Cork footballers will feel like they're in a sprint in the shortened league campaign which starts next month

Instead of finishing in the top two in the normal eight-team group Ian Maguire and colleagues must negotiate three games and then a promotion decider in their quest for promotion
Cork footballers will feel like they're in a sprint in the shortened league campaign which starts next month

Cork manager Ronan McCarthy has four games in the new-look National Football League Division 2 South to mount a promotion charge back to the top tier for the first time since 2016.

HAS splitting division 2 in the National Football League helped Cork’s promotion chances?

On the surface it should because instead of mounting a difficult seven-game series, Ronan McCarthy’s side have to deal with only four matches.

If they can muscle their way into a top two finish in the south section, which also has Kildare, Laois and Clare, then Cork would face just one more hurdle before returning to division 1 for the first time since 2016.

Yet, a quick glimpse at the teams making up division 2 north gives you some appreciation of the task confronting captain Ian Maguire and his colleagues.

Not only does it contain Meath and Mayo who were relegated from the top tier at the end of the last league, but it also has almost perennial opponents in Down, who were promoted along with Cork from division 3 last year.

And while Westmeath may be considered the outsiders of this quartet, it’s worth bearing in mind that they’re the only county to have sampled division 2 football in 2020.

What it further indicates is the almighty struggle which would have ensued if all teams were lumped into one section and trying to make a case for promotion and relegation would have tested even the most knowledgeable.

Whatever way it all unravels much of the spotlight will fall on Mayo, not because they came up short in another All-Ireland final back in December, but how they’re going to resolve so many high-profile retirements earlier in the year.

When you look at the calibre of warrior who will no longer be available to manager James Horan, it makes you wonder how they’re going to plug the gaps.

No county can lose the likes of Donal Vaughan, David Clarke, Seamus O’Shea, Tom Parsons, Chris Barrett and Keith Higgins not just from their starting 15, but as importantly, the panel, as well, and not expect to suffer.

It’s said finishing second from bottom in division 1 last term will help the team’s development over time, but Cork know all about what life in the second division can throw up, witness the 2019 relegation.

Mayo won two of their seven games, drew another and lost four, two of them by the minimum margin to Kerry and Tyrone, whose last-day victory pushed the Connacht side over the edge.

One of those wins was a one-point victory away to Meath in Navan and with two of their three games in the north section in Castlebar, against Meath and Down, Horan is privately thinking they’ve a chance of progressing to a promotion semi-final.

Cork will harbour similar thoughts and it would be keeping with the nature of games between the counties in recent times that they pair could be a collision course for a winner-take-all encounter for a place in division 1 in 2022.

Five years ago Cork and Mayo clashed in the All-Ireland U21 final in Ennis, when the Connacht champions stormed through for five goals in a 5-7 to 1-13 triumph.

You’d imagine Horan has this team in mind to help fill the vacancies, especially as four central figures from that afternoon have already announced their arrival on the big stage.

In the All-Ireland final against the Dubs, Stephen Coen wore six, Matthew Ruane nine, Conor Loftus 11 and Diarmuid O’Connor 12 while Michael Plunkett and James Carr were among the substitutes.

For their part, the Cork team which defeated Kerry in the Munster semi-final contained just two starters from 2016, Sean Powter, who missed the decider against Tipperary because of injury, and Kevin Flahive, who was cut from the panel.

Others were on the bench, like Anthony Casey, Sean White and Michael Hurley while injuries affected Cian Kiely, who was so prominent during the league.

Mayo received some encouragement before a ball is even kicked after the Connacht championship draw handed them a couple of what look to be easy ties.

First-up are Sligo, who didn’t play last season because of a Covid outbreak, with Leitrim awaiting the winners in the semi-final.

Last year, Mayo overcame Leitrim by 2-15 to 0-10 and they should progress to another final, having edged Galway 0-14 to 0-13 last season. Galway meet Roscommon in the other semi-final.

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