If you were take a straw poll of Cork supporters as to what a ‘good’ season would be this year, it’s likely that the responses would be fairly uniform.
A Munster title and a first All-Ireland since 2005? Amazing. ‘Just’ an All-Ireland, having not won Munster? No complaints. Munster but no All-Ireland? Grand, perfect foundation for reclaiming Liam MacCarthy next year. And the league but no championship triumph? Well, you wouldn’t be bringing the cup around the schools.
While mention of the now-15-year wait for an All-Ireland is never far away – and we have to hold our hands up of being guilty of that – the 23 years since a Cork hurling captain (a teenaged Diarmuid O’Sullivan, incidentally) lifted the league trophy don’t attract the same level of attention.
Ultimately, the perception of your league results will be based on the championship results. If you’re going well every summer, good league displays will be seen as proof of the strong culture in the camp but poor ones will be hand-waved as prioritisation of the important competitions.
Conversely, if you were always doing well in the league and poorly in the championship, questions of big-game character would be asked. Then, bad league outings on top of a lack of progress to the latter end of the season would make for the worst of all scenarios.
In reality, things are reality as categorised as neatly as those four situations but, for Cork, there has been a general correlation between league and championship over the past decade.
In 2011, as Cork finished sixth of eight Division 1 teams, winning two and drawing one of seven games. After defeat to Tipperary in their only Munster championship game, they overcame Laois and Offaly in the qualifiers before falling to Galway.
A year on and Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s first year in charge saw a second-placed finish in the revamped six-team Division 1A, with Tipperary beaten in the semi-final before defeat to Kilkenny in the final. As Brian Cody’s side have always tended to take the league seriously and were All-Ireland champions at the time, this was seen as a sign of progress from Cork and it was backed up with a journey to the All-Ireland semi-finals, the year again ending with defeat to Galway.
In terms of following patterns, they might then have been some concern at Cork being relegated from Division 1A in 2013, losing a play-off to Clare after extra time. However, it was a tightly-contested section, with the Rebels and the Banner both finishing on four points, two behind the table-toppers Tipperary and Kilkenny with Galway and Waterford on five.
Any disappointment at dropping to Division 1B was parked though as Cork reached the Munster final, losing to Limerick, and then saw off Kilkenny and Dublin to make the All-Ireland final, where Clare were again the opponents.
Cork were seconds away from victory only for Clare to nab a late equaliser and Davy Fitzgerald’s side came out on top in the replay.
Nevertheless, Cork had shown they could compete and a Division 1B campaign of four wins and a draw in 2014 ensured immediate promotion back to the top tier. A first Munster title since 2006 followed, though the manner of the All-Ireland semi-final loss to Tipperary was something of a worry.
Still, second place in Division 1A and knockout wins over Wexford and Dublin secured a place in the league final. Unfortunately, a ten-point defeat to Waterford ensued and that was shown to be no fluke when the Déise triumphed by five in the Munster championship.
Though Cork regrouped to beat Wexford and Clare, an All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Galway ended JBM’s second spell in charge.
Kieran Kingston’s first year as manager brought five defeats in the regular section of the league and, though relegation was avoided with a play-off win over Galway, the championship was a disappointment, ending with Cork’s first loss to Wexford since 1956.
However, it proved to be a transitional year as second place in Division 1A in 2017 was followed by a Munster title. Then, with John Meyler was in charge, 2018 league was disappointing – another play-off win needed to escape the drop – but the provincial title was retained.
The relegation spectre couldn’t be evaded forever and Cork fell in 2019, losing to Kilkenny, but another restructuring ensured that they would remain in what was now a 12-team Division 1. The league inconsistency was carried into the championship though, Cork coming third in the Munster round-robin and exiting to Kilkenny at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage.
Despite, or because of, last year’s frayed schedule, the league landscape was again replicated – two wins and three losses in the spring and a victory and two defeats in the winter championship.
With the calendar so compacted this year, it’s almost certain that formlines will hold true, so Cork will need a strong start to the league.