BEFORE analysing Cork’s National League defeat to Louth and looking ahead to facing Derry, it is important to offer some perspective.
On March 20th of last year, Cork hosted Down in their second-last National League Division 2 fixture of a difficult 2022 campaign.
Stuck in a tight battle for survival, a tense 1-16 to 1-12 victory condemned Down to relegation and set up another must-win encounter for Cork away to Offaly.
Seven days later, on March 27th, in an even nervier match away to the faithful county, Cork edged the result by a single point in the Rebels’ final league outing.
O’Moore Park in Tullamore was no place for the faint-hearted that afternoon. A game played at championship intensity saw Cork’s Cian Kiely level the score deep into injury time.
Then it happened. A draw appeared likely until Offaly’s goalkeeper was penalised for an infringement in the game’s final kick-out.
Steven Sherlock slotted over the resulting free to cement a 1-21 to 1-20 victory albeit after a few terror-filled moments.
Looking back, the Cork GAA senior footballers may well have experienced a ‘sliding doors’ moment that day in Tullamore.
Fast forward 12 months and John Cleary has taken over from Keith Ricken. Instead of seeking escape from Division 3, Cork have spent the 2023 campaign on the outskirts of a Division 1 promotion battle.
On the plus side, a settled Cork line-up throughout the New Year, pre-season McGrath Cup and National League Division 2 has produced consistent displays.
On the negative side, it is either Louth or Dublin, and not Cork, who will join Derry in Division 1 next year.
Again, time for some perspective. The fact the Cork senior footballers are playing full of confidence and looking up rather than over their shoulders underlines why progress is being made.
Was promotion to Division 1 a realistic target before the 2023 campaign even started? Probably not, so the fact Cork were in the hunt is, again, grounds for optimism.
A similarly in-form Cork had won all but two of their eight competitive outings ahead of last Sunday’s meeting with Mickey Harte and Conor Devlin’s promotion-chasing Louth.
Even more frustrating for John Cleary will be the fact Cork were coping well with their opponents' defensive tactics.
It wasn’t like the Rebels didn’t know what was coming following last year’s All-Ireland qualifier victory over the same opponents in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Wasted goal opportunities, most notably from Chris Óg Jones, rather than a lack of patience is what proved costly in Ardee.
For all Cork’s wides kicked during the opening half, managing only two points in the entire second period contributed to Louth’s eventual 1-10 to 0-10 victory.
Yet for all those frustrations, there were mitigating factors in Cork’s narrow defeat at DEFY Pairc Mhuire.
Sean Powter was hugely unlucky to be penalised for conceding the softest of penalties from which Louth scored what proved to be a match-winning goal. Losing Cork full-back Daniel O’Mahony to a red card forced the visitors into a different approach.
So after three months of more early season highs than lows, Cork head into this weekend’s final league outing with nothing at stake. Derry are already promoted so both camps may well use the occasion to experiment.
Yet one of the hallmarks of John Cleary’s tenure has been the new Cork manager’s consistency of selection. Ian Maguire and Colm O’Callaghan have benefitted from playing alongside each other in midfield since the start of the year.
Another outing against Derry’s Conor Glass and Brendan Rogers wouldn’t harm an in-form duo who are going to be critical to Cork’s future chances of success.
The Cork full-back line’s improvement has been another welcome advancement, involving Maurice Shanley, Daniel O’Mahony and Tommy Walsh.
O’Mahony will most likely be suspended against Derry but Shanley and Walsh’s ability to join the attack (Walsh contributed 0-1 against Louth) from deep positions would receive another stern test against a quality Derry attack.
Attention will immediately turn to the Munster SFC once Cork’s National League campaign concludes against Derry.
Tougher tests are on the horizon, for sure, but the Cork senior panel is in better shape than it was this time twelve months ago.
Victory over Derry won’t define the rest of a season where Cork may yet encounter another ‘sliding doors’ moment.
For now, slow and steady progress is enough to suggest a positive summer lies ahead.