Once they were September kings: We put Division 2 rivals Cork and Meath under the microscope

Sleeping giants or fallen ones? Where once Meath and Cork were perennial All-Ireland challengers, now both are in the also-rans category. Is the descent into mediocrity continuing apace? Or are there signs in either county that the foundations are in place for a long overdue footballing revival? We put Division 2 rivals Cork and Meath under the microscope.


Ξ Infrastructure

Páirc Uí Chaoimh reopening its doors has been a significant help, even if they’ve yet to win there. While the stadium was undergoing redevelopment, there was a reluctance to allow Cork teams train at Páirc Uí Rinn during the earlier part of the year given the Boreenmanna Road venue played host to the county’s hurling and football league fixtures. This is no longer an issue. Consequently, the early season scramble for training venues no longer persists. The West Cork contingent of the squad no longer have to trek to Fermoy for group gym sessions. Nor, indeed, does anyone else.

Ξ Underage signs of recovery?

If we take 2017 in isolation, the picture is grim; 10 points shy of Kerry in the Munster minor semi-final and 16 points adrift of the Kingdom in the Munster U21 decider. At U17 level, it was much the same story.

It is 2013 since Cork last beat Kerry in a minor championship fixture. It is 2011 since a Cork school last took ownership of the Corn Uí Mhuirí, 2015 was the most recent occasion when a Cork school appeared in the Corn Uí Mhuirí decider.

Last month, the make-up of the Corn Uí Mhuirí semi-finals saw Kerry schools outnumber Cork by three to one.

Ξ Age profile of the senior squad?

Quite young. Contributing to this is the handful of retirements during the past two years - Ken O’Halloran, Michael Shields and Alan O’Connor stepped away over the winter. Ronan McCarthy has cherry-picked from the U21 panel which reached the 2016 All-Ireland final, with Anthony Casey, Micheál McSweeney, Kevin Flahive, Cian Kiely, Stephen Sherlock and Cian Dorgan afforded game-time in recent weeks. Of the 21 players who featured against Cavan last time out, Jamie O’Sullivan and Colm O’Neill, both 29, were the oldest. The 30-plus group is small; Donncha O’Connor turn 37 next month, Paul Kerrigan and James Loughrey are 31. 

Ξ Stellar talents to build revival around?

Seán Powter springs to mind here, but his league was cut short when damaging his hamstring on the opening weekend. Luke Connolly is another, but owing to club commitments he too has been unavailable this spring. Taking Mark Collins out of the half-forward line and putting him closer to goal, alongside Colm O’Neill, has given Cork greater impetus in their inside line. The Castlehaven man has kicked 1-15 in their opening four games. After showing well for club, college and county in 2017, midfielder Ian Maguire has the potential to be Cork’s most important player this year. His finishing, mind, requires work.

Ξ Counter-attractions and challenges?

Aidan Walsh’s spring-ending injury (shoulder). Seán Powter’s spring-ending injury (hamstring). Powter played 48 minutes in the league, Walsh played zero. That’s not ideal heading into summer. Neither is the strong possibility that the first time Paul Kerrigan, Luke Connolly and Barry O’Driscoll pull on a Cork shirt in 2018 will be for the county’s Munster semi-final on June 3. To avoid said scenario, Cork will need to reach the league final on April 1. There’s also a need to nail down a first-choice goalkeeper — Anthony Casey, Ryan Price and Mark White have all worn the number one shirt in 2018 — come the league’s conclusion.

Ξ Performances/results to encourage?

Not a whole pile to get excited about. Though inconsistency has become a tired expression of Cork football, it remains a problem. Their run of league results bears testament to this; loss, win, win, loss. The second-half display away to Down, during which they outscored the hosts by 1-6 to 0-4, has been the highlight of their spring. The subsequent victory over Louth was described by Ronan McCarthy as a “very poor, disjointed performance”. Still, back-to-back wins have to be acknowledged given they are a rarity where Cork football is concerned. That was just their fourth since the beginning of 2016.

Ξ Management progress?

