SIX O’Clock on the evening of the All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Limerick last August, that’s when John Meyler and the rest of his management team began their preparations for the 2019 season.
Cork had just lost an epic game to the team that would go on to claim the McCarthy Cup a few short weeks later and, whilst the defeat had shattered the players and management, there had to be a swift analysis of what it all meant.
“You would be right in saying that the preparations for 2019 began at 6 O’clock on the bus that evening," Meyler told the Echo in a revealing and extensive interview.
“We would have looked at everything, even coming down on the bus, A, B, C, D, what we got right, what did we get wrong. There has been an unbelievable analysis of soul-searching to try and get to the other level.
“It started at 6pm on the bus after the All-Ireland semi-final. We had got a smell of it, a taste of it, we were level after 76 minutes and then it was taken away from us.
“But you know that you will need to go again and you have to constantly evaluate.’’
The Cork hurling manager has had plenty of time now to reflect on the season and he takes plenty of positives from it.
“When you sit down and look at it in the cold light of day, we retained the Munster title, got to an All-Ireland semi-final, were level after 70 minutes.
“Possibly then it should have gone to a replay but that is not an excuse. We knew coming in that there would be no replay and when it went to extra-time the legs were just not there.
“That taught us one lesson in the sense that we need to be able to replace players at critical stages during matches, that’s the main learning curve from that day.
“But overall it has been a success and another foundation built again. It’s a long, long road but that’s the way it is.’’
Strengthening the panel has been a priority over the past number of months, trying to replicate in a similar fashion to what Limerick were able to do when they introduced Shane Dowling.
“If you look at the Limerick panel last season, Dowling and the other guys that came on. Look at Dowling’s CV, Harty Cup medals, his club winning the All-Ireland, all of those things was a major help to them.
“The Na Piarsaigh fellows were not really involved at the start of the year so they were coming into the Munster championship and All-Ireland series a lot fresher than the others.
“Since the Limerick game, we have tried to focus on strengthening the panel in a sense of impact subs coming in and really making a difference.’’
Back into the equation come Stephen McDonnell, Aidan Walsh and Cormac Murphy plus a number of younger guns who Meyler believes can make a significant impact in time.
“Stephen has given us a commitment, Aidan Walsh is back in, Cormac Murphy too after playing very well in the All-Ireland intermediate final.
“We have brought in Robert Downey, Ger Millerick, Ger Collins at the moment, get them in, we call it year one of the development and to keep them within the panel much the same way as we did with Fitzgibbon, Coleman and Kingston.
“They are part of the training panel and they are there to develop in the senior set-up.
“I think the big thing for us is that we need five players who will come on, make a difference in much the same way as Dowling did with Limerick. We need to focus on that and it’s critical going forward.’’
It all starts up again before the end of the month with a guaranteed two games in the Munster League.
“The approach to that will be to win it obviously and to re-introduce McDonnell, Walsh and Murphy, they need to get games under their belt.
“A few of the younger lads will get game time too to show what they can do. We have the national league starting in late January against Kilkenny so that will be a really competitive game.
“With the month of April now given to the clubs we are out in the Munster championship on May 12th and 19th against Tipperary and Limerick.
“So it’s crucial to get the work done early and to know our team and to know our subs.
“It’s a whole building process from the first game in December against Clare, that where it really starts.’’
With so much competition and the extra games in the new provincial championship format, how is the season prioritised?
“You prioritise it backwards. The All-Ireland final is the first goal. You work back to the All-Ireland semi-final, you work back to Munster championship and the goal is to be in that three that comes through in Munster.
“Then you will work back to the national league, to be as competitive as you can be in that and try to find one or two more players, impact subs that will make a difference.
“You work back to the Munster League to give seven or eight players a real opportunity and give them two or three games in that competition. There will be a few challenge games too so it’s working backwards from the ultimate goal.’’
The Cork boss is a great advocate of the new provincial championship format, believing that it has enhanced the game all the more.
“I think the people voted with their feet in Munster, you had 250,000 attending the games in Munster. It’s so exciting for the supporters, people who have a genuine interest in the game.
“The standard, the skill, the speed will get even better by these teams playing on a regular basis.
“Limerick, All -Ireland champions, Cork, Clare, All-Ireland semi-finalists, Tipp and Waterford with two new managers, it’s set up again for an incredible hurling Summer.
“Limerick will want to defend their All-Ireland, Cork and Clare will want to go a step further, Waterford and Tipp with two new managers who have been around the block and know what it takes to win.
“The first critical goal is to be in that three."
Is winning the Munster championship as vital as it used to be?
“It is of huge importance, you are not going to go out in a Munster final and lose it purposefully because you want to go in the back door and then get Kilkenny in Thurles as Limerick got last year.
“They could have lost that game and their season was over and there was no All-Ireland. The Munster and Leinster championships are paramount but maybe the time limit between games needs to be regularised.’’
Back home, Meyler believes that the game is now in a very healthy state.
“If you look at it, Cork got to a semi-final last season, were close, the U21s got to a final, the minors were not as successful as 2017 but look at the clubs. Charleville and Cloughduv won their Munster titles, Midleton could have beaten Ballygunner and went on to win the Munster senior club championship.
“It’s healthy at the moment but every level needs to go to another level, that is the way it is.
“I think that the young talent is coming through and I think the clubs are doing well too and that is a sign of the progress that is being made.’’
One date is pencilled into his diary above all others, the May meeting with Tipperary in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in the opening game of the Munster championship.
“It will be massive, 40,000 down the park, Liam Sheedy bringing down Tipp with all guns blazing.
“He’ll get a huge response from the players and the Tipp public, he is a really good hurling man and he knows what it takes.’’
And on a personal level, he is really embracing the challenge.
“Look, it’s a privilege to be on the sideline with that type of hurling from a Cork team and to get into an All-Ireland semi-final. But we know now that we need to get to another level.
“It’s the start of a new year, it’s the start of something that is exciting and I think that these young players can go to the level that Fitzgibbon, Coleman and Kingston went.
“I think that Tim O’Mahony, Robbie Flynn, David Griffin, Eoghan Murphy, Jack O’Connor can get to that level, Darren Browne too.
“They have been bedded in over the past two years. There are younger fellows too like Brian Turnbull, Evan Sheehan and Sean O’Leary-Hayes, you want to blend them into the system too.’’
It’s 14 years now since the last visit of Liam McCarthy, too long says Meyler.
“It’s too long from a Cork perspective. Cork people have been brought up on winning one or two All-Irelands each decade and that in itself keeps it turning over.
“Limerick went 45 years but Cork must have one or two every decade. Every year that passes puts more pressure on and we need to be able to deal with that pressure and not let it affect us."
It all begins four days after Christmas with Meyler taking what will probably an experimental team to Cusack Park to face Clare in the opening round of the Munster League.
That’s followed four days later with a home game in Mallow against Waterford.
The top team from that three will qualify for the final.
Cork will not have Darragh Fitzgibbon for those games because of Charleville’s involvement in the All-Ireland junior series.
And he’s likely to be given a break too for the national league if his club progress to the final of that competition.