THE Cork footballers will be in Division 2 next season because that is their current level.
While the shortened format of the 2021 league didn’t leave any room for error, and Cork who take on Westmeath in a relegation play-off this weekend won the same number of games as promotion-chasing Clare and Kildare, the Rebels clearly need another campaign in the second tier.
They’re simply not physical or confident enough to go toe-to-toe with Dublin or Kerry on a regular basis. No, I haven’t forgotten Mark Keane’s goal to break the Kingdom’s hearts last winter, but David Clifford, Seán O’Shea and co are well ahead in their development compared to Cork’s younger footballers.
The pattern in recent seasons has been of counties bouncing between Divisions 1 and 2. That wouldn’t do Ronan McCarthy’s panel any favours, particularly as the team increasingly transitions to the 2019 All-Ireland winning U20 crop. Seán Meehan, Cathail O’Mahony and Daniel O’Mahony, U20 last year, look likely championship starters, while another rookie Tadhg Corkery impressed against Laois and Clare.
We’ve seen enough at inter-county underage and club level to suggest Damien Gore, who has been troubled with injuries, Conor Corbett, Blake Murphy and Mark Cronin, have the tools to deliver at the elite level. Next spring after a seven-game Division 2 campaign, we’ll know a lot more.
Obviously, a home loss to Westmeath and relegation to Division 3 would be a disastrous setback. Come Saturday afternoon in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that scenario will have been avoided. Westmeath haven’t won a match from their three so far.
The Leesiders didn’t get the credit they deserved for beating the Banner in Ennis.
Clare have held the upper hand for some time over Cork, aside from the 2018 McGrath Cup final and even then it required a Steven Sherlock injury-time goal to snatch the cup. This time Cork were dominant throughout for all bar a 10-minute spell in the first half when they conceded a penalty David Tubridy cooly converted.
Now Clare knew they’d a superior scoring difference and could therefore afford a narrow loss without losing their promotion play-off berth. They set up accordingly, with bodies in the middle third to choke Cork’s running game and on the counter, they picked off some nice scores.
Cork coughed up too many frees though, with 1-9 of Clare’s 1-18 tally from placed balls. The visitors’ 0-22 included three Luke Connolly frees and a Cathail O’Mahony free and though Connolly missed two scoreable frees in the first half, it shows how costly Cork’s indiscipline was.
In the build-up to the game in Ennis, John O’Rourke, the county’s top-scorer so far with 0-8, remarked on their need to increase their intensity.
“We’re looking at improving week by week and working on aspects in training which didn’t go well the last day. One thing you could see was the work-rate, and the amount of tackles we got through, was a lot better [against Laois].”
Balancing that aggression with avoiding fouls in the scoring zone, or getting red cards ala Brian Hartnett in losing to Kildare and Brian Hurley the last day, will be critical in the Munster arena.
There’s not much point in looking ahead to a provincial final against Kerry in Killarney next month, because there’s Saturday’s relegation play-off and a Munster semi-final with Limerick or Waterford to negotiate, but Kerry sharpshooters O’Shea and Clifford don’t waste too many frees.
Next up is Westmeath. A dominant display against weaker opposition would set the tone for the championship.
Cathail O’Mahony 0-11 (0-6 f),
John O’Rourke 0-8
Luke Connolly 0-5 (0-4 f)
Ian Maguire 0-4
Brian Hurley 0-4 (0-2 f)
Seán White 1-1
Ruairí Deane 1-0
Ciarán Sheehan 0-3 (0-1 mark)
Kevin O’Driscoll 0-3
Tadhg Corkery, Paul Walsh, Mattie Taylor 0-2 each
Mark Collins 0-2 frees
Shane Forde 0-1