Why is Cork football underachieving?

Why is Cork football underachieving?
Aidan Walsh after the defeat by Kerry last summer. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN late March, Tony Leen of the Irish Examiner sat down with John Fintan Daly, who had coached and managed Knocknagree to the All-Ireland club junior title the previous month.

It was primarily an interview about that success, and the journey along the way, but a significant part of the discussion focussed on Cork, and Daly’s frustration with Cork football, which has been palpable for years during his excellent co-commentaries on C103FM.

“We are, without doubt, the greatest under-achievers in the history of Gaelic football,” said Daly. “Seven All-Irelands? We have four times the number of clubs as Kerry. We have no self-belief in Cork, we never had.

“Why does Cork football feel so bad about itself? Why should we lack belief? A lot of the counties beating us nowadays would hardly have a population bigger than our divisions. It’s a joke.

“Cork went to Killarney for a Munster final (last year) and were beaten before they went on the field. They didn’t expect to win it. The mentality is completely wrong. But it is easy to lack motivation when you know from the top down there is no belief there in winning anything.” 

Knocknagree manager John Fintan Daly. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Knocknagree manager John Fintan Daly. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

All of those points were well made, especially Daly’s observation about Cork’s perception of itself as a footballing county. Why does Cork football really feel so bad about itself?

Why will there only be a tiny Cork crowd in Semple Stadium on Saturday evening for what is probably Cork’s biggest game of the year? The game isn’t televised but outside of the diehards, there seems to be zero interest in the footballers from the rest of the Cork GAA public.

This hasn’t just happened over night. Apathy is routinely twinned with the footballers. There was some discussion recently as to why the footballers and hurlers couldn’t be on the same billing on Sunday. TV scheduling and a start-time of 2pm for the hurlers was a factor but if the scheduling was different and, say the footballers were a curtain raiser at 2pm to the hurlers at 4pm, it would be seen more as an impediment than a convenience to many of the general Cork GAA supporters. 

The diehard hurling supporters would be aggrieved with having to go to Thurles for 12pm to watch the minors, before being forced to watch the footballers. That may sound harsh but it is how the footballers are largely perceived.

The great anomaly in all of this is the huge interest in club football in Cork. There are a lot of clubs in west Cork and in the Muskerry and Duhallow divisions that only play football. The standard is high.

Mitchelstown's Shane Beston looking for support as he is challenged by Cill na Martra defender Graham Ó Mocháin. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Mitchelstown's Shane Beston looking for support as he is challenged by Cill na Martra defender Graham Ó Mocháin. Picture: Denis Minihane.

Cork teams reached the senior and junior All-Ireland club finals in 2018. Nemo Rangers have never had a large following but in Duhallow, there was far more interest in Knocknagree’s success than there ever would be in supporting the Cork senior footballers.

There is huge football development work being done at underage in Cork. Last week in Mallow, there were four Cork teams at a regional tournament. Cork have more footballers than nearly all of Munster combined but how come Cork cannot transfer that talent into senior success? 

Why can’t Cork football generate more momentum and interest around its flagship team?

There is no easy solution but there are some obvious reasons. In the recent Munster minor semi-final, which Cork narrowly lost to Kerry in Tralee, Cork’s outstanding player was Niall Hartnett. At the moment, Hartnett is playing hurling with Cork in the Celtic Challenge cup. Hurling will be Hartnett’s focus in the short term. Kerry are obviously in the Munster minor final but, if they weren’t, all their players would be playing football, and not trying to combine both codes.

Niall Hartnett tries to get away from Darragh Lyne of Kerry. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Niall Hartnett tries to get away from Darragh Lyne of Kerry. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Football is a religion in Kerry. It’s not in Cork. A significant number of young players in Cork play hurling and football. At least half of that minor football team are currently playing hurling, at various levels. And in general, most talented young footballers in Cork don’t specialise in the game like they do across the border in Kerry.

On Tuesday, Rochestown College won the Cork U14 colleges football title, beating Skibbereen CS in the final by 18 points. A week earlier, the same group won the U14 hurling title, beating St Colman’s in the final. That is an extremely talented group but how many of those young players will fully focus on football going forward? It certainly won’t be easy, especially with some of them involved in other sports outside GAA.

Douglas' Shane Kingston celebrates his goal in last year's U21 county victory. He was a dual Cork minor. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Douglas' Shane Kingston celebrates his goal in last year's U21 county victory. He was a dual Cork minor. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The big population centres will always have more attractions but geography is a factor too in that reality. There are more teams from East Cork than West Cork playing Premier 1 U14 football. Yet how many of those players in the eastern division will prioritise football as they get older?

East Cork is hurling territory. 

There is nobody from the division in the current senior football squad. Nineteen clubs are represented in the squad of 27 named but Daly said in that interview that Cork “don’t go to enough trouble to find the players and bring them in”. He also added: “There are some better players out there who are yet to be found, and I hope Cork find them in the near future.” 

Cork are trying to slowly make their way up that steep gradient. Yet despite all the huge work going on at underage, especially in the regions, will it make a difference in the long term? Nobody knows.

It’s a great unknown too as to how the seniors will do on Saturday. Their final league standing – fifth in Division 2 – is, broadly reflective of where Cork are; on the periphery of the top 12 but possibly good enough to edge their way into the top eight.

The game against Tipperary will largely define Cork’s season but very few of their own people will be there to see it.

Because that is just the continuing culture – and reality -for the Cork footballers.

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