BEFORE the Cork-Down game on Sunday, Kieran McCarthy, editor of the Southern Star newspaper, tweeted a photograph of the sparsely populated North Stand in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
‘Count the fans at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and win a prize…’ tweeted McCarthy.
In six of the 11 sections, there were just 79 people in those seats (a couple were standing) at that particular time. The South Stand wasn’t exactly rocking either, but the Cork footballers wouldn’t have expected any different, irrespective of Sunday being one of the biggest games Cork had played in years.
When Cork were All-Ireland champions for their first league game against Monaghan in 2011, around 1,000 supporters turned up to Páirc Uí Rinn, many of whom were away fans. It upset some of the Cork players at the time, especially when there had been so many Cork supporters in Croke Park the previous September to see them beat Down in the All-Ireland final.
The Cork footballers were unloved when they were winning — not to the same extent as they are now — but that underlying apathy through the generations has never abated.
The disappointment was all the more acute again on Sunday though, when the match against Down presented the home supporters with an ample opportunity to get behind a team going through such a rough patch. The locals, especially dual fans around the city, had less of an excuse with the hurlers in Wexford for a game that was a dead-rubber when both teams had already qualified for the semi-finals.
In any case, the footballers got the job done and they live to fight another day, with Sunday’s game against Offaly now a relegation play-off in Tullamore. Cork won’t expect many of their own supporters to travel, but they’re well used to that scenario by now.
Considering the pressure they were under, Cork will be happy that they at least stepped up to the plate and secured their first win of the campaign. On the other hand, Cork will place the result in context too; along with Waterford, Down are the only team in the country not to have won a game in this year’s league.
One of Cork’s biggest areas of concern coming into the match was their poor conversion rate, which had been running at an average of 51% over their three previous games. Yet Cork’s conversion rate against Down was 77%.
Cork actually had eight fewer shots than their opponents, but Cork had a 100% strike rate from placed balls, while the Ulster side’s conversion rate was just 43%.
Down had 24 shots from play but they only nailed nine of them. Down kicked 11 wides in total compared to just four for Cork.
Cork also showed great resilience when Down pounded the Cork defence throughout the second half. The Down goal from Tiernan Rushe in the 48th minute left them trailing by just one point, but Cork responded with three unanswered points.
When Down had reduced the margin to one point once more with five minutes remaining, Cork kicked on again, closing out the game with points from Colm O’Callaghan and the really impressive Stephen Sherlock.
That composure under extreme pressure will have given Cork a much-needed confidence boost now ahead of Sunday. Cork’s kick-outs stats were better too than they had been in recent games, with Cork securing 19 of their 24 restarts.
Although Cork’s relegation playoff last year came about through scoring difference in a four-team mini-league, another relegation final now is not where Cork need to, or should, be.
Injuries, a lack of hardened experience and a massive turnover of players is still not a good enough reason for Cork to be where they are, but a closer investigation of just how radical the turnover has been provides more insight into why Cork have found themselves in this perilous position this spring.
In the Irish Examiner last Saturday, Eoghan Cormican noted how, prior to last Sunday, 25 players had made their senior debut under Keith Ricken since the county’s opening game of the season in January. Fourteen players had made their league debut in this league campaign.
When Cormican detailed the seemingly never-ending list of Cork players either not involved or not available to Ricken at present, the counting stopped at 22. Eleven are injured, six either opted out or are taking a year out, while the rest were either released from the panel or they retired.
That was bound to destabilise and imbalance the panel, especially when a significant number of Cork’s better players, particularly defenders, have been absent. Their experience and leadership would have been hugely important when so many new players have been integrated into the side and are craving guidance during such a difficult period.
None of that though is relevant now as Cork need to go to the well again on Sunday to get the result they need to stay up. Offaly’s 10-point defeat to Roscommon on Sunday has also shifted the ground more in Cork’s favour because their better scoring difference would be pivotal in the event of a draw.
When the league fixture list was released at the outset of the year, Cork would have targeted a handful of those games as winnable, especially the game against Offaly. Yet this game has taken on a whole new meaning now, especially in terms of pressure.
Cork handled it against Down. And they need to even more now against Offaly.