AT 2.40pm on Sunday, everything looked on track for Cork.
They were six points ahead of Armagh; Tipperary were leading Clare by five points in Thurles. But hope is tenuous, and laced with doubt, when control is out of your own hands.
Cork had to be upbeat beforehand, but much of the positive spin was speculative hope; Armagh were the only team in Division 2 with nothing to play for; Cork’s performance graph was increasing, their best two displays of the campaign having come in their two previous matches.
Tipperary always had a good chance of beating Clare in Thurles, especially when Tipp had never lost to Clare under Colm Collins.
Yet, it was almost fitting that Clare’s win relegated Cork because Clare have been the better team, having beaten Cork in their last three league games, and having trimmed them in round 3, back in February.
It is even more disappointing for Cork go down on a head-to-head, but this has been coming. Cork lost four games in last year’s league and were close to going down.
Cork had the second-worst defensive record in Division 2 in 2018. And despite the changes to their playing style, Cork still had the second-worst defensive record in the division in 2019.
After last year’s championship hammering to Tyrone, Ronan McCarthy said: “After the first year, I’m very clear in my mind where I need to go from here and where we need to go, but I’m not going to share that.”
What has been the evidence since? McCarthy has changed his management team, but not a whole lot more.
There wasn’t a mass clear-out of players. The team’s playing style has changed, but it had to, after the annihilations to Kerry and Tyrone.
Playing a more defensive style — which can be hard to watch — has been even harder to take, because it hasn’t delivered results.
It did on Sunday, but the damage had been done beforehand. McCarthy could say that Cork are becoming more comfortable with their style.
The manager could also argue that their performance-graph has been steadily improving, with Cork’s only two wins coming in their last three games.
That still won’t insulate McCarthy and his management from criticism. Some will say they are out of their depth, but criticism from the Cork GAA public is rich anyway when so few of them care about the Cork footballers.
McCarthy didn’t inherit a brilliant group of players, but good management can still take any group to the next level.
McCarthy and his management are trying hard to turn this around, but Cork’s struggles didn’t just begin on Sunday. And nothing much will improve until the culture begins to change. That can’t happen until people start thinking differently.
Cork set out their plan, earlier this year, to make those deep-rooted changes, but they need to start looking and thinking outside the box sooner rather than later. Cork can’t wait five years. Every year needs to be ‘year now’.
So what are Cork prepared to do in the next year to improve the culture around their senior football squad?
Dublin would be a good place to start looking. Dublin’s base is in DCU, which is where the revolution started under Pat Gilroy. Over the years, Dublin effectively programmed their set-up through expertise garnered at DCU: Mickey Whelan, Jason Sherlock, Bryan Cullen.
After spending four years working as a strength-and-conditioning coach with Leinster Rugby, and completing his PhD in exercise physiology at DCU, Cullen was appointed Dublin’s high-performance manager.
That’s the level Cork need to operate at if they are to compete with the likes of Dublin. Yet the key advantage Cork have over most other counties is that they have that expertise — or links to it — on their doorstep in UCC and CIT.
There is no need to build a centre of excellence if Cork can tap into the centres of sporting excellence they already effectively have.
Cork need to start sourcing the best footballing and sports science expertise they can assemble.
If they don’t, can Cork really say they are going to get serious about their footballers?
Forget about potential cost. What is the price Cork football has paid in the damage to its reputation in recent years?
The easy assumption to make is that Cork will bounce back next year, into Division 2.
Yet, if the championship is another horror show, and confidence gets any lower, can anyone say, with real confidence, that Cork will finish ahead of Tipperary, Longford, Derry, Down, and Louth or Westmeath, next spring?
Cork are now back in Division 3 for the first time in nearly two decades, because the old Division 2 was effectively Division 3.
Yet, when Cork got relegated back in 2000, it was basically by default, after the hangover of losing the 1999 All-Ireland final.
Cork lost the Division 2 final to Westmeath in 2001, but Westmeath were the story of that year’s championship, while Cork rattled Kerry (who were reigning All-Ireland champions) and Galway (who went on to win that 2001 All-Ireland) in that championship.
Who are Cork going to rattle this summer? Cork weren’t outside the top 16 in the country back then, as their league position may have suggested.
But they are now. And for a county of Cork’s size and resources, that is just unacceptable.