THE cynics will wonder what Cork were doing in their infamous beach session in Youghal last winter if this was the best they could offer.
A promising first half in their Division 2 South league opener at Semple Stadium, moved from Páirc Uí Chaoimh as punishment for that Covid training breach, was undone in a woeful second 35 minutes. Sluggish and half-paced carrying possession, there was little or no quality ball sent into a forward line already missing Mark Collins and Luke Connolly and that lost Brian Hurley to injury.
To add insult to injury, rookie Brian Harnett collected a late red card for an off-the-ball incident.
Kildare, with Kerry native Jack O'Connor patrolling the sideline, set up to choke Cork the runners coming through the centre. That approach both limited Cork's second-half scoring chances and left them wide open on the counter-attack.
Kildare's second goal, in the 60th minute, came after a loose kick-pass at midfield was picked off and the turnover was rapidly fired towards Darragh Kirwan and Jimmy Hyland in oceans of space in front of Micheál Martin. They combined to cooly end this as a contest.
The most significant damage was done just before the second waterbreak. A burst of 1-2 in a row, straight after Cathail O'Mahony missed a super chance to level the game at 0-9 apiece, was the killer sequence in Thurles.
After a sluggish start, Kildare upped their intensity and the tempo of their ball movement before half-time and increased it in the third quarter. Cork had no real answers to that. Indeed Kildare should have raised their first green flag in a wild sequence with the ball ricocheting around the square that ended in a Neil Flynn 45 two minutes before Kevin Flynn's goal.
Mattie Taylor raided continuously down the left flank and Brian Hurley and O'Mahony appeared to have the beating of their markers, yet Kildare had bodies behind in numbers to foil them.
Too much of the play was out wide, bar a few trademark drives up the centre from Ian Maguire and Ruairí Deane. By their standards, the pair were below par. It didn't help that Hurley and O'Mahony both curled kickable frees wide, while three times shots dropped into the keeper's hands from close range.
Kildare lost Daniel Flynn, scorer of a pair of fine first-quarter scores, to injury before half-time, but they still outscored Cork four to one to lead 0-7 to 0-6 after 38 minutes. Sean Powter, who shipped two heavy hits, Kevin Flahive and Sean Meehan were all doing solid defensive work but the Lilywhites had that bit more room to engineer points.
None of that mattered in the second period when Kildare cranked up the gears. Positives were in short supply, aside from the welcome return of Powter from injury. Ciarán Sheehan nailed a neat point as a sub and was fouled for a converted free, while it was encouraging that heroes of the U20 All-Ireland in 2019 Blake Murphy, on his debut off the bench, and Daniel O'Mahony battled hard. Cathail O'Mahony wasn't clinical but at least he kept showing.
Ronan McCarthy's squad will now have to beat Laois and Clare on the road to have any shot at promotion.
The Cork footballers have experienced the highs and lows in the home of hurling in recent seasons. Brian Cuthbert's reign came to an end after a qualifier loss to Kildare in 2015, while the nadir of Peadar Healy's tenure was defeat to Tipp 12 months later. More recently two of the most free-flowing displays for Ronan McCarthy saw the Rebels dismantle the hosts and Laois.
Luke Connolly was to the fore in those, so his absence through injury, along with Mark Collins and Killian O'Hanlon, was a real concern beforehand.
Cork have it all to prove this season. Even if their only competitive loss in 2020 was the Munster decider against Tipp, the manner of the performance, squandering a glorious shot at a first Munster crown since 2012 after eliminating Kerry, drew the ire of Rebels in every corner of the county.
What constitutes a decent 2021? Well, promotion and the Munster title are the goals, but, assuming Kerry get past Clare and Tipp, it's impossible to see the Kingdom being caught in Killarney. To reach Division 1, Cork must finish in the top-two in Division 2 South, and then win the play-off against a Division 2 North county, Meath, Mayo, Westmeath or Down. Doable but not straightforward either.
The minimum would be avoiding the drop back to Division 3 and tearing into the Kingdom come July. Right now that looks like it'll be as good as it gets.