Cork football in crisis: A strong leader is crucial to make any progress

Cork football in crisis: A strong leader is crucial to make any progress
Colm O'Neill bursts on the ball in 2014 against Derry. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

IT’S only five years ago that Cork and Derry were involved in a thrilling Division 1 game at Páirc Uí Rinn.

It ended with the Rebels squeezing home by a point in a high-scoring encounter, 2-18 to 3-14.

When the 2014 campaign finished, Cork and Derry filled the top two placings, with the Ulster county reaching the final, where they lost heavily to Dublin. Twelve months later Derry were relegated.

That season, Cork again led the way, hitting four goals past Donegal in the semi-final only the Dubs were in no mood to surrender their crown in the decider.

Cork and Derry will meet again in the league in 2020... in Division 3. And that’s after Derry winning promotion from Division 4 this year!

The counties are at opposite ends of the country geographically, but their stories are quite similar.

If you stand still in modern inter-county football, you will get run over. It’s as simple as that.

In Cork’s case, three managers, Brian Cuthbert, Peadar Healy and current boss, Ronan McCarthy, all had the same legacy issues to handle.

The break-up of the 2010 All-Ireland team, which happened gradually over time, left huge voids to fill and it remains an on-going-work-in-progress.

Derry’s tale of woe is worth recalling. After propping up the 2015 table, they only survived in Division 2 on scoring difference, the same method which condemned them to the third-tier in 2017.

It gets worse. Last year, they were also relegated, along with Wexford, the ultimate ignominy for a proud football county. Between 2015 and 18, Derry lost 17 of their 28 league games.

Do you really have to plummet so low to move forward eventually? In their case, it seems the answer is ‘yes’.

Cork now find themselves in Division 3 for the first time since the current format of four divisions, 1-4, eight counties in each, was adopted for the 2008 season.

Previously, it was split into 1A/1B and 2A /2B and Cork were ever-present in either of the top sections.

Cork’s four-year league series of results yielded 10 wins, four draws and 14 losses, the accumulative effect of two relegations, 2016 and this season.

Fingering blame is another type of sport here. Everyone involved gets it, players, management, county board, referees, opponents, even the media for whatever reason.

Faceless keyboard bashers, along with bar-stool ‘experts’, come into their own at times like this. It’s a waste of energy, though.

Cork are in transition and have been for a while. Accept this point, otherwise just don’t get involved.

And with any overhaul, it takes time and calls for patience and understanding from all, either those on the inside or others looking in.

Yet, Cork’s football problems don’t start and end with the current senior side. They go much deeper.

Take your pick from an out-of-date club championship to the state of the game at underage level and the success or otherwise of teams in the Munster Post-Primary Schools arena.

Take the minor story, for example. Cork’s last Munster triumph dates back to 2010, the year they also contested an All-Ireland final.

Aidan Walsh gets away from Down's John Clarke and Martin Clarke. Picture: Brian Lougheed
Aidan Walsh gets away from Down's John Clarke and Martin Clarke. Picture: Brian Lougheed

Since then, Cork made it to only two finals, in 2011 losing to Tipperary and 2016, when Kerry were on their five-in-a-row of All-Irelands’ march. The contrast couldn’t be starker.

Apart from the obvious experience of winning regularly, Kerry players have grown accustomed to strutting their stuff on big days at Croke Park unlike Cork, who’ve only a 2016 quarter-final appearance to draw on.

Yet, Cork’s record at U21 level is more encouraging, in Munster anyway, though All-Irelands are another story. Before the age group dropped to U20 last season, Cork had won 11 All-Irelands between 1970 and 2009 and lost five others, including 2006, 2013 and 2016.

They were Munster champions in 2011-2014, but only reached one national final, losing to Galway, Dublin and Roscommon in semis and the 2013 decider to Galway.

Three years later, after overcoming Monaghan in the semi-final, Cork were crushed by five-goal Mayo in the final.

Beating Kerry in Munster is one thing, but failing to back it up outside the province was more revealing in the overall scheme of things.

As we’ve said many times in the past, putting one over the neighbour isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. All-Irelands are the only currency.

In junior, current senior Ruairí Deane captained Cork to Munster and All-Ireland glory in 2013, defeating Kildare by 0-13 to 1-7 in the final. Since then, alas, it’s been all Kerry.

There’s a root and branch review of development squads and under-age with findings and proposals expected around September time.

Rebel Óg, the governing body, does remarkable work behind the scenes in co-ordinating an extraordinary number of clubs, players and games.

Cork’s development squads work diligently and have a good reputation with a high success rate, but like everything else, its relevance is the moot point.

The second-level Colleges scene is a big worry. Kerry teams have captured the last eight Corn Uí Mhuirí titles in senior with Coláiste Chríost Rí’s 2011 success the most recent by a Cork school.

This season, St Francis College, Rochestown, and Hamilton High School, Bandon, reached the semi-finals.

In the Frewen Cup (U16½), none of the Cork schools made it beyond the quarter-finals, but there was some joy at U15. Rochestown powered to the title by defeating three Kerry schools, St Brendan’s, Killarney, Tralee CBS and Intermediate School, Killorglin, in the final.

The Hammies also showed up well, losing an epic semi-final to Killorglin by a point in a 10-goal thriller.

Ciaran O'Neill, Clonakilty CC, in action in a Corn Uí Mhuirí match. Picture: Larry Cummins.
Ciaran O'Neill, Clonakilty CC, in action in a Corn Uí Mhuirí match. Picture: Larry Cummins.

Whatever consensus is agreed in determining future club championship structures will not have any impact on the present Cork team, but should benefit all inter-county teams down the line, though clubs may have alternative views after Tuesday’s vote.

Nemo Rangers and St Finbarr’s, champions in 2018 and 2019 respectively, don’t need reminding of their final games as Cork representatives in the club championships to appreciate how the county has slipped down the pecking order.

The widely discussed board’s five-year plan is ambitious, too lofty according to some, but at least it’s a route signposted to improve Cork’s fortunes in the future.

Central to that is a Project Co-ordinator, a man or woman to oversee the plan’s implementation.

The closing date was a week ago and Páirc Uí Chaoimh officials are sifting through applications before choosing the most suitable candidate.

It goes without saying the successful applicant has a major job of work ahead, requiring all those with a vested interest to pull together in a united front.

That must be the starting point.

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