Cork football in crisis: This time five years ago the Rebels were the form team in the country, what went wrong?

Cork football in crisis: This time five years ago the Rebels were the form team in the country, what went wrong?
Brian Hurley destroyed Kerry in the 2014 league game. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

IF you wanted to spin an optimistic slant on things and point out just how things can change dramatically over five years it might be worth taking a lookback at what exactly was happening in that timeframe in the past.

On the first weekend of April 2014, Cork went to Tralee and put 2-18 on Kerry, Brian Hurley (seven points from play!) terrorising Eamonn Fitzmaurice so much that he changed Kerry’s entire system for a couple of seasons and just a week later Cork blitzed Dublin for 2-11 in 37 minutes of a league semi-final and looked the form team in Gaelic football. 

Kerry won the All-Ireland that year. Dublin came back to win that game and have won everything since. 

Step into 2015 even and Cork blitzed Kerry with a score of 3-17 in the league (along with beating the Dubs, Donegal, Tyrone, Mayo to reach a league final). 

If there’s some tendency to take all these recent low points as just reality biting, there’s still something startling when you see those results laid out next to what’s happening right now and think just what an awful mess Cork football has made of itself. 

If games like Mayo and Kildare haven’t quite captured the imagination of the Cork public these past few years, then Longford and Offaly next spring will be a terribly hard sell.

There are arguments on the hows and whys but the facts are brutal and painful now and when Graham Canty said when presenting Cork’s football plan recently that results don’t lie (he described Cork as a mid-table Division 2 team at the time), well here it is now: Cork are a Division 3 football team. 

There is no low point or bottoming out, Cork football people seem to spend every second week eye-rolling and pondering the latest crisis and the reality is Cork are more likely to lose a game with Clare right now than win it.

Cork have won six out of 17 league and championship games in the last two seasons, 15 out of 39 in the time since Brian Cuthbert left and the relentless losses (20 from 39) have each taken their toll, to the extent that it’s hard to remember what the purpose of Cork football is right now. 

It’s not the defeats so much as the sheer accumulation of disappointments and if the whole idea of a football team is to bring joy and enjoyment to players/ management/ supporters, then it seemed to stop being fun a long time ago. 

The league unfortunately followed the recent pattern of not even meeting modest expectation (last summer, hope of at least a competitive performance against Kerry or Tyrone was smashed badly) and if few reasonably demanded promotion in this rebuilding process, relegation has been an added blow and adds to the sense of crisis again. 

We could all do without Marty Morrissey’s news special bulletins and the Kerry boys in media have even gone past the feeling sorry for us stage and seem genuinely annoyed now at Cork's repeated failings.

It’s just so tough to find hope, to come up with evidence for progress or an idea building. 

The last three performances in the league suggested a willingness and indicated the genuine desire and work being put in by players and management to stick in there and yet typically, relegation could kill any feelgood buzz from that. 

The same problems reoccur. Ronan McCarthy referred to a knowledge on how to fix things last summer, started a lengthy new strength/conditioning programme, brought in progressive coaching brains with Eddie Kirwan and Jason Ryan. 

Former Wexford boss Jason Ryan. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Former Wexford boss Jason Ryan. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

And still, there were times in league games Cork seemed to lack legs and a real conviction in the plan they were meant to be carrying out. 

There’s a slight suspicion that in a defensive focus Cork are again falling a year or two behind the elite teams while Kerry and Mayo and Tyrone go more expansive. 

Against Kildare in the league Cork were in full-on defensive mode but seemed like they hadn’t had time to open the second part of the planbook, and they struggled to put chances together with lack of bodies to commit, runners getting isolated and too far away from the man on the ball. 

The Meath and Clare performances were desperately poor at times, lacking conviction as well as fundamentals of defensive play (aggression, actively engaging the players on the ball) and attacking play (support runs, fast ball movement). 

There were scores conceded in those games especially where runners dashed into defensive zones too easily or forwards took possession in space able to turn and kick at goal without interference that ran contrary to any defensive idea. 

There was a lack of spark in possession, no combinations, no commitment to attack spaces and if there have been little movements in these last few games with more flow, they’ve come more from running the gaps than kicking the ball. 

Somehow Cork must find the right balance for themselves but there’s a sense of playing within themselves right now in the games that matter, where they’re not quite able to commit to passes or runs, and the team hasn’t found a rhythm of play yet that looks natural.

The argument on whether the players are there rumbles on – though to be fair, any forward line with Connolly, Powter, Collins, one or both the Hurleys, Deane, Kerrigan, McSweeney ought to have scores in it - but the belief of the group has been destroyed by these losses year on year and people from previous set-ups have been surprised by just how deep the scars from the past have gone. 

Cork need to locate some confidence but it’s hard to know how to stop the cycle of suffering awful defeats from lack of belief when wins are so hard to come by and individual form hasn’t been consistent enough to drag the team out of this funk. 

There’s a sense that the will to make things happen hasn’t been enough without complete trust in their ability to find a way. 

It just feels like something has been lost in Cork football and nobody really knows how this can be turned around. 

Cork fact into another few months of trying to find their purpose and themselves again.

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