THE Cork footballers aren’t shying away from the significance of Saturday’s qualifier clash with Laois in Thurles.
A victory at the home of hurling will send the Rebels in a Super 8s group with Dublin, Roscommon and Tyrone or Cavan. Three more matches against elite opposition. Two of them on Jones Road.
Considering Cork haven’t taken a significant scalp since 2012, this is their biggest games in years.
“It’s huge. No doubt. There is no point in saying otherwise. It’s huge for the right reasons,” agreed selector Seán Hayes at the press briefing at Páirc Uí Rinn earlier this week.
“We’ve good young fellas coming through and the chance to play up in Croke Park if you win. If you play soccer, you want to play in Wembley, and Croke Park is the Mecca.”
For once, Cork are favourites, largely based on tradition rather than form, as good as they were in the Munster final defeat to Kerry.
“Laois are now Division 2 and we’re Division 3, so you could say we’re going in opposite directions, but because we’re Cork we’re favourites.
“I don’t think our players can understand being favourites, because that’s not where we’ve been at in the last few years.
“We played them in a challenge match and it was very open. John Sugrue is good, very organised and they’ve a good backroom and dangerous forwards. They were in trouble at half time on Saturday and changed it around and came out a different team.”
Hayes and Eddie Kirwan, his fellow Nemo club man in the management team, were actually at Laois’ defeat of Offaly last weekend to scout the Leinster outfit. He accepts that Laois won’t have any fear of Cork and were probably delighted with the draw.
Yet if Cork can replicate their performance against Kerry, they’ll be hard to beat.
“We expected that performance, which is what’s important. Once the players believe in themselves, you’re onto something. For the last few years, they didn’t have belief because we weren’t winning challenge matches or league matches.
“That’s why challenge matches became important for us.”
They could have landed a Munster title last month, betrayed by their own sloppy finishing and some questionable calls.
“The free count was 24-9, but you know and I know that you don’t get anything out of quibbling about refs. Now it was the same ref that was in the middle when we lost to Roscommon in an All-Ireland U21 semi-final.
“You hope it doesn’t happen, but when it does, you have to live with it don’t you? You look at where it went wrong in your own performance and that’s where you improve.”
Cork reshuffled their management structure this season, with former Wexford and Kildare boss Jason Ryan coming in, as well appointing as Kirwan as coach and Ballinora’s Gary O’Halloran as a selector.
“Jason is an analyst, he relays information from upstairs to us. He’s a really good guy to ring for advice. I’d never met him before this year, but he’s a fierce knowledge of football and our opponents. He feeds back stats, and that’s crucial. He’s at training, but isn’t hands-on in terms of coaching.
“Eddie is the main coach and we help out, myself and Ronan, where it’s needed.”
Despite the disappointment of relegation, the Cork camp is more settled this season.
“No matter what you think, it’s a huge step up from club. Having done the U21 is a help, but it took me a year to settle in. Ronan would say the same I’m sure, the way he’s running it this year is completely different from last year. That’s part of the reason why we’re doing better, we’ve been open to change and it’s been a step in the right direction.”
Hayes was at the helm of the Cork U21s when they lost an All-Ireland final to Mayo and is hopeful the younger footballers in the squad are now ready to deliver when it matters.
“I think a lot of players are coming to an age where they have to, or just forget about it. I was five years involved at U21 and a lot of them came through those teams. Some are 25 or 26 now and they have to come of age."
It came so close to yielding a reward in the three-point defeat to Kerry.
“You need confidence to perform. We’re going in the right direction, but we have to follow that up on Saturday night.
“It was a great performance but we were expecting to win against Kerry. That’s no lie. We knew we’d perform and we thought that we’d win.
“These guys did it against Limerick, they were excellent in a lot of aspects of the game against Kerry without quite getting over the line and we need the same and more up in Thurles.
“If we think it’ll be easy because Laois don’t have the same reputation as Kerry, then we’re going to regret it. I don’t believe this group will fall into that trap.”
Thurles hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for Cork football teams, including a dispiriting loss to Kildare four years ago and a Munster semi-final defeat to the Premier in 2017.
“It’s probably better than it being in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, our record in Páirc Uí Chaoimh isn’t great now, let’s be honest!
“We don’t expect a crowd, but that’s fine, that’s Cork football. We’re playing for ourselves and some of the really committed supporters who go up to places like Fermanagh and Armagh, those guys are a family, you’d take your hat off to them.”