IN his column the Sunday after the Munster final, Marc Ó Sé cut loose on Cork, gutting them like a fish with his razor-blade words, opening them apart with the serrated edge of his tone.
“There is something rotten here because the players did not put in an honest shift,” said Ó Sé. “In fact, they dishonoured the Cork shirt. That’s how bad this thing looked up close.” “That raises an unavoidable observation. They were not playing for their management team and it has been obvious for some time that Peadar Healy is not only out of his depth, but that there is also an emotional disconnect with his players.”
Ó Sé was scathing of the performance, and of Cork’s approach to the game. He said that it was more like “a tag rugby exhibition” than a Munster final.
“No-one was going to get hurt, apart from Cork’s pride that is,” wrote O Se. “The blame for this disgraceful performance should be shared. There were seven or eight players who could have been benched by half-time, some of those included their leaders.”
It is always easy for pundits to stick the knife into a team when they are on the ground. It’s even more hurtful for Cork when it’s coming from across the border in Kerry but Ó Sé is still well qualified to offer his assessment.
He knows what its like face a Cork team ready to fight in the way a county like Cork should. He played on enough Kerry teams beaten by Cork during his career – on four occasions – while he grew up during a time when Kerry knew very little else.
When Ó Sé and his three brothers would play out the back of their home in Ventry, they would always endlessly imitate the big dogs of the game, which were Cork and Meath at that time between 1987-’91. Their uncle Páidí had always swapped jerseys during his career and he used stash them in his house in Ard an Bothair.
Whenever he wasn’t around, his nephews would raid his collection, pulling on shirts of every colour to help them re-enact whatever game they had seen on TV.
It may have seemed odd given the Ó Sé’s history of family and place but Tomas Ó Sé’s favourite jersey was the blood red of Cork.
"Why?” he wrote recently. “Because they were a team of men. From Kerins to Cahalane to O'Brien to Counihan to Teddy Mac to Fahy to Barry to Allen and, of course, Tompkins, they had a ruthlessness about them. And with Billy Morgan on the line? Jesus, that team was one tough nut to crack.
"So even though, in my adult life, beating Cork became such a fundamental obligation, I grew up with a massive respect for what they represented. Some of the hardest opponents I ever faced in football were Cork men. Graham Canty, Noel O'Leary, Nicholas Murphy, Alan O'Connor, Pearse O'Neill… big men, great footballers."
O’Connor is the only one still playing but this Cork team has lost more than just big names and characters over the years – they have also lost their soul.
Something is missing. The players may have lost faith in the manager, who looks to have lost faith in himself. Hard and strong criticism from the Ó Sés, and plenty of others, won’t necessarily trigger a performance if the players don’t believe it is in them anyway.
Yet the Cork players shouldn’t need people questioning their desire and ambition, they shouldn’t feel the need to ram all the criticism down the Ó Sés or anyone else’s throat - if they don’t have enough pride in themselves to try and deliver a performance against Mayo on Saturday, they have no business wearing the jersey in the first place.
Leadership comes from the top. The culture and environment is set by the management but the ultimate responsibility rests with the players. That is personal responsibility, personal accountability, personal leadership. Because before the opposition ever square up in the other corner, every player competes with himself first.
In the wake of Dublin’s record-breaking seventh Leinster title in-a-row last Sunday, they have looked more unbeatable than ever. The general theme from commentators and pundits is that most other teams are only deluding themselves thinking they can beat Dublin.
The easiest thing to say is that with their huge resources, playing numbers, massive sponsorship deal and huge financial backing, nobody can, or will be able to live with Dublin in the future.
“Money and resources will give you the opportunity, and a platform to get the best out of yourself, and to perform consistently at an elite level,” said Jackie Tyrrell, who won nine All-Irelands with Kilkenny. “But ultimately it comes down to the individual, and the desire within that individual to be the very best version of themself. Money can’t create spirit.
"It doesn’t set standards. You set them yourself. It doesn’t matter how good the opposition are, or how unbeatable they appear, you decide how good you can be, how good you really want to be.”
That should be Cork’s mindset for Saturday evening. How good can you be as an individual? How good can the team be together, when everyone is working hard, and on the same wavelength?
Mayo are not Dublin but they will be guaranteed to work hard, because that is the baseline standard they have set for themselves. If Cork are honest and they give this a real go, they have a better chance than many people think.
But they have to believe it themselves. The players have to set their own standards.
And if that’s still not good enough, fair enough. At least the players can say they did what was expected off them, that they honoured the blood red jersey worn by the great men who went before them.