Mark Collins knows better than most how wide the gap between Cork’s potential as a team and actual performances has been this last few years.
The Castlehaven man was an integral part of the county U21 team that clinched a fourth Munster title in six years at the grade in 2011, scoring seven points as they accounted for Kerry by a record 22 in the provincial final.
How different the landscape looked back then. The seniors had finally breached the finishing line by claiming Sam Maguire a year earlier and here Cork were with a batch of promising and successful youngsters ready to pick up the torch.
Two subsequent league titles and a Munster success in 2012 made for a decent transition as the two generations traded places, but the county’s ability to challenge for the highest national honours has diluted rather than strengthened as time wore on.
Collins can’t put a finger on why.
“Probably not. A lot of the Cork players on that (U21) team have come through to the senior panel and we probably haven’t kicked on like we should have,” said the man who lined out at centre-forward that evening when 6,000 fans filed into Páirc Uí Rinn.
“We are at an age now, that U21 team now are 26, and there are a few of us still around so it is time we started performing. We have been around long enough that we can consider ourselves senior members of the team.”
That underage final five years ago was replete with star power. Cork brought talent including Ciarán Sheehan and Aidan Walsh to the table, Kerry had men like James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney, but the complete list of notables is far, far longer.
Kerry’s crew found the step up to senior grade that bit easier and have All-Ireland medals to prove it, Cork’s now find themselves serving with a team bedevilled by inconsistency, rife yet again during the league when they were eviscerated at home by Roscommon and then ultra-competitive away to Dublin.
It was perfectly in keeping with a side that should have beaten Kerry in the provincial final last summer but then imploded against Kildare in Thurles weeks later. Collins admits that such significant mood swings are perplexing.
“They are unexplainable, really. They are massive disappointments and it is how our team has been perceived, that we have these defeats in us, but we have put a lot of good performances together as a panel over the last few years as well. We know there is a bit of potential in us.”
There can be no talk of any turning points with this Cork team, not with form so fluid, but their response to that Roscommon embarrassment, when they went toe-to-toe with Dublin for so long in Croke Park, was suggestive of a team that does have something within it
That only makes their current travails all the more aggravating though there is hope the latest batch of U21s to emerge onto the senior scene via a long campaign at the underage grade, can spur on a side that begins its summer against Tipperary this weekend.
“Exactly,” said Collins, “and we’ve blooded a lot of the younger fellas in the league again this year. It is exciting that these U21s are coming into our panel now and we are looking to see if they can improve us. Hopefully, they will make a big impact this summer.”
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