IF there were years where Cork entered league campaigns looking for clues on where they are, this is more about Cork looking for ways to find a new place for themselves.
Cork are a Division 2 team and nobody’s idea of one of the elite until they go about changing that.
The Super eight will dominate and rank the summer but Cork need a worthwhile spring first.
There are obvious performance targets and clear areas Ronan McCarthy needs to have more information on by the end of these seven games.
The goalkeeper position looks open to three or four names again and even if Cork do decide to go with a medium-term project by developing one or two behind the scenes with access to elite training and coaching methods, you’d imagine somebody will need to be trusted as the definite number one by early summer.
The defence is fascinating.
One, it’s crucial to Cork’s progress that corner-backs are found and coached in the art of one-v-one defending and that the defence as a unit is capable of keeping the better teams to less than twenty points.
Two, it’s damn near impossible to call who’ll fill the jerseys 2-7 come championship.
Think of most the top eight teams and most people in their county would have a good shot at calling the majority of the defence now; in Cork you could barely be confident of naming two, maybe three of the defenders (though not exactly which position) and after that it’s basically about who makes a bolt for form through the league.
There’s every chance of at least two rookies getting a good run at nailing down a spot and guys like Cian Kiely and Kevin Flahive are probably front of the queue.
Sean Powter’s emergence last summer as a person of influence (the person of influence at times) wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone who’s seen him underage for Cork.
It’s hard to think of a surer thing than Powter having an impact with that explosiveness but it brings questions and responsibility too.
Powter played some league last year from centre-forward where it wasn’t yet a natural position for him to make runs and get his hands on the ball but he stood out when introduced against Tipp with his speed and ability to break lines, against Kerry with the intensity of his tackling, against Mayo with his directness and willingness to play the game on his terms.
If there’s a danger with a player of such a skillset it’s the varying ideas on where exactly to get the most from it – one former coach told me a while back he could genuinely play on any line of the field (bar midfield) really effectively.
This manager ought to know him well enough to have an idea in his head of a role or position for Powter, ideally somewhere he can unlock defences, but it may take some patience too.
Other unknowns the league needs to help with?
Colm O’Neill’s role in Cork’s attack has lacked clarity and if there were moments last year where he was on the verge of exploding again (goal chances against Waterford and Tipp and frees in the league missed very uncharacteristically), it became one of those cases where when he started it just wasn’t working and when he came on he kicked Colm O’Neill-type scores and everyone mentioned he had to start.
Likely up-and-comers like Stephen Sherlock and Cian Dorgan will surely get their go at being scorers-in-chief and Luke Connolly should be given licence to be a game-changer whenever Nemo finish up.
Best-case scenario from league personnel includes Cork finding a breakthrough rookie for championship in defence and attack, one or two from the likes of Michael Hurley, Sean White, Stephen Cronin making the developmental leap from coming on in games to starting and performing consistently in certain positions, Kevin Crowley being allowed settle into a role that suits him.
We wouldn’t expect a blanket defensive set-up and players will be put into situations where they’re expected to win their own battles.
If the limitations of twelve bodies back were exposed a little when teams needed scores last year and were unable to get players and the ball into the scoring areas, it’ll be interesting how Cork get the balance of ball movement right, from a lot of middle eight players that like to run the ball to the idea of servicing their scoring forwards in positions to score as directly as possible.
Mostly Cork need form and momentum and a feeling of progression at least, that the management has a clear idea that’s being communicated to the players and something is building.
There were spells and moments but it was hard to come away this last few years from Cork games with any sense that there was conviction in the performances or that it was part of any great movement towards something better.
The Tipp second half and Mayo performances last year were reactive and it was interesting to hear Graham Canty not quite dismiss the Mayo game but downplay it only this week.
Ronan McCarthy has done the same and if there was something in fearlessness and attitude and legs in the middle third to lay down as a template, it might be more important to establish a base level of performance now in this league to replace the lows and highs.
There’s little point in working towards the idea of beating a Mayo or a Kerry without actively finding a standard formline and method and core group that can beat Roscommon and Clare and Meath first.
Cork might not openly target promotion but they’d want say five of seven games where they come off feeling satisfied with a positive performance and with something tangible to work with, a process that should lead to the outcome of promotion anyway.
Any feeling of optimism out there tends towards the notion that the new coach has the right blend of bloodymindedness and knowhow to ask the right questions of this Cork group for starters.
When Cork ran onto the field in the McGrath Cup down in Mallow recently it was met with complete silence (genuinely, not one single clap or cheer) and that’s become a fairly common response through league games recently.
There’s a feeling with supporters that Cork are intriguing in some ways, that people are going to games somewhere between the hope of being entertained with the curiosity and potential of being disgusted as well.
Tipp down the Páirc in front of a double-header crowd might not be Dublin in Croke Park but it’s as big a deal for this new Cork team and manager, a real opportunity to put down a marker as to the type of team Cork can expect to see in this era.
Cork will want a win and they certainly don’t need a loss or collapse but mostly they’d like the feeling of having a direction and moving towards it again.