Early doors given this is McCarthy’s first year in the hot-seat. Absence of Nemo contingent, on top of injuries to James Loughrey, Walsh and Powter, left him with no option but to cast the net wide. The team which fell to Tipperary in round one contained six debutants - Mark White, Sam Ryan, Micheál McSweeney, Kevin Flahive, Daniel O’Callaghan and Stephen Sherlock. A few more have since been given their head. Too early, perhaps, to discuss the style of play this management are advocating. Then again, up in Donegal where Declan Bonner is also in his first year as boss, their efforts to go from ultra-defensive to attack-minded have been plain for all to see.

Ξ Height of 2018 ambitions?

To be still standing when the Super 8s throws-in on the second weekend of July. Kildare, Donegal and Mayo ended Cork’s championship involvement in the fourth round of qualifiers the past three summers. 2014 is the last time the county reached an All-Ireland quarter-final. Too long.

A Munster final berth is again the baseline goal on the provincial front. This won’t be straightforward given the county’s two most recent championship performances against Tipperary (defeat in 2016, one-point win in 2017). Providing Tipp overcome Waterford, they’ll meet for a third consecutive year at the semi-final juncture. Short-term, victory this weekend is imperative if they’re to contest the Division 2 league decider.


Ξ Infrastructure

Clubs last month confirmed their support for the redevelopment of Pairc Tailteann in Navan. A new 21,000 capacity all-seater stadium will be constructed on a phased basis. A development committee will be established to raise €2m in the next two years. Clubs are already paying a levy to repay the loan on the training centre at Dunganny and, for senior clubs, that levy could increase to €2,500 per year.

Ξ Under-age signs of recovery?

It’s four years since Meath reached a Leinster U21 final and 17 since they actually won one. The minors have fared slightly better, contesting Leinster and All-Ireland finals in 2012 under existing senior boss Andy McEntee. Last year’s Leinster U17 triumph, which included two wins over Dublin, gives grounds for optimism.

Ξ Age profile of the senior squad?

Several are six years on from competing in that 2012 All-Ireland minor final. Cillian O’Sullivan, arguably Meath’s best forward, was on this side. Reserve goalkeeper David Gallagher is 38 and Mickey Burke, Donal Keogan, Bryan Menton and Graham Reilly are highly experienced. But the age profile is generally low as boss McEntee’s looks for new leaders to emerge.

Ξ Stellar talents to build revival around?

Ronan Jones enjoyed a breakthrough at midfield last year but along with ex-minor star Ruairí Ó Coileáin took 2018 out. The county’s best young talent in years, Conor Nash, is also playing Aussie Rules. Meath needed all those players and, in their absence, Cillian O’Sullivan is providing the inspiration while Seamus Lavin looks a find in defence. James McEntee is a tireless worker and Graham Reilly is capable of magical moments.

Ξ Counter-attractions and challenges?

Colm O’Rourke once pointed out that Gaelic football is the main sport in Meath and that the county should be the ‘Kerry of the east’. Trevor Giles, another Meath legend, noted in 2016 that clubs generally have superb facilities around the county but need to improve coaching standards. There’s some truth in both of those statements.

Ξ Performances/results to encourage?

When Meath cut loose during their draw with Roscommon and their big win over Clare, they looked terrific, full of running and attacking promise. At other times they have looked hesitant and ponderous and the hope among supporters is that they can play to their attacking strengths for the rest of the campaign.

Ξ Management progress?

Andy McEntee inherited a Meath side in late 2016 treading water in both the league and Championship and with a penchant for tossing away big leads. They haven’t coughed up any major leads under McEntee but they haven’t made much progress either, winning just seven of their 15 league and Championship games so far. Key players Paddy O’Rourke, Donnacha Tobin and Mickey Newman also left the panel last winter, reducing their options. Some silverware could at least be in the offing if they beat Westmeath in the O’Byrne Cup final, whenever that’s played.

Ξ Height of 2018 ambitions?

Avoiding relegation is the big challenge first of all. If Meath don’t beat Cork they’ll be locked in a relegation battle with Louth whom they meet in the penultimate round. Beating Longford, in Longford, to tee up a Leinster semi-final date with Dublin is by no means a done deal on current form.

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