THE Cork senior footballers open their 2019 Munster Championship campaign with the visit of surprise packages Limerick to Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday evening, with expectation levels throughout the county probably as low as they have ever been at the outset of a campaign for the footballers of Cork.
Recent campaigns were bad enough, but the sight of Cork being dumped down into Division 3 of the Allianz National Football League early this year was a dig to the solar plexus too far for most Cork supporters to take.
The fact that this relegation occurred only a matter of weeks after the ‘#2024 – A Five-Year Plan for Cork Football’ strategy was launched was slightly awkward for those in charge of steering Cork football from the rocky shores that it seems to habitually inhabit these days.
They spoke of challenging for All-Ireland honours within three to five years. Well, that objective may be a tad unrealistic with the county plying its spring trade in the bottom divisions of the league.
Historically the Super 8s would have seemed made for Cork. You would have expected to see Cork involved at this stage in eight or nine years of any decade, given Cork’s traditional strength in the game. However, tradition counts for nothing in the modern game, and right now Cork look well off the pace when compared to the likes of even the top teams in Connacht, never mind the likes of Dublin and Kerry.
It is now approaching two years since Cork’s last really good performance at this level in the championship, when they went down by one point to eventual All-Ireland runners-up Mayo in a qualifier in Limerick, after extra time.
The future seemed reasonably bright then, but a combination of poor management, loads of injuries and losses of form to key players has meant that Cork football fans have had to watch a slow car crash since, as Cork has well and truly removed itself from the top table of Gaelic football.
If Cork are to get back to where they believe they belong then they must do it with small, baby steps, starting with Limerick on Saturday.
Limerick’s surprise 3-11 to 1-10 win over Tipperary in the quarter-final certainly was a shock. Tipperary were relegated down to Division 3, along with Cork, but they still would have expected to see off Billy Lee’s side, in what was Limerick’s first win in the Munster Championship in seven years.
Cork manager Ronan McCarthy recently lauded Limerick’s display in that game against Tipperary, with him being particularly impressed by the manner in which they got in the faces of the Tipp players, with him admiring how they double and triple-teamed the Tipp players at times, to harass them into making errors, which resulted in turnovers.
This is a key point.
Take one step away from the genuine All-Ireland contenders at the moment, such as Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone and Mayo, and the quality level quickly drops, and really good work rate becomes the ultimate leveller.
Cork are not All-Ireland contenders right now. Even the most positive of Cork football fans will surely have accepted this in recent seasons.
The fact is that any well-organised side in Ireland, no matter what division they currently reside in, can trouble Cork at the moment. This year’s Division 2 league campaign proved this.
A decade ago you would have expected a Cork football team to easily brush aside the likes of Fermanagh, Kildare, Clare, Meath, Tipperary, Donegal and Armagh, using superior ability, power, pace and fitness to stamp their authority on opponents of such pedigree, yet Cork could only muster two victories against Tipp and Armagh, as well as a draw up in Enniskillen against Fermanagh, with relegation to Division 3 for the first time in the county’s proud history being the result.
The highest number of points that Cork kicked in those seven rounds in the league was twelve, which they achieved twice, against Tipp and Donegal. It is quite clear that Cork are really unsure of themselves as an attacking entity, and they don’t really know how to put up big scores anymore, no matter who the opposition is.
This, of course, means that no matter who they play will have a chance of beating Cork.
You would imagine that a Division 4 side like Limerick, who only had London below them in the final league placings this year, won’t have enough quality to trouble Cork at the weekend, but the bottom line is that if Cork fail to put up a decent score then Limerick will have a punchers chance. It is up to Cork to make sure this doesn’t become a possibility down the home straight on Saturday.
The hamstring injuries to Sean Powter and Sam Ryan have hampered McCarthy’s preparations for Cork’s assault on Munster, with Powter, in particular, being a huge loss. The Douglas club man has barely been seen in the past two campaigns, since announcing his arrival as one of the most promising players in the country back in the 2017 campaign.
McCarthy would no doubt have had huge plans to utilise Powter’s blistering pace, but again he must now plan without. It is expected that he may return later in the year, should Cork qualify for the Super 8s, but that is a huge ‘if’ right now.
The odds are that we will not learn an awful lot about Cork against Limerick and that we will have to wait for the Munster final on the 22nd of June to find out the true state of Cork football in 2019, with Kerry looking to win their seventh Munster title in a row.