IN HAPPIER times for Cork football, it probably said something about the ambition and mentality in the group that when they beat Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2010 with that great statement comeback, the bus journey home that night was more satisfaction of another step taken and refocusing on the next job than any whooping and hollering.
That was a team of giant characters, that regularly went toe-to-toe with a great Kerry side, that bulldozed teams like Donegal and Kildare and had too much belief and physical power for Tyrone and Dublin and there’s something jarring certainly in the thought that it’s only eight years since Cork were top dogs and expecting a period of dominance in Munster – to the extent that one Kerry GAA writer said at the time Cork might have a spell to compare with Kerry’s in the Micko era.
It’s fair to say things didn’t quite work out that way. Cork have won one from eight against Kerry since then in championship and have lost the last two games by a combined 28 points.
As well as being dominated by Kerry, they’ve been beaten by Dublin, Donegal twice, Mayo three times, Kildare, Tyrone and Tipperary. Since 2012 the list of counties Cork have beaten reads Limerick, Clare, Galway, Tipp, Sligo, Longford, Waterford.
If we spent a fair few year-end reviews wondering where exactly Cork stood and wondering what might be possible with a bit of luck, there’s little getting away from the general gist that Cork are a long way off these days from the times when as Donncha O’Connor put it, it felt like Croke Park was their home pitch with all the league semi-finals and finals and All-Ireland quarters, semis and finals year after year.
2018 told us little we didn’t already know and gave snatches of everything that makes up Cork football right now.
Tipp and Clare both came to Cork in the league, showed they have little of any kind of inferiority complex and the time of Cork having that little mental thing over these counties in the las 10 minutes of games is well gone. Cavan came to the Páirc and showed how muddled we can get still when faced with a team that uses spaces differently.
Little sparks of potential in the league took hold on opening championship night in Thurles when it felt genuinely like something might have shifted to a more purposeful side of strong runners like Ruairí Deane, Ian Maguire, Sean White and backed by the skills of Luke Connolly.
And then, well, you know what happened next.
A team caught in the headlights of a Kerry machine in the Páirc, unsure where to run when the spaces were blocked and without the defensive instincts to protect their scoring area without the ball.
A mortifying sort of evening against Tyrone where basics like not taking the ball into groups of bodies against a team that lives off turnovers and being aggressive in defence seemed to leak from the team with its confidence.
One Cork player that night described some of the younger lads as completely genuinely devastated by that experience. It felt like another rock-bottom sort of moment, another wipeout non-performance that if nothing else gave an obvious chance of a reset as there was no other option than to start the whole thing again really.
If Ronan McCarthy wasn’t quite aware of the size of the task facing him – and more than one person involved with Cork teams in the last five or six years have expressed privately their surprise at just how vulnerable Cork have become – then last spring/ summer left no room for doubt.
The defensive catastrophes aren’t showing any signs of going away (conceding 3-18 to Kerry and then 3-20 to Tyrone in the space of a few weeks) and in a championship where scoring rates are booming, Cork just haven’t been able to find the necessary defensive personnel or balanced system to do the basics of keeping the opposition from scoring.
Kerry and Tyrone have the qualities to open up on most defences but there was something startling about the ease that say Kerry were able to kick the ball into spaces in front of the full-back line for David Clifford and Paul Geaney to win or that Tyrone were able run down the middle of the pitch in numbers without having a hand laid on them.
Ronan McCarthy started with the idea that Cork would play man-to-man style of open football; it may be that he’s had to adjust that way of thinking.
The attacking ideas didn’t fare much better, the powerful running combinations of the Tipp game just looked a little outdated and basic when met by proper defences and there didn’t seem anything more nuanced when the options ran out (again, 2-4 and 0-13 won’t win many games).
Positives were thin.
Mark White looked a goalkeeper who’ll be here for a long time. Ruairí Deane showed how influential he could be with the right team around him.
Not a lot else honestly.
The talk of championship structures and how Cork plan to develop players is a factor but is in many ways irrelevant right now for this senior group.
There was something a little jarring in the way Cork GAA people were in two minds leading up to the Tyrone game about whether they really wanted to win and expose themselves to the super eights.
We argued at the time that it was necessary for the development of the group; the Tyrone performance made us doubt that idea.
When we spoke with Donncha O’Connor on his retirement he talked about how even last year it was in the back of his head that one crack off the Dubs would be great but then he realised the futility of that concept; smaller steps will have to come before that kind of task is possible.
We’ll get to hopes and dreams for 2019 again (and what the reintroduction of say Seanie Powter’s energy and talent might open up) but 2018 was another reminder of how far things have fallen, depressingly so.