YEAR one: A heavy defeat to Kerry and a qualifier loss that showed how bad things had gotten.
Year two: A reasonable go at Kerry and progress, before falling short once the action heated up at Croke Park.
Year three: A win over Kerry at last, but not being able to capitalise on that.
Guess the Cork football manager?
That was a summation of Billy Morgan’s 2004-2006 stint and I remember interviewing Morgan and he admitted he’d been taken aback by the fragility of the players’ confidence in that 18 months, when a lot of his work was restoring their belief in themselves and what might be possible.
Ronan McCarthy will recognise the trajectory and the shattered psyche that needed repair.
It took 2018 to provide a reality check on where things were for the team and spring 2019 until anything started to click as regards what might work.
2020 offered definable progress and yet still there is some lack of clarity on where things might be taken in 2021 and beyond.
Morgan got to an All-Ireland final in his fourth season.
McCarthy would certainly be targetting an All-Ireland semi-final in these two years, you’d imagine; more than anything, there’s an opportunity to build a recognisable Cork football team now, to go past the constant firefighting crisis stage and make something more lasting.
There are valid questions to answer, of course, about the time lost imposing a system that didn’t work for the players, and being too open at the back, or lacking a real creativity in moving the ball into scoring areas, once the running channels were closed down. That was a recurring issue.
The non-performance against Tipp was worrying, when the feeling had been that Cork were finally shifting their vulnerability, but it did remind us of where Cork are in standard.
There was an overall positivity in the squad that’s hard to fake.
Paul Kerrigan genuinely seemed to feel that the momentum had shifted, when he was leaving. Ciaran Sheehan spoke far too highly too often of the mentality being changed and he has years of experience in professional environments to know.
The idea has taken hold in the group that they want to win games, rather than just compete.
Cian O’Neill has raised the intensity and focus and workrate and has impacted on how players and the team move around the field.
There’s a level of game know-how to be added and tweaks to some aspects of individual play.
Tipp moved the ball far more cleverly than Cork into their scoring forwards in the Munster final.
Cork need more work on how they combine the hard running of their middle eight with the ability to kick the ball more directly into the scoring zones.
That willingness and ability to break tackles to create those overloads has to be based on the balance of the risk/reward of getting turned over against not being able to penetrate: That decision-making comes with time and coaching.
Shooting for points needs work in the tighter games. In the context of looking for a spark in attack, the enlisting of John Hayes is interesting. We mentioned, only a few weeks ago, the potential influence of the 2010 group on Cork football in the coming decade.
Hayes brings a recent knowledge of playing the inter-county game and of winning and has referenced the need for Cork to move away from over-carrying the ball towards more use of the kickpass.
How Cork shift the game-plan will be interesting to watch. Cork haven’t produced too many kick-passing playmakers in the last 25 years, but players can be coached to be confident and aware of the kick-pass and have the right mix of skillsets in the numbers five to 12 positions, especially between runners, ballplayers and all-rounders.
Cork seem to have made up ground with the elite teams in physical preparations. Issues with mentality are being improved.
There’s time to work on the sort of team that Cork want to be, and need to be, in order regularly to take on Kerry and the other top teams.
Even with the emergence of this new wave of players, they need a year or two of game experience against better teams and opponents.
There were still strange feelings before the Kerry game: Guessing the Cork starting 15 had all sorts of combinations involving a large group of possible players.
But Sean Meehan and Maurice Shanley and Paul Ring will be better for both the games in Munster, and Gore and O’Mahony will improve with a year of Division 2 defenders.
Others, from the U20s and minors of the last few years, will get games and chances. Though not too many, surely: There is a need to create a team, also, rather than blooding a huge amount of players.
Liam O’Donovan will be back with drive and energy. There’s a fair batch of players now who have played a handful of games and who might be the core of the team for the next five or 10 years. Their progress over the next couple of seasons could define their mentality as Cork footballers.
Ronan McCarthy spoke about whether beating Kerry every five or six years was considered enough.
He’ll want to do it again at least once. Cork will want to be a Division One team again.
After a while waiting for any defining characteristic in Cork football, there was an honesty and grit and positivity this past 18 months.
We’ve two years to see if that’s enough or if more is needed to take another step, but we’ll have a better idea on Ronan McCarthy’s Cork at the end of it.