ANOTHER summer of football brings hope.
If championship previews by their nature mean more questions than knowledge, it’s still startling to look back to every year since 2012 and recognise the change in tone and emphasis, from wondering whether another All-Ireland title was possible to whether Cork were still a top three team to if Cork could break back into the top four and then to how far things could fall and when exactly the comeback could begin.
All the answers in recent times have been unwanted ones and honestly, it’s much easier to go over to the dark depressing side when analysing the reality of where Cork football is at right now.
Championship previews have taken to ignoring Cork completely as they haven’t beaten anyone in the top ten since possibly 2012.
The hurlers have started in a whirlwind of interest while this game has been moved from Páirc Uí Chaoimh because of Rod Stewart and most Cork people will identify more with the Champions League final than look forward to Cork football’s opener.
Oh yeah, and a tiered championship in 2020 could likely have Cork out of the top division due to relegation from the league this spring, where Cork lost to Clare again, failed to win at home and lost their most exciting young talent to injury.
See, pretty grim reading?
The to-do list for summer 2019 isn’t all that different from summer 2018/2017/2016 (even 2015) and there’s only limited evidence Cork are any closer to finding solutions.
Fixing the leaks in defence so that the 3-18s and 3-20s are less likely takes time and work, and if it looked like Cork were going with an extremely defensive block in early spring, it’s still not entirely clear just what Cork will roll out against the likes of Kerry’s forward line.
There were spells against Kildare, Clare and Meath especially where Cork had masses of bodies in defence but nobody engaging with the ball or making contact with opposition.
At one point of the Clare game Cork lost their own kick-out, were set in a defensive shape and still Clare shifted the ball into the scoring player with one pass and no attempt to make a tackle or block – Cork lacked the aggression for any kind of defensive gameplan and still gave up 3-13 to Clare and 2-12 to Meath.
They have experience and strength down the middle with energy down either side of the defence – the legs of Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor will burst forward, Nathan Walsh and Kevin Flahive give aggressive speed in the corners.
Chances are the defence won’t be overly stretched this weekend (you’d imagine they’ll target keeping Limerick to ten points maximum) but bigger tests will come.
Cork simply have to be harder to score against for any chance of making progress.
Look, expectations are low, and even though a win over a Division One team is considered essential for progress, there’s a realisation it might not happen this year.
Last year’s win over Tipp felt like a turning point but all the good was wiped away afterwards so even a win over Limerick here won’t be considered any kind of breakthrough.
As much as anything there ought to be signs of progress towards a plan, where patterns of Ronan McCarthy’s coaching and ideas are identifiable and there’s a sense of clear buy-in from the group.
Another complete defensive routing would be hard to take and if you wouldn’t expect this side to shoot the lights out, there should be a method at least to getting Hurleys/ Collins/McSweeney on the ball and on the scoreboard.
People may laugh at super eight suggestions but it’s really not that far away for Cork with only the littlest of momentum and possibly a kind draw.
Cork don’t look equipped to beat Kerry right now but there are ways of being competitive and if there’s a feeling that Cork could be vulnerable against any mid-tier sides, there’s also plenty evidence around the championship of lower division sides going for higher-rated teams, the way say Derry went at Tyrone or Longford went at Kildare.
Cork must find the positive mentality that took the game to Tipp, Donegal and Armagh rather than the passivity that allowed Kildare, Clare and Meath control possession and the flow of matches.
It’ll be interesting to see the set-up focus against the better sides (if the priority is keeping the scores low) but whether Cork go ultra-defensive or attacking isn’t the important thing so much as the purpose and conviction they show.
Cork must attack games and the entire year without the self-doubt and lack of confidence that’s shadowed the last four years or so.
Are Cork more likely to win a 3-15/2-17 or a 1-12/0-13 style of game?
Are they capable of creating the conditions for either?
Ok, optimist time.
Let’s point out that performances improved as the league went on and challenge games in the last month suggest form is building and relegation hasn’t necessarily killed confidence.
Eddie Kirwan’s influence on the team shape is clear from the sideline and let’s say that the extra time working on the speed of ball movement and the emphasis on attacking the spaces at a high tempo has been worthwhile. Let’s allow that Mark White’s kick-outs give a proper platform, that the defence has been freshened up with new energy, that Killian O’Hanlon’s league form suggested an effective partnership with Ian Maguire at midfield.
Let’s say that the middle third find the right balance between protecting the full-back line and linking the play to the scoring areas, that Eoghan McSweeney builds on league promise to offer scoring from distance, that Brian Hurley gets back to 2013-15 form and that another one of the forwards step up into another level.
What’s a realistic goal for this Cork team with everything going right?
Let’s say they rollover Limerick, is pushing Kerry to a proper game of football in a Munster final, something that’s happened once since 2012, a real possibility? Are Cork ready to go toe-to-toe with a Division 1 team in championship mode?
Ronan McCarthy has been talking of showing their true selves for a while and there’s a suggestion a performance is there in the background waiting to push through.
Limerick offer the first test of that theory and if Cork are serious about making impressions on 2019, it’s the sort of game they need to control and play on their terms – they certainly don’t need to be chasing the game at any stage.
A result and a performance are necessary and the only way to change doubts and alter the dynamic is wins and performances.
Then we can see what the year might bring.