Road stretches ahead for Ruairí Deane and the Cork footballers

Discarded and then recalled, the Bantry Blues veteran is happy to be back involved and contributing to the cause

Ruairí Deane: 'If I can offer something at this stage of my career, I’m happy with that.' Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

It was the turn-up of the championship. Donegal, unbeaten in the league and since, arrived in Páirc Uí Rinn as Ulster champions. The return of Jim McGuinness had completely revitalised the county and in the first round-robin match, they had put on their best display of the season, comfortably beating Tyrone.

Peculiarly, Cork would be Donegal’s first opponents from outside of Ulster in nearly three months.

The seismic home win on a lovely sunny bank holiday Saturday in a packed Páirc Uí Rinn forced a reset on Donegal and opened up the prospect of Cork winning the group and proceeding straight to the All-Ireland quarter-final.

In the euphoria that followed, manager John Cleary was pressed about the importance of ‘following up’ on the victory.

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McGuinness made no excuses for the defeat.

“Cork were very good today. They were very well organised and they knew what they wanted to do. They had a good tactical plan and they asked a lot of questions of us.”

The first signs of progress came last year with successive wins over Mayo and Roscommon, two Division One counties, and a place in Croke Park for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Cork’s team is a blend of younger players and more experienced operatives. Among the latter group is Ruairí Deane, a tall athletic footballer, who fits in around the middle, generally at wing forward. His work rate and spirit stood out in the 2019 Munster final when Cork ran Kerry to three points.

He’s unusual in that he was deemed surplus to requirements in 2022 but recalled for the following season. “A bit of a surprise,” when Cleary called, he says. Club performances with Bantry Blues and divisional side Carbery flagged good form.

Delighted with the reinstatement, Deane, who turns 33 in September, even enjoys the two-hour commute to training from Castletownbere, where he is vice-principal of Scoil Phobail Bhéara.

“It doesn’t last forever and at some stage it will be gone so it’s nice to be doing the travelling.”

A decade with the county, Deane also captained the Cork juniors to the 2013 All-Ireland and he has perspective on what largely turned out to be wilderness years.

“We used to be occasionally very good against the Kerrys and Dublins and often came up with moral victories but players have spoken about the need for consistency and competing at a good level all the time. Are we there yet? No. But we’re moving in the right direction.”

His return was to different set-up. John Cleary brought on board former Galway All-Ireland winner and manager Kevin Walsh. According to one experienced observer, the county “had been crying out for a coach”.

Although keeping the head down on his return, Deane noted the change.

“I was focused on paddling my own canoe. A year away and the group had changed as well but looking back on the last year and a half with Kevin and John, it’s been very positive.”

“Against Donegal, we had good support behind us and a good plan put in place, which we executed quite well. It’s funny but if we had lost that game and it was another ‘moral’ victory, which it could easily have been, we’d have had to dust ourselves down and try to get into this Tyrone game at the weekend.

“When it was in the melting pot, our lads stood up and got the victory, which previously didn’t always happen when those types of matches were in the balance. Look at Killarney this year which was close and again we didn’t get over the line. But maybe we found out a little bit more which might have benefited us against Donegal.”

This Saturday, Deane and the team head for Tullamore to take on Tyrone in the last group match, hoping for something from the game, which would guarantee finishing on top of the table and a place in the quarter-finals.

Happy to be back involved, he has no problem with being a bench option.

“If I can offer something at this stage of my career, I’m happy with that and if they turn around and say, it’s no longer good enough, I’ll accept that too.”

For now, the road stretches on.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times