THE Cork footballers may have designs on big days in Fitzgerald’s Stadium and Croke Park later in the year, but it is their trips to Cusack Park in Ennis that are more than likely going to define their season.
Two visits, five weeks apart, will ultimately decide whether Cork play in the All-Ireland championship proper this year or in the second-tier Tailteann Cup.
The league match on 5 March and the Munster Championship game on 9 April are the dates in question. You get the feeling that whoever wins in Cusack Park on Sunday, in the league encounter, will probably end up on the right side of the cut-off line for a place in the All-Ireland proper, whereas whoever loses will be looking over their shoulder at a potential drop to Division 3.
On top of that, the loser is likely to be struggling to get themselves into one of the 15 spots available for qualification for the All-Ireland championship later in the year, meaning a drop down to the second-tier Tailteann Cup that Westmeath won last year.
Both sides know that there is the security blanket of that Munster Championship quarter-final clash between Cork and Clare at Cusack Park on April 9 should they lose this league tie, but that is a tightrope that neither team will want to have to negotiate. If there is a chance to secure that All-Ireland berth in the next few weeks then that would obviously be the preferred option for all.
Cork look to be a team on an upward curve at present. They beat Kerry, albeit a very much weakened Kingdom side, in the McGrath Cup in January, and came within a whisker of scalping Dublin in Round 3 of the league, when Brian Hurley’s last-second rasper of a shot cannoned off the crossbar at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, as Cork lost by just two.
This is the type of exalted company that John Cleary’s side wants to be keeping now. They may not be at the stage where they expect to pick up national titles just yet, but they resemble the young bull wanting to test their strength against the reigning old bull. Even in defeat lessons are learned in such scraps, with the day coming where the old bull eventually gets toppled.
A drop into the Tailteann Cup would deny Cork this type of test. You can make an argument for it being a beneficial exercise, in that it gives Cork an opportunity to try and win some realistic silverware up in Croke Park, and that in itself would certainly be worth doing, but if Cork were to drop down to the second tier competition and not succeed in it, then it would be very much seen as two steps back in terms of the development of this side.
In order to avoid the prospect of dropping down into the Tailteann Cup Cork must finish as high in the Division 2 league table as possible, meaning every single game is of paramount importance.
Cork pretty much wrote off the opening-day defeat to Meath as one of those days. Some huge lessons were certainly learned that day, particularly in the defence, as three soft goals were conceded. You could see from the subsequent displays against Kildare and Dublin that Cork had become a tougher nut to crack straight away.
Clare beat Louth by a single point in Ennis in late January in Round 1, but they lost their next games in frustrating circumstances, firstly shipping four goals against Meath in Round 2, when losing by four points, to then lose in round 3 to Kildare by a single point, after being up seven themselves at one stage. It was a similar case in Croker last Saturday.
They have proved to be extremely tricky opposition for Cork in this time, but you get the sense that Cork feel that they are reasserting themselves as the no. 2 side in the province once more.
The upcoming league and championship ties in Ennis will prove an acid test of this notion, as quite simply, in the next seven weeks Cork will show whether they belong in the top tier, or not.
Only time will tell on that score.