First, a few words of warning on placing too much emphasis on what might happen this weekend.
We recall listening to Tomas O’Se while driving home from Cork’s takedown of Mayo in game one of last year’s league talking about the impressive focus from one team and the worrying disinterest of the other; we also recall which of the teams was a kick away from winning the All-Ireland and which didn’t kick a ball after July.
Cork beat Dublin in the opening game of NFL 2015; one of those teams went on to win the All-Ireland and the other got swept away by Kildare in mid-summer.
2014? Cork were unbeaten till game five and topped Division One; they still looked like a team that had never seen each other before by the Munster final.
So we have to be pretty careful in setting out what Cork need from their first campaign outside the top division since 2009 and it may well be that some of the good in recent leagues has masked the more important areas that weren’t quite being attended to.
In 2014 we got carried away by the free-scoring attack but forgot about the need for basic defence.
In 2015 we got ferocious intensity at times but forgot what to do when that didn’t happen.
In 2016 we spoke of transition and finding new players but spent so long looking for the perfect team we forgot about mixing them all together.
If anything good is to come from 2017 for Cork footballers, you’d imagine they’ll need to have a really decent idea on a lot of positions by the end of the league and that each line and natural grouping on the field will have worked and developed some sort of rhythm of playing together and if possible playing together well consistently.
The little details might be more important now than the headline wins and yet Peadar Healy and his group also need the momentum from some bright performances far more than dealing with doubts and questions from poor results.
There are things Cork need to happen and things Cork would like to happen in the next three months.
A clear conviction on what management are looking for from players and from lines on the field is on the need list and after a disrupted sort of year one where Cork seemed to be playing catchup constantly looking for their best players and combinations (defined possibly by ending the Donegal game with two players on the field who’d been drafted onto the panel after the hurlers lost), you’d expect a more definite picture to evolve in year two and it’s difficult to overstate the difference it could make.
It was interesting to hear one ex-player talk of the difference between say the 2010 group and this one as more an issue of belief in what they’re doing than a huge gap in quality and another tell a story of a previous management ringing players asking what they thought about tactical issues and positions when the players felt they needed more guidance than discussion.
You get the feeling it’s important for the players to buy in fully to this and for that to happen they need to know what they’re buying into.
Around the field there are calls and unknowns.
Cork went with Ryan Price for last summer after a trial period through the league and it’s probably not necessary to mention Mayo and the All-Ireland final replay disaster to get across what can happen if there’s a lack of consistency from kickouts – it’d be better to give whoever they go with a league to work with their defence and midfield.
Cork need to find a role for Colm O’Neill. Whether that’s through working out a way to get him enough possession near goal to do damage – like say feeding Peter Kelleher with long ball as in the Monaghan game last spring – or as a gamechanging sub like up in Longford last summer, will probably need the evidence of a few games to decide on.
Billy Morgan namechecked Brian O’Driscoll over the winter as one that has to be used properly and the O’Driscoll from say Killarney 2015 or last spring that drives forward to distribute and score needs to be developed as a key influencer.
The integration of the youthful energy of Sean Powter and Sean White and Michael Hurley and others from the U21s will be a fascinating element. They basically couldn’t be ignored last year as Cork needed that spark post-Tipp but there’s a difference between throwing in legs to alter a dynamic and actively evolving a way of playing that involves their strengths.
Ian Maguire was simply given games last year and allowed learn from the challenges of midfield at elite level week after week and one or two of the younger lads might get the same treatment now.
Aidan Walsh’s return should be an open goal to bring a serious quality leap (Cork don’t have a pile of two-time All-Star, young footballers of the year just hanging around) if we hadn’t spent most of his last couple of years with the footballers trying to figure out where to get most from him.
But the dynamic monster of an athlete who had a knack for making intercounty senior players look like U16s with his speed and powerful running?
Yep, he’d make a difference and he ought to get gametime to get the touch back even if we’re not sure quite where from 5-12 on the field. Brian Hurley’s comeback will be watched with interest.
John O’Rourke had a wonderful year with Carbery Rangers and is in that group of guys that could become serious players at this level. Stephen Cronin will benefit from a full year of games and training.
Big picture, Cork would take a settled defence that can work on improving their 2016 record of conceding twenty points or more six times from eleven league and championship matches (can for instance Michael Shields come back in and lead and canTom Clancy kick on from the Donegal performance?), a manmarker to emerge that could handle a Paddy McBrearty when needed and one or two of that group from midfield forwards to step up as main man for the league.
Still the most important thing to remember might be that limitations aren’t necessarily permanent.
Mayo have openly referenced certain skills of individuals that’ve been targeted and worked on over the past four or five years, something as basic as scoring off the weaker foot.
Players like Eoghan O’Gara and Kevin McManamon spoke recently about how they worked with specific training on areas of their game and developed that raw ability into far more accomplished footballers.
Cork has talent but hasn’t been great at realising the necessity to keep making it better.
This league offers the opportunity to do just that, if they want to take it.