THROUGHOUT the Super 8 game with Dublin last summer, mainly after another good play or score, one of the TV commentary team tended to mention how odd it seemed for Cork to be able to produce so much quality and (gasp) be a Division 3 football team.
The same happened during the game against Tyrone and the gist of the talk since has been generally that this was a false reflection on Cork football and would be rectified soon. We’re about to find out if that is the case and it might not have been any harm in the grander scheme of things for that pretty flat performance in the McGrath Cup final to bring a dose of reality to things.
Cork are in Division 3 basically because they’ve spent the last few years losing to teams like Clare, Tipp, Cavan, Meath. Last summer was plenty enjoyable but it still only brought wins over teams Cork should beat (Limerick, Laois) and defeats to everyone that’s ahead of them right now (Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone, Roscommon).
The Limerick that beat Cork a couple of weeks ago are Division 4 and there’s little enough reason to suggest that Derry and Down especially will make promotion an absolute formality here.
Time for team-building experimentation will be limited and Cork must hit the ground running with performances and results (there really isn’t any room for allowances on either) – five wins would be a minimum target for promotion.
Cork won’t gain the experience of beating the elite counties but there has to be a move away from the idea that Cork are vulnerable any day out if someone gets a run on them. That habit of winning as many games as possible would bring confidence and momentum, even in this division.
There’s unlikely to be overly complex systems of play but it will be interesting for example to watch for how Cork evolve under Cian O’Neill’s coaching ideas.
There was something of a freedom about Cork last summer, how the entire team ran forward and attacked that was fun to watch and probably fun to play but that lacked control of games and might not work longer-term.
Will Cork be as adventurous in piling numbers forward or will it be more controlled or structured?
Other individual emergences to note.
The Ciarán Sheehan comeback experiment might not immediately work but is one to watch. Expect one of the U20s to kick on as a bolter – Cathail O’Mahony and Damien Gore bring serious point-kicking to an inside-line even if there are more spaces further back the pitch where someone like Colm O’Callaghan or Brian Hartnett might add athleticism and ability.
A full year of Seán Powter allowed develop in a position would be a game-changer. Another leap from players like Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor would be huge; more sustained influence from guys like Ruairí Deane (unplayable at times) and Brian Hurley would make a difference.
There’s an opening for a main scorer that nobody has quite fully stepped into and defences here might give the chance to some forward to find that kicking flow of seven, eight, nine scores every game – Laois hit 14 points or more in five games gaining promotion from this division last year.
Cork’s torrid scoring in the league (partly explained by defensive tactics but 1-5,0-10,1-10,1-9 in the first four games was brutal) was improved afterwards and they didn’t score less than 18 points in championship – that ought be a target most days out here.
The defence still feels like a work-in-progress, where goals and points come far too easily to teams who need them – ok, Kerry’s 1-19 and Dublin’s 5-20 could have been gotten against anybody but even Tyrone (2-15) and Roscommon (4-9) had this ability to create chances at will – Cork will work at stopping runners and closing the scoring area.
The goalkeeping position is open again in Mark White’s absence, nobody can replace the distance as naturally and it’s as well to allow one player develop a kick-out strategy with his 2-9 as often as possible.
Look, it’s off-Broadway and that has its own challenges. At the same time Dublin and Kerry clash in glamour this Saturday, Cork will run out at the Páirc to an empty stadium and be expected to bring the same intensity and purpose that defined them last season.
The dynamic has shifted as well from nothing to lose to expectant. Mentality and focus will be key but if Cork can produce say the same efficiency and application as in the championship games with Limerick and Laois, they should be able to prove this theory of supremacy.