IN his Irish Examiner column the morning after Limerick defeated Cork in the League hurling quarter-final in April, Anthony Daly told a story about an incident during the Cork-Down football match which preceded the hurling game.
With 59 minutes gone, Paul Kerrigan kicked a beautiful point off his left foot to put Cork ahead by by 1-10 to 0-10. “A cheer went up,” wrote Daly. “A father and his young son were sitting behind me. The young fella must have been reading the programme. Once he heard the commotion, he lifted his head. ‘Is it over Dad?’ he asked.
“The father got a fit of laughing. So did everyone around us.
"Down went on to kick the next three points to save themselves but that story nearly set the tone for what was to come in the hurling. The place was flat. The match was flat.”
That kid probably didn’t have the attention span to sit through two matches. He was more than likely only a hurling supporter but that story still almost encapsulated the wider attitude of the Cork public towards the footballers – they only look up now and again to see how they are getting on.
The saddest part of all is that the footballers now nearly draw more attention for what they didn’t do, or should have done, than what they actually did.
That was the general theme during the spring. The loss to Clare triggered a mass of public recrimination. After the Meath game, the main talking point was not how Cork rescued a point, but how they surrendered a seemingly unassailable lead. The talk after the six-point defeat to Kildare was how Cork failed to score for 20 minutes.
Saturday night’s performance will have heaped even more pressure on Peadar Healy. He can’t be expected to change a culture which has disintegrated so much in less than a decade but it’s his job to create the environment for his team to develop and prosper. No matter how hard he, and his backroom team have tried, that has not happened on Healy’s watch.
Last Saturday, Colm Cooper said that Cork are suffering from a lack of identity. That phrase has been repeatedly applied to Cork but Cork do have an identity – it just isn’t one that Cork would wish to have.
Any team believes now that they can beat Cork. Waterford almost did last Saturday with just three weeks collective training behind them.
Waterford knew Fraher Field would give them an edge but they also knew that their chances hinged on more than just home advantage.
They didn’t fear Cork. Nobody does anymore.
There has been nothing on show from Cork over the last 18 months to remind any team that the opposition was Cork. That Cork cockiness and fireproof belief was long eroded from Cork GAA teams but the hurlers have rediscovered it and the footballers are still desperately searching for that formula. That frustration is compounded for the footballers because they have less of an excuse given their provincial dominance at U21 level, having won five of the last seven titles.
Cork are desperately trying to break out of that hole they have found themselves in but the harder they keep digging, the bigger the hole seems to get.
At this stage, the negativity around the team is so embedded in the psyche of Cork GAA people that the public doesn’t expect anything else from the senior footballers, which perpetuates the negativity even more.
That inevitably seeps into the panel, no matter how hard they try and guard against it. No matter how hard the players try and firewall their system, that constant stream of negativity undermines morale and erodes confidence.
At this stage, are the players just trying to save face through damage limitation? Is it just about being credible when they think success seems so unattainable?
There is huge pressure on Cork in two weeks’ time now to beat Tipperary, especially with the opening of Páirc Uí Chaoimh possibly hinging around a Munster final there with Kerry. The Waterford display hinted that that pressure may be already effecting a team with such brittle confidence.
On the other hand, Cork may have taken a chance in their preparations. They may have loaded their fitness training recently, and are periodising to be at peak fitness for the Tipp game. Yet if they are, how much did that come at a cost to their confidence after Saturday?
On the morning of the game, Brian Hurley wrote an insightful and honest column in the Irish Examiner. Hurley spoke about the hurt and pain he has experienced, literally and physically, of his passion for football, especially Cork, of serious injury, and his fear at the prospect of not being able to play the game again.
Hurley wants success with Cork. He still sees the potential in the squad and turning that potential into results is a challenge that Hurley says excites everyone in the group.
“True winners stay the course,” wrote Hurley. “They buy into a system and trust it.”
Cork have to trust the system that they have bought in to. They have to work harder now to make that system function even better.
What Cork need more than anything though, is leadership, both from Healy and the players. The best leaders perform but they also have the ability to look beyond their own game and that of others.
One of the biggest problems with this team is that very few players have consistently looked comfortable enough in their own skin to be able to look beyond their own game. Donncha O’Connor showed it on Saturday but some of the other experienced players have struggled so much for form that they clearly feel unable to provide the leadership that the team, especially the younger players, is desperately crying out for.
Yet attitude reflects leadership and that mostly comes from the top.
And Healy needs to find it from somewhere. Fast.