Confession from a Cork football fan: I wasn't surprised we were relegated

Confession from a Cork football fan: I wasn't surprised we were relegated
Brian Hurley is tended to by physio Alan O'Connor during the team photograph before the McGrath Cup final recently when Cork lost to Limerick. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

THIS time last year a Limerick man and a Westmeath man made a financial investment that would see them receive a 500% return on that investment within a few months.

That investment came from a ‘tip’ from yours truly.

The Cork footballers were at odds of 5/1 to be relegated from Division 2 of the Allianz National Football League.

They were, in fact, one of the favourites for promotion to Division 1 some 12 months ago. However, anyone who knew anything about the state of play of Cork football in early 2019 knew that, for once, the bookies radar was well off. Cork were never in with a shot at promotion last year. Given the state they were in, the 2019 league campaign was always going to be about survival.

For the record I made no bet myself. Loyalty. A sense of betrayal. Or something.

The bet made sense though. The previous year’s championship results had been appalling. Demoralising defeats to Kerry by 3-18 to 2-4 and to Tyrone by 3-20 to 0-13 showed that Cork were way off the pace. Nothing occurred between the summer and the start of spring to suggest anything had fundamentally changed.

The previous league campaign had shown little evidence that Cork could still regard themselves as the ‘superpower’ that had won league titles every year from 2009 to 2012. In fact, in 2018 Cork had only avoided relegation to Division 3 due to the fact that they had a superior points difference to Down. This seemed to go unnoticed.

The fixtures threw up a tricky itinerary, which meant that they were extremely vulnerable should they not win their tough looking home fixtures, and they managed to lose all three to Kildare, Meath and Donegal.

The sense from outside the camp was that morale and confidence within the group was extremely low. It seemed as though Ronan McCarthy’s tenure as Cork manager was winding down to an inevitable conclusion, as Cork were relegated, despite a resilient performance in an away victory over Armagh on the final weekend.

It seemed like the sting of a dying wasp, but little were we to know that it was in fact the first sign of a revival.

Some stern chats were had behind closed doors, by all accounts, with the result being that Cork threw the bathwater, baby and bathtub out the window in one fell swoop. The players and management decided to abandon the perceived negative approach to their football. 

They went back to their strengths, playing flowing attacking football, and trusted in their own ability to simply outscore the opposition. They then embarked on an extensive challenge match circuit of Ireland, scalping the likes of Dublin and Galway. Somewhere on this sojourn Cork football got its mojo back.

No silverware was won, and Cork didn’t really threaten Dublin’s five-in-a-row bid, but a respectable showing against Kerry in the Munster Final, followed by a resounding qualifier victory over Laois meant that Cork had qualified for the Super 8s for the first time. Suddenly the relegation to Division 3 seemed a lifetime ago.

It would be foolish in the extreme to dress up the Super 8s experience as a success given that Cork lost all three games, but they did put it up to both Dublin and Tyrone up in Croke Park before the air completely whooshed out of the tyres in the defeat to Roscommon at Páirc Uí Rinn.

Despite these defeats, there was a sense that the feelgood factor had returned to Cork football. The players did not look like the weight of the world was upon them any longer. 

Players who had looked almost inept suddenly began to show the ability and spark that most people in Cork knew they possessed. The future seemed bright again.

And then the underage championships were played, with the Cork U20s and Cork minors winning two of the most thrilling All-Ireland Finals you could imagine. Before Stephen Cluxton had even lifted the Sam Maguire Cup, to cement Dublin’s name in the history books as the first five-in-a-row winning team, Cork fans were wishing that the 2020 campaign could start straight away.

Relegated to Division 3 in March, two underage All-Irelands and a Super 8 campaign under the belt by August. It was some turnaround, not least for Cork manager Ronan McCarthy, who has made a Lazarus like recovery himself in the managerial hotseat.

Cork now head into the league with the panel that got them to the Super 8s last year, but on top of that, there is a bunch of players who missed most, if not all, of last year due to injury, such as Kevin Crowley, Sam Ryan, Eoghan McSweeney and Sean Powter. We also have the returning 2010 All-Ireland winner Ciaran Sheehan, while four or five of that victorious U20 side will be expecting to challenge for senior spots this year.

Of course, promotion straight back to Division 2 is vitally important for Cork if they wish to see Super 8 action again this year. The formula is a simple one. Either get promoted in the league or beat Kerry in Munster. I think it is fair to say that the league route would appear to be the safest route there.

Ronan McCarthy, Cian O’Neill, and strength & conditioning coach Kevin Smith. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Ronan McCarthy, Cian O’Neill, and strength & conditioning coach Kevin Smith. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

For the record, as Cork kick off their league campaign at home to Offaly this weekend, they are 50/1 to be relegated to Division 4.

There will be no tips to the Westmeath and Limerick lads this time. The bookies have Cork at odds of 1/5 to achieve that much-needed promotion. The hope on Leeside is that this year the bookmakers have it right.

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