IN an interview with Tony Leen in the Irish Examiner in January, Ronan McCarthy said that the biggest challenge he faced as Cork manager was in dealing with the hysterical reaction to setbacks.
The defeat to Tipperary in the Munster final sparked huge disappointment and anger around the county, but McCarthy was looking at the bigger picture, and where he and Cork intended to go.
“Success isn’t linear, nor is learning, and there are bumps along the road,” said McCarthy. “And there will be more, so (Cork) people should buckle up. But in the end, if you come out the other side as a top team competing for titles then it will have been worth the journey.”
The natural public reaction was of a glorious opportunity missed but McCarthy posed different questions to a multitude of potential answers. If Tipp had beaten Kerry and Cork had beaten Tipp in the Munster final, what judgement would people have made of Cork then? Considering the difficulties Tipp had given Cork in recent years, was it that big of a surprise that Tipp beat Cork?
It’s always been a results business, especially for Cork, and particularly after having beaten Kerry.
It’s harder again for the public to appreciate Cork’s gradual improvement in a county that expects so much, but immediacy has become everything in such a demanding modern environment.
McCarthy deserves huge credit for how he has turned things around since the nadir for him, and many of these players, when Tyrone hammered them by 16 points in the 2018 qualifiers. Last November’s win against Kerry was a firm declaration of how they had travelled in the meantime, but the challenge now is based around how much Cork can build on that win in order to move on to that next level.
One of the sorest points of losing last year’s Munster final extended far beyond silverware because the real loss was the developmental opportunity to play another top-four team (Mayo) in Croke Park in an All-Ireland semi-final. Cork have only played in Croke Park twice in the last six seasons.
It’s unfair to make comparisons but one of the reasons Cork were such a force under Conor Counihan was because they were such regular visitors to Croke Park; after winning the Division 2 League title in Croke Park in 2009, Cork won three successive Division 1 titles there between 2010-’12. In those same four seasons, between 2009-2012, Cork played 10 championship matches in Croke Park.
Securing Division 1 football would open up that possibility of getting back there far more often. But getting promotion is all the more important again considering what Division 1 football could mean next year in the context of a potential new championship format.
If passed, Proposal B, would essentially move the National League format into the championship, with those seven league games filtering into the All-Ireland series.
The top four teams in Division 1 would secure a passage through to the All-Ireland quarter-finals while the fifth placed team would also have a realistic pathway to the last eight. Outside of Mayo, that would be a challenge for any team just promoted from Division 2 this year but, even if that format isn’t adopted, Cork know that they have to become an established Division 1 team if they are to really progress.
Mayo and Meath’s presence has ramped up the competitiveness of Division 2 this year. Before they were relegated to Division 3 in 2019, Cork had spent the previous two years languishing in Division 2, being just two points off the relegation places in each of those seasons. Yet Cork should still be targeting promotion now. Monaghan were the last team to gain promotion from Divisions 3 to Division 1 in successive seasons but that was the springboard to them becoming a Division 1 force and a championship contender since the middle of the last decade.
Establishing that ruthless mindset required to secure successive promotions would have been easier with the confidence of having won a Munster title. Monaghan were still reigning Ulster champions when they won the Division 2 title in 2014. On the other hand, not having won last year’s Munster title will have forced McCarthy and his players to be more introspective and more demanding.
That has already been evident with McCarthy’s backroom additions of John Hayes, Bobbie O’Dwyer and Kieran Shannon.
What’s more, Cian O’Neill will have much more coaching time with the players than he had last year, while S&C coach Kevin Smith will also have more scope than he had in 2020.
Having all those blocks in place was more critical again with McCarthy’s dislocation from the squad while still serving his three-month suspension, which expired on Thursday. Cian O’Neill’s managerial and coaching experience certainly compensated for that void. Cork’s preparation and analytical and tactical approach for Saturday’s game will also have been facilitated through O’Neill’s insight and knowledge into his own county, which he managed between 2016-’19.
Like every other team, Cork don’t really know where they are at the moment but a win on Saturday will be critical for building confidence and momentum. Because while Cork are on the right road, what they can get done in 2021 will go a long way towards defining where Cork end up during McCarthy’s reign.