AS the various stages of post-championship exit grief kicked in through Saturday evening and on into Sunday it began to feel very much like the kind of wake Cork football would put together.
The immediate sense post-match was a kind of thrill to have properly slugged it out with one of the big guns and to remember exactly what that felt like, to be engaged and excited by a performance again. Then, that desperate realisation that Mayo had been really on the ropes and vulnerable and that maybe one of the best chances in a few years at gaining momentum from a win had been lost.
And then that nagging question that kept repeating: why did it take until backs were to the wall for Cork to cut loose? Or more relevantly, is this hard-running, pacy, instinctive, team full of conviction and adventure the ‘real’ Cork or is the Cork that was so unsure of themselves against Waterford, the first half v Tipp and in the Munster final a truer reflection of where Cork are?
It’s hardly a surprise to be left with this lingering doubt; this wondering has sort of dominated the last two years (maybe even four or five) and the main takeaway from this era is this feeling of nobody really being sure what Cork football is or might be or who Cork might beat or lose to at any stage.
The bare facts first. Twenty-two league and championship games in two years has brought nine wins, three draws, 10 losses. Knocked out of championship before the quarter-finals for two summers, relegated from Division One.
Cork had some shockers and reality check defeats and that scar tissue from these collapses hasn’t fully healed. Conceding 4-25 to Roscommon was sloppy and losing to Tipp last summer was a moment of clarity into what can happen now if the team doesn’t perform. Losing to Clare this year was another reminder on that.
The Munster final was disappointing in that it seemed to confirm to everyone just how far Cork were from competing and how far ahead Kerry had pulled. Good days out were fewer. The very first game against Mayo in the league was probably as genuinely feelgood as last season got.
This year we had that fevered last quarter push against Tipp and Luke Connolly’s winning goal, the all-or-nothing last quarter heave against Mayo last weekend and Luke Connolly’s brilliant levelling goal and equally brilliant levelling point.
It’s just that it’s been awfully hard most of the time to locate any sense of obvious progression, or even to put your finger on what the journey was meant to be about. It’s hard to recall many games Cork football fans have walked away from feeling positive or that they’re a part of something worthwhile. Many of the same problems were never completely solved.
The defence was still giving up big scores at the end – 26 and then 27 points in the last two games – and it was alarming at times to see how straightforward it was for Kerry and Mayo to kickpass to their main scorers and then for guys like O’Donoghue and Geaney and O’Connor and Moran to take their scores. Cork used an anchor in defence without ever quite influencing the game with an effective sweeper.
It wasn’t always entirely evident how Cork were meant to move the ball into scoring positions either. Looking back at the notes from the first game with Mayo in league 2016 there seemed to be a movement towards kicking the ball into the full-forward line – Paul Kerrigan and Luke Connolly were both influential as playmakers that day – and yet by summer Cork were running the ball through the lines from half-back to half-forward.
Cork referenced kicking the ball more again early this campaign and tried to evolve the Peter Kelleher as target-man tactic but the comebacks against both Tipp and Mayo were born out of hard running with and ahead of the ball by the middle eight. Teams who bottled up Colm O’Neill generally kept Cork’s scoring rate down.
Even at the end Cork weren’t fully settled on a goalkeeper and so rarely found a rhythm or a system of winning mid-range and long kick-outs. And if structural flaws were evident, individual form couldn’t make up for them.
Kerrigan was consistently a go-to and Sean Powter emerged as a genuine potential gem but it’s hard to think of many others that made a leap over the two years or specifically learned and nailed down a role. Ian Maguire grew into midfield but still needs work, Aidan Walsh’s obvious attributes still aren’t influencing games as they should be, Brian O’Driscoll looked a potential All-Star half-back in that opener against Mayo in January 2016 but for various reasons hasn’t has a chance to develop into a key player.
Cork management just never managed to find the right combination or balance and there always seemed to be a feeling that they were fighting fires rather than in control of the narrative, that they were looking for answers but not quite sure of the questions. There was a pile of work done behind the scenes at developing structures to compete on a strength and conditioning level and fitness was especially targetted when year one stats showed a large gap in distances ran between Cork and the elite teams.
Players were generally happy with training. Cork just never found that momentum from a batch of wins or belief from a system or run of serious form that they could completely trust and there were times where confidence looked on the verge of collapsing.
When Peadar Healy took the job two years back we rang a recently retired Cork footballer for some thoughts. His basic message that day was to temper expectations, to ease off on ideas of challenging for All-Ireland finals and semi-finals until a new team had been developed and was ready to roll against the Dubs and Kerry.
It’s felt like that kind of transition, where a new group and management have spent time trying to figure out exactly what they’re good at and how good they can be without necessarily finding an answer at the end. Cork football got a glimpse last weekend of the sort of performance level that’s possible and that ought to become standard and perhaps the kind of ambition that could reconnect the footballers with themselves.
The challenge for the next guy is to figure out that base and where it might lead. For now, Cork are still an unknown quantity, even to themselves.