DRAWING Dublin has handed Cork their toughest possible challenge in the last eight of this year’s All-Ireland Senior Football Championship.
Lady Luck smiled on interim Cork manager John Cleary following their Munster final loss to Kerry with two consecutive All-Ireland qualifiers on home soil.
Mickey Harte and Billy Lee’s charges were seen off, albeit in very different kinds of matches, and the feelgood factor — absent from the Cork senior football setup for far too long — was back.
Those feel-good vibes have been replaced by supporters’ murmurings of trepidation at the prospect of taking on Dessie Farrell’s Dublin in Croke Park next Saturday.
There is no getting away from the fact that Dublin were the toughest possible opponent for John Cleary ahead of the All-Ireland quarter-finals draw. Galway and Derry were the other potential suitors, and viewed as possibly beatable despite each having defeated Cork in this year’s National League.
In the end, Dublin were drawn out and Cork now face their most daunting challenge of an already difficult 12 months.
The Dubs may have suffered relegation from Division 1 of the National League, but used the Leinster SFC effectively to rediscover their mojo.
A 1-24 to 0-4 hammering of Wexford was followed by a far-too-easy 1-27 to 1-14 win over Meath. Gaining momentum, Dublin saved their most complete performance of 2022 for the provincial decider.
Under Glen Ryan’s tutelage, an improving Kildare registered a memorable three-point National League win over the Dubs the previous February. Normal service was resumed at Croke Park on Leinster final day, however. Dublin scorched their opponents for five goals in 22 first-half minutes, before cantering to a 5-17 to 1-15 win.
In one foreboding afternoon, Kildare were firmly put back in their place and the rest of the country put on notice as the blue tide continued to rise.
Dublin’s scoring average, speed of movement, and lightning-quick transition from defence to attack are back to the levels that delivered eight All-Ireland titles in the past 11 years.
It has been a joy to watch a full-forward line comprising of Cormac Costello, Dean Rock, and Con O’Callaghan in full flight during the Leinster Championship. That trio accounted for 3-10 of Dublin’s total in their most recent victory over the Lilywhites. Crucially, Dessie Farrell’s forward’s off-the-ball exertions now match their ability to carve open defences and pick-off scores.
There are ball-winners dotted throughout the Dublin team too, not least at midfield, where Brian Fenton is enjoying a renaissance backed up by a half-back line of James McCarthy, John Small, and Brian Howard. Their work-rate and distribution sets the tone for Dublin’s attacks and will take some stopping.
Add to that, Farrell’s ability to call upon quality footballers such as Niall Scully, Cian Murphy, Aaron Byrne, Brian O’Leary, and Jonny Copper from the substitutes bench, and you get a sense of the size of the task facing Cork.
It is fair to say that few outside the Cork senior camp believes they have a serious chance of pulling off what would be the shock of the championship in Croke Park next weekend.
That assumption is based on the fact that the Rebels have been absent from Division 1 for far too long, are transitioning a large number of U20s into the senior first-team fold, and haven’t faced an opponent the quality of Dublin, apart from Kerry, in this year’s Munster decider.
Yet the Cork footballers travel to the capital with nothing to lose. That alone makes a hungry panel, stung by some of the over-the-top criticism levelled at them on The Sunday Game, eager to prove a point.
Cork should take solace from the fact that they went toe-to-toe with Kerry for three-quarters of this year’s provincial final before the quality of the Kingdom’s bench told in the final 20 minutes.
Yes, that doesn’t change the fact Cork lost to their arch-nemesis, and they weren’t happy about it even though the players’ effort and commitment was appreciated by their supporters.
Confidence-boosting All-Ireland qualifier victories over Louth and Limerick reminded Cork’s detractors of their capabilities, albeit against perceived inferior opposition.
Will Cork cause a shock against Dublin on their home turf? Highly unlikely, but this is a Cork team with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Cork’s supporters have a senior football team to be proud of once again and one that can whet the appetite for 2023 by putting it up to Dublin in Croke Park next Saturday night.
Irrespective of the final score, Cork must give their supporters a performance to be proud of.