When you look and see every football county is out on the June bank holiday weekend, 16 games and 32 teams, no one can accuse the GAA of not pushing Gaelic football. Most teams have something to play for, only Cork are playing for something even more.
By that, I mean pride and redemption and the chance to knock Kerry further down the line.
Go back over the last 10 or 12 years: has any county underachieved and been more disappointing in senior football than Cork?
That’s not about me having another dig, with my Kerry hat on. A lot of people have been critical of Cork football over the last few years, myself as much as anyone.
I would have watched Cork up close over those last number of years, at underage level, through my involvement with Kerry. And I have seen the depth and quality of talent that they have coming through, at minor, at under-20. And for whatever reason that talent is not being transitioned to senior level. That’s hugely disappointing for any county.
Over those same 10 or 12 years, Cork have also been largely better than Kerry at underage level, but very few of them have kicked on. From a Cork supporters’ point of view, that’s terribly frustrating.
I think John Cleary is doing his level best; it’s just their consistency has been a real problem. The reality as well is that for Kerry to be their best, Cork also need to be at their best. It’s no good Kerry breezing through Munster every summer like they did again this year.
Cork managed to beat Kerry in the 2020 Munster semi-final, thanks to a late goal in that pandemic winter. Then they lost the Munster final to Tipperary. A year later, Kerry beat Cork by 22 points. Last year the margin was 12. Of their last 10 meetings, Kerry have won nine, Cork one.
That’s why Saturday at Páirc Uí Chaoimh is such an important game for Cork. To be beaten by Clare, in their first round of the Munster championship, was a big setback. That’s no disservice to Clare, who have been very consistent under Colm Collins, and have been making huge strides, even if they didn’t show in the Munster final. When I look at Cork now, I can’t figure out their inconsistency. No one can. That’s the big anomaly here. They’ve got some of the best training facilities in the country, some of the best coaches, they have the population and players, so there’s no discernible reason they should be this poor.
I suspect, from the outside looking in, some of the losses against the so-called weaker teams have been hugely demoralising. When I started with Kerry, about 1993-1994, and we were getting poor results like that and for a young team when results start going against you it can be hard to turn that around. Like a big ship in the water, it can take some time.
Looking back to 2009, when Cork beat Kerry in Munster, and subsequently went on to win the All-Ireland in 2010, there was always a belief in that Cork team, they’d a lot of leaders, all over the field, about that time. The likes of Anthony Lynch, Graham Canty, Noel O’Leary, Nicholas Murphy, Donncha O’Connor, Daniel Goulding and Ciarán Sheehan.
Looking at Cork at the minute, you have Ian Maguire, Seán Powter and Brian Hurley — the only ones you could really consider leaders in that group.
Cork kicked some good scores against Louth last weekend and just about held on. Louth are not an easy team to play away from Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Even though it was in Navan, it was effectively a home game for Louth, so I wouldn’t knock that win.
Now they’re back at Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Kerry are not going well. I said before they were collectively flat against Mayo, in round one, bar maybe four players. If there’s any bit of fight in this Cork team, any bit of pride, after the way their season has gone they need to perform on Saturday. But the performance needs to come from the players, and the supporters need to get behind them too.
I’d say a few Cork hurlers are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why their summer is over in May. That’s something for the Cork footballers to consider too. So it’s certainly not a game Kerry will be taking for granted and there is a surprise on the cards if Cork turn up.
It’s a very similar situation for Kildare against Dublin. Like Cork, Kildare have had a lot of underage success, consistently beating Dublin, and are the reigning All-Ireland under-20 champions. At some stage, that underage success needs to be transitioned to the senior stage.
Cork and Kildare are two of the traditional football strongholds and would have been considered in the top five or six, up to maybe a decade ago. Now they’ve fallen right off, not just for a year or two, but the last 10 years or so; they need to win something big.
Kildare came close to Dublin in Leinster, and I stand by my prediction that Dublin are still favourites for the championship, followed by Galway, with Mayo third. But again, like Cork, a moral victory is no use to Glenn Ryan. To achieve anything this year, they need a big scalp, a meaningful win. They have their chance on Saturday too.
After beating Louth, Cork will go through anyway, so it’s not a decisive game in that sense. It’s something more, the chance to beat Kerry, back in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, to get themselves somewhere back up near the top. I also get the sense the Cork footballers haven’t quite owned the new Páirc yet — this is the chance to do that too.
Losing to Mayo in Killarney hurt a lot of people in Kerry, ending that unbeaten home championship record, which had gone back to 1995. Kerry will be glad of the two-week break and, because they were so poor collectively, they might well respond in the collective sense.
John Cleary will know all about that. There’s no doubt Cork are putting the effort in; they just need to find another gear that maybe they didn’t think they had. Because most county teams are doing the same amount of work.
After that, it comes down to finding something else within you.