CHALLENGE matches are never an accurate barometer but a challenge match against Dublin has a whole different level of metrics to measure performance.
Cork won against Dublin a few weeks back but Cork have won all their recent challenge matches. Despite some injuries to key players, the squad are reportedly going well.
Relegation in the league was a huge blow but it was some way offset by Cork’s rising graph of performance in the latter part of the campaign.
Despite it being meaningless from other results, Cork’s final day win in Armagh was more satisfying again considering Cork were without Luke Connolly, Paul Kerrigan and Sean Powter, while they lost Brian Hurley and John O'Rourke during the game.
Ronan McCarthy said in these pages a few weeks back that Cork have the squad to compete consistently in the championship.
“We do have the players, playing well, to really mix it with any team,” he said. “Some could justifiably say to me now what is that based on given some of your results in the league and championship last year.
“That would be fair enough comment, but I'm still convinced the talent and quality are there. I can only talk about it for so long, but at some point it's my job as manager to get them to deliver.”
In that context, a statement win against Limerick this evening is a baseline requirement. This Cork side can’t be trusted to do a number on anyone but, if their preparation has been as impressive as it seems, and with McCarthy’s admission that it’s time for him as manager to get his players to deliver, Cork have to produce a convincing performance.
The result is all that matters but Cork have to show that their graph is continuing to rise in the manner it needs to after results over the last 12 months.
This group also have to cash in on the recent – if only slight – surge of optimism towards football around the county. The appointment of Conor Counihan to the position of Project Co-ordinator for Football has been widely acknowledged as a hugely positive move.
The Cork minors are also guaranteed to play summer football for the first time since 2016 after reaching the Munster final. Cork gave Kerry some of their hardest games in the minor championship over their five-in-a-row All-Ireland crusade but capitalising on that talent has been harder again with Cork only qualifying for two Munster minor finals between 2012-2018.
Cork may have had better minor teams over the years than the current side but one of the most noticeable aspects of their win against Clare was that the starting team was made up of 15 different clubs.
That is a staggering level of representation – especially when compared with other sides – but it also reaffirmed the massive numbers Cork have compared to most other counties.
Cork will always have the capacity to be a football powerhouse if they can harness that potential but that huge spread of minor players also highlights the challenges associated with such a vast pick.
The 26 players listed on the squad against Clare are going to 20 different secondary schools. And unlike their hurling counterparts, where Cork Colleges hurling is currently the strongest in Munster, many of the best young footballers in Cork are not getting the exposure at secondary schools level that so many young hurlers are benefitting from.
There are regional underage competitions at underage football now – similar to hurling – but the diversity of football numbers in secondary schools makes it much more difficult to catch all of that talent.
The abandonment of the county Vocational Schools competition has increased that challenge in Cork.
That competition was disbanded when all the schools merged, which has made it more difficult for players from some of the smaller schools – who would have made the Cork Vocational schools team under the old model - to get noticed.
Cork didn’t always have a strong tradition in the county Vocational schools competition but they had begun developing one in the latter years of the competition. Between 2008-2012, Cork contested four finals, winning three titles. Cork had also contested the 2005 final.
In the 61-year history of the competition, Cork won just six county Vocational titles (one of which was secured by Cork City). Yet for much of that period, Cork underage football was thriving because they were profiting from the production lines in other colleges, especially that of Coláiste Chríost Rí.
Críost Rí, Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh and De La Salle Macroom have won Corn Uí Mhuirí titles in the last two decades but the reality is that 17 of the last 21 titles have been shared by Kerry schools.
The experience gained at Colleges level does make a difference at county level; when St Fachtna’s Skibbereen won their only All-Ireland Colleges title in 1991, many of their players were part of the brilliant Cork minor team which won that year’s All-Ireland title.
More or less the same group romped to the All-Ireland U21 title three years later. Ten of the players which featured in that 1991 minor final went on to play senior football for Cork.
Cork are a long way off winning All-Ireland football titles again but at least solid foundation blocks are in place, and there has been an acceptance, and a recognition of what Cork need to do if they are to get back to those heights.
And a convincing performance from the seniors this evening would also be a positive first step on the road to redemption for this group.