ON the afternoon that Clare beat Cork in the football league two weeks ago, Darren Frehill asked Seán Cavanagh on RTÉ Radio 1 about the state of Cork football.
Cavanagh almost sounded exasperated as he spoke about how good Cork used to be, how difficult Tyrone always found it to beat them, and the predicament Cork now find themselves in.
“I don’t know what’s gone wrong with Cork,” said Cavanagh. “It’s embarrassing.”
Much of the subsequent commentary afterwards inevitably focussed on Cork’s demise rather than Clare’s consistent league dominance over them in recent years.
This is a glorious period of Clare dominance over Cork; their win in 2017 was their first time beating Cork in the league since 1994; last year’s victory in Páirc Ui Rinn was Clare’s first on Cork soil in 24 years.
Clare also defeated Cork in the McGrath Cup final in January.
In the Clare People newspaper prior to that league game two weeks ago, Joe Ó Muircheartaigh wrote in his preview: “Clare badly need a win, something that they’ll be favourites to achieve on Sunday.”
Clare were fully entitled to be favourites. They expected to beat Cork.
Their nine-point win emphatically proved to Clare what this squad have long believed in recent years – that they are the second best team in Munster.
Yet for the fifth time in six years, Clare are on the same side of the draw as Kerry this season. Cork may have reached the last two Munster finals but they may not have if they’d had to face Clare along the way.
As Clare have pushed on, Cork have gone backwards. In that context, it’s disrespectful to Clare when another beating dished out to Cork is deemed to be more about Cork’s paucity than Clare’s recent superiority over them.
When Cork last came to Ennis for a championship match in 2013, they won by nine points. Cork were by far the better team but the best player on the pitch was Gary Brennan.
Brennan went in to the game carrying an injury but he bestrode the match with his class and immense ball-winning ability, making 24 plays in total. He scored one goal and had five assists.
Whatever Cork tried, they couldn’t compete with Brennan under the dropping ball.
Back then, Brennan was sharing a stage with a stack of big Cork names; Eoin Cadogan, Michael Shields, Paudie Kissane, Pearse O’Neill, Graham Canty, Paddy Kelly, Daniel Goulding, Paul Kerrigan, Aidan Walsh, Ciaran Sheehan, Alan and Donncha O’Connor.
That was a different time but as the teams have evolved, there was no question as to who the marquee player, and the biggest name, on show was two weeks ago – Brennan.
Looking at it clinically, Clare had more big names on the field than Cork; Brennan, David Tubridy, Gordon Kelly, Jamie Malone, Keelan Sexton.
Cork may have some quality footballers but the only players the footballing public outside of Cork would really recognise from that Clare game are James Loughrey, Ian Maguire and Luke Connolly.
Cork have lost some massive players and characters but their current huge identity crisis has as much to do with the style they’re playing, than the players carrying it out.
The lack of love shown for Cork football is sometimes overplayed but it’s hard for the public to embrace the team when they’re not winning, and not playing an attractive brand of football in the process.
Cork appear to be trying to copy Galway, who – despite having some brilliant players – have set themselves up as a hard team to break down.
It might not be pleasing to the Galway footballing public but at least their supporters are behind them because they are winning, and are making progress. And Cork are doing neither – winning or making progress.
Ronan McCarthy has been here before. He was involved with the management in 2014 when Cork changed tack during the championship.
After getting hammered by Kerry in the Munster final, they adopted a very defensive style for the subsequent qualifier against Sligo.
Cork restricted Sligo to 1-11 but they scored 0-21. They almost beat Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final when scoring 2-15.
It’s unrealistic to compare that team to this team but, while Cork conceded just 0-8 and 1-10 in their opening two matches, they have hit six, 10 and 11 scores in their three league matches.
It’s no surprise Cork have failed to win a game to date. After last year’s annihilations from Kerry and Tyrone, when they shipped 6-38, Cork needed to become harder to beat.
But it can’t be much fun for players playing in that system when they’re not winning.
And it certainly doesn’t attract supporters. To make it worse, Cork’s style isn’t laced with the aggressive and hard edge that defines most sides who set themselves up to be defensively sound.
Whatever happens from now on, Cork are in a real fight to survive.
They were unlucky in 2016 when they were relegated from Division 1 after winning three games, especially when three other teams above them also won three games, one of which – Donegal – ended up in a league semi-final.
In Division 2 in 2017 and 2018, Cork only won two and three games respectively (they did draw three games in 2017).
It will be a tough ask but Cork will now probably need three wins from their last four matches if they are to stay in Division 2.
Cork have to go to Tipperary and Armagh while Donegal are coming to town for Round 6. With those battles ahead, this evening’s match against Meath is a must-win game if Cork are to avoid relegation.
Yet despite the gravity of what’s on the line, the performance is as important as the result.
Because Cork need to start showing something about them - a defiance, a harder edge, a different attitude - that says that this team is at least moving forward, and they appear to be going somewhere.
And that they’re not overly regressing.