Cork footballers know to compete in the summer you need to get back to Division 1 in the league

'Missing out on playing the likes of Dublin and Tyrone during a prolonged league campaign will hinder a young Cork team’s development over the next couple of years'
Cork footballers know to compete in the summer you need to get back to Division 1 in the league

Cork's Kevin Flahive is tackled by Louth's Liam Jackson, Conor Early and Conall McKeever last season. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A GOOD start is imperative if Cork are to gain promotion from this year’s Allianz National Football League Division 2.

Ronan McCarthy and his senior panel spent the week ramping up preparations for their upcoming league campaign.

While hopeful of building on the momentum that saw Cork claim promotion and last year’s Division 3 title, a reduced 2021 league and championship fixture-list offers little margin for error.

Division 2 South opponents Clare, Laois and Kildare present differing challenges in a four-team group that sees Cork playing all their matches away from home.

Naturally, this year’s reduced league will be used to build towards a Munster Championship clash with either Limerick or Waterford.

Yet, moving up the National League rankings is equally important, perhaps even more so for Cork considering where the squad is in its current lifecycle.

A developing Cork team would benefit from regularly facing quality Division 1 opposition such as Kerry, Dublin, Galway, Tyrone or Donegal.

The gap between the teams in the top echelons of the national league and those further down the pecking order is getting wider with each passing year.

The longer Cork spend outside Division 1, the harder it is going to be for Ronan McCarthy and whoever follows him to bridge that gap in quality by the time championship comes around.

For context, just ask Jack O’Connor.

Semple Stadium will host Cork’s league opener against Kildare on May 15. Kildare manager O’Connor would be only too happy to dent Cork’s early-season hopes.

The three-time All-Ireland-winning Kerry Bainisteoir took over from current Cork senior football coach Cian O’Neill in late 2019. Last year, the Lilywhites finished third in Division 2 behind Roscommon and Armagh, missing out on promotion by a single point.

In the Leinster championship, a 0-20 to 0-16 win over Offaly preceded a disappointing 5-9 to 0-15 loss at the hands of Meath in the penultimate round. Granted, the past two years have been difficult to build any sort of momentum for inter-county squads because of Covid-19. Yet, the manner of Kildare’s loss to a Division 1 team, albeit relegated that same year, struck a chord with O’Connor.

Kildare manager Jack O'Connor. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kildare manager Jack O'Connor. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

“Whilst Meath didn’t have a great campaign in Division 1, they are playing at a level that is a bit above where we were playing and I just thought that told at times in the second half,” the Kildare manager told the Examiner’s Paul Keane shortly after their 2020 Leinster championship defeat to Meath.

“My immediate reaction is that we need to be playing at this level, this was another step up for us and I thought we handled it well for the first 35 minutes.” 

Meath put five goals past Kildare, a Division 2 team, in last year’s provincial semi-final despite not having defeated a Division 1 team themselves in either league or championship since 2014. That statistic further underlines the growing disparity between those at the top tier of the national league and those from Division 2 downwards.

Kildare, Clare and Laois, not to mention Division 2 North’s Mayo, Meath, Down and Westmeath want to gain promotion to Division 1 but Cork, in their current state, needs to.

Missing out on playing the likes of Dublin and Tyrone during a prolonged league campaign will hinder a young Cork team’s development over the next couple of years. The quality of minor and U20 players coming through is all well and good but that emerging talent requires the experience of taking on the best the country has to offer.

That’s why Cork getting off to a positive start against Kildare and carrying that momentum into the Laois and Clare games, two teams that only barely avoided relegation from Division 2, is imperative. Should Cork finish in the top two of their southern section then a league semi-final against Mayo, Meath or Down is potentially on the cards.

Cork manager Ronan McCarthy. Picture: David Fitzgerald, Sportsfile
Cork manager Ronan McCarthy. Picture: David Fitzgerald, Sportsfile

Ronan McCarthy may attempt to downplay the importance of the upcoming league fixtures, as any inter-county manager would, but the reality is that Cork’s best chance of bridging the gap to the top inter-county teams is to play them as often as possible. In that regard, Division 1 is the only place to be and Cork needs to get there sooner rather than later.

FIXTURES

Saturday, May 15: Cork v Kildare in Semple Stadium at 3.30pm.

Saturday, May 22: Laois v Cork in O’Moore Park, Portlaoise at 7pm.

Sunday, May 30: Clare v Cork in Cusack Park, Ennis at 1.45pm.

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