DURING some of the last days of last year, over the 29th and 30th December, the Cork footballers trained on successive days where the group were pushed close to their limits.
Some of the work involved fitness testing, but training over successive days in the winter is never easy.
Plenty of Cork squads in the past had done similar back-to-back sessions, but the feelgood factor throughout those couple of days was also another way of transmitting a message — internally as much as externally — that there is going to be something different about Cork in 2023.
For a start, the squad looks stronger than it has been in a while.
Secondly, Cork now have a former experienced inter-county manager coaching them in Kevin Walsh.
There were plenty of times during Walsh’s five years in charge of Galway between 2015-19 when his side were accused of being over-coached or focusing too much on technical, tactical, and defensive detail, which often portrayed Walsh and his players as being unfaithful to the best traditions of Galway football and the sport itself.
Yet Walsh is working with a completely different template and mindset in Cork, where this squad need to heavily lean on coaching and tactical and technical detail in order to become harder to beat.
Galway may not have always scored as much as they were capable of, or played the way their supporters wanted them to under Walsh, but nobody could say that they were easy to beat.
During Walsh’s five seasons with Galway between 2015-19, they only lost to Mayo once in four huge championship meetings.
In their three victories over their neighbours between 2016 and 2018, Galway limited Mayo to a paltry average total of just 12.6 points.
The players are happy with how Walsh has gone about his business, especially his tactical approach.
Yet Walsh has also arrived in Cork at just the right time because so many of the pieces at his disposal now were missing from the jigsaw in 2022.
For a start, Cork lost their manager Keith Ricken early in the league campaign and it was always going to take John Cleary time to settle into the job and to fully get to know the players.
Cork’s biggest obstacle to any real progress last year though, was their debilitating injury list. At one stage during the spring, Cork had up to 15 players on the injury list or treatment table.
In that context, an initial target of promotion soon became a scramble for survival in Division 2, which turned the league into an excruciatingly painful experience.
Cork always seemed to be playing catch-up. St Finbarr’s reaching an All-Ireland club semi-final was a positive, but their players didn’t come back until mid-February, which further depleted the squad early in the campaign. A tricky situation soon got dire, with Cork taking just one point from their first five matches.
A year on though, and there are minimal disruptions compared to the chaos of last spring. A full squad has been training hard. Cathail O’Mahony was the only player who didn’t fully train with the group over the last few months as he was with Ballygiblin, but he’s back now. O’Mahony was one of the multitude of players crucified with injury during last year’s league, but the injuries have dried up now.
The panel is in such rude health that Cleary was able to select 10 of the side which started against Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final for Cork’s opening McGrath Cup match against Kerry.
Three of the other five places were taken up by the returning Daniel O’Mahony and Brian O’Driscoll, along with the eagerly anticipated arrival of Conor Corbett, who tore his cruciate in the 2021 Munster U20 final.
As Cork marched to a first McGrath Cup since 2018, more experienced players also returned. In the final against Limerick, Tom Clancy started his first game since the 2020 league, while Killian O’Hanlon started his first match since tearing his cruciate in April 2021. Ruairí Deane also came off the bench after being recalled to the squad.
The experiment of Seán Powter at centre-forward has worked well to date, but it’s not a completely new role for him either considering how well Powter played there with the Cork U21s in the past. Yet pushing Powter further forward has really ramped up competition for places in the attack.
In the McGrath Cup final, Cork started Chris Óg Jones, Brian Hurley, and Steven Sherlock in the full-forward line. With Cathail O’Mahony and Corbett also pressing for places in that line, Cork are flush with scoring power close to goal.
Cork are in the best shape they’ve been in years at the outset of a league campaign, but none of that will matter unless they start accumulating points.
With their first three games against Leinster sides — Meath, Kildare, and Dublin — Cork will need to take four points out of six to put themselves in the hunt for promotion.
With Derry coming to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in their last game on March 26, Cork would hope to be in a position where a win could secure them promotion to Division 1, or a defeat would at least leave them in a good place for the opening round of the championship against Clare in Ennis two weeks later.
Of course, it’s never that simple. A lot of games have to be played between now and then.
But Cork certainly don’t have the excuses now that they could use in 2022.