Before you go drawing parallels between now and the last time Cork ventured so much into Ulster for league action, Donncha O’Connor will stop you in your tracks, writes John Fogarty.
What followed the spring trips to Monaghan, Tyrone and Derry later in 2010 was an All-Ireland. Some in the camp pointed afterwards to the merit of those journeys north where they claimed two wins from three on the way to annexing a Division 1 title.
This season will see Cork head to Ulster for four of their seven games. The three aforementioned counties will again be visited as well as Donegal over the space of eight weeks, involving a considerable 3,319km total of round trips to Castleblayney, Ballyshannon, Omagh’s Healy Park and Derry’s Celtic Park. For those in West Cork, add another 500km, give or take.
Consider that Brian Cuthbert’s side will also entertain three of last year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists in Páirc Uí Rinn at a time where they have a “wanted” sign in the window for a midfield and are looking for a more balanced style, it would be fair to say a failure to repeat their fine league exploits of recent years wouldn’t be the end of the world.
O’Connor certainly thinks so.
“If you said to me we’ll win three games, lose four I’d take it at the moment because we’ve four games up north and our three home games are Dublin, Kerry and Mayo. Honestly, with the schedule we have this year I’d take it right now no problem because it’s going to be so competitive. If that means missing out on a semi-final spot and staying up I think it’s definitely something we would take.
“If you could come away with two wins from the north, better still three or all four, it would be great. If you can pick up two points from a tough away game it’s better than any home victory. You’re away for the whole weekend, it’s a two-day bonding session if you like. It definitely would stand to you.”
It’s not that O’Connor doesn’t consider Cork All-Ireland contenders. Turning 34 in late April, he wouldn’t have committed for another year if he thought they wouldn’t be in the mix come late summer.
But now is a time for recalibration. If the league is to be a platform for a servicing then so be it.
“A few years ago, we were top four but I don’t think we’re there any longer. We’ve a lot of work to catch up on Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Donegal.
“But I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility either. A bit of hard work over the next few months andwe could be there or thereabouts.
“We probably learned one or two hard lessons along the way and hopefully they will stand to us this year. We might have tried a few things last year that obviously didn’t pay off. We’d a reasonably good league — I know the second half against Dublin wasn’t great. We tried a few things there — they didn’t work and we paid a heavy price for them.”
Dublin in that Division 1 final and Kerry in the Munster decider took plenty of satisfaction in meting out those harsh learnings to Cork. The management’s reaction to the Kerry defeat was a tactical transformation.
Cuthbert has already suggested Cork will operate a more savvy system this season. O’Connor knows they must.
“You’ve to defend first and then attack. We have worked a bit on our defence because we definitely have forwards that can do damage. But if you’re leaking scores, easy points, you won’t beat teams who are more defensive because they’ll block you out. It’s a matter of getting the blend right.”
Then’s there midfield where, having lost Aidan Walsh, Cork must build again. “We still have Fintan (Goold) and Ian (Maguire) is still young but I think he’ll come good. You can’t expect a whole pile from him yet because he’s still so young.
“It’s something they have to look at. They tried a couple of lads over the McGrath Cup and I think they’re looking at a few people here and there. When the league is so competitive you have to be settling on something before the end of it for the Championship.”
O’Connor isn’t losing the run of himself but he showed this past month he is close to returning to his best form. He was determined an injury-ravaged 2014 wasn’t going to be his swansong.
His goal against Mayo almost spooked the Connacht champions out of an All-Ireland quarter-final win but it was too little, far too late, both for him as much as Cork.
“I just had a frustrating season last year with my Achilles and trying to get it right was my main problem. I did a lot of work on it during the winter and once I keep that injury-free I’ll be happy out.
“We still have good footballers. My decision really was down to having a disappointing year last year and saying ‘feck it, I don’t want to finish on something like that’. I still felt like I had more to give. It had nothing to do with the dual players going or anyone retiring before that.
“I was training a good couple of weeks before the Sligo game and the week leading up to it I tweaked my hamstring so missing it has nothing to do with the Achilles. That put me back another week and the fitness wasn’t there but it was coming.”
There from the start this year, Cork’s elder statesman hopes to instil belief in his team.
“We’re capable of making the (All-Ireland) semi-finals if not the final. We mightn’t be at the same level as Dublin and those fellas at the moment but you just don’t know what’s going to happen on any given day.”
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