a tough Division and tough to come out of. Cavan beat Fermanagh in Enniskillen last year and that was the first time Fermanagh were beaten at home in three years. I know we have them at home, but there are good teams in this division and a lot of teams who are on the rise. People shouldn’t underestimate Division 2. Two of the provincial champions from last year were in Division 2. Tyrone are obviously gone up but they were considered one of the favourites for the All-Ireland after the league. I expect teams to take points off each other. No team will go through this league unbeaten. I would be surprised if a team goes through the league with a 100% record because of the toughness of games.”
Life off-Broadway first takes Cork to Salthill. And with the second act in Newbridge, the script to act one would want to finish with lines such as “it’s good to get off to a positive start”, and not the old chestnut, “we can do better, we need to be more consistent”.
Galway v Cork
Today: Pearse Stadium, 2pm
Referee: S. Hurson, Tyrone
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