It was three years ago this weekend that Cork went to Armagh for their last game in Division Two. They didn’t know it was their last on the way up there, of course. They went with full intentions of making sure it wasn’t.
But although they put in one of their best displays of what had been a fairly rank campaign, a 3-9 to 1-14 win over Kieran McGeeney’s side wasn’t enough to spare them. While they were in Armagh, Clare were beating Tipperary in Thurles. It meant Clare and Cork finished on five points and the head-to-head record between them sent Cork down. Relegated to Division Three, a mere four years after being in the Division One final.
What really jumps off the page now when you trace your finger along the names who turned out that day is the extent of the flux in the Cork ranks since then. Of the 20 players who saw game time in Armagh three years ago, only seven played any part against Down last weekend. Even allowing for the usual attrition through injuries and so on, that’s a startling figure.
But it isn't the half of it. According to numbers mined by Fintan O'Toole of The42.ie, Cork have used a staggering 94 players in league and championship since the start of 2017. The introduction off the bench last weekend of Kanturk's Tommy Walsh – younger brother of Aidan – brought Cork's number of debutants in this league alone up to 15.
That's quite the new broom. A complete team of freshmen – including goalkeeper Chris Kelly, so they could actually line out a workable XV – introduced to senior intercounty football in the space of just six games. This is Cork's blessing, this is Cork's curse.
The downside is obvious enough, in that it can’t help but betray a certain lack of direction. The old racing adage applies – if you’re sending eight horses to run in the Derby, you probably don’t have the winner among them. There can’t have been 94 intercounty footballers worthy of the name in Cork over the past five years. Even allowing for the fact that Keith Ricken’s regime is the third in that space of time, it’s a curiously scattergun approach to talent-spotting, not to mind team-building.
On the flipside, the sheer weight of numbers Cork can call on is bound to have its advantages. Seven of this year’s debutants have progressed from the under-20 teams that won an All-Ireland in 2019 and a Munster title last year. A couple have been sprung from St Finbarr’s run to the All-Ireland club semi-final. It’s a little early yet for the minor team that won the 2019 All-Ireland but the point stands. Cork’s well of footballers won’t run dry anytime soon.
In a smaller county with a thinner pick, the luxury of letting a 22-year-old of Sherlock's ability disappear back to his club for a couple of years just wouldn't exist
Still, the various uses to which those footballers have been put in recent years often tell their own story. Take Steven Sherlock, the Barrs forward who ran the show against Down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last Sunday to secure Cork their first win of the campaign. The stand-out forward in last year's county championship, this is his second go-round in the Cork set-up, having been part of Ronan McCarthy's squads in 2018 and 2019.
Sherlock turns 25 this week and clearly has a fair dash of talent. He came off the bench in all three games the last time Cork were in the Super-8s three years ago. But McCarthy cut him from the panel the following spring and he didn’t reappear until now.
He has been up front about the fact that at both county and club level, his coaches have had to drill him on his work-rate and his willingness – or lack thereof – to do the unsexy stuff. So in all probability, the Cork management of the time were dead right to cut him loose, just as the Cork management of now are right to bring him back.
Here’s the thing though. In a smaller county with a thinner pick, the luxury of letting a 22-year-old of Sherlock’s ability disappear back to his club for a couple of years just wouldn’t exist. There isn’t another county in Division Two who could have done it and you’ll get a fair way up the table in Division One, too, before you hit on one.
But in Cork, not only was he expendable in management’s eyes, there was zero outrage on his behalf among the public. Nobody took to the barricades for Steven Sherlock. It wouldn’t even have occurred to anyone to do so, purely because there’s any amount of handy forwards in the county. Yet here he is, just a couple of years later, installed as the leader of their attack. How much better could he be if he was in his fifth continuous season of elite coaching?
The tyranny of choice is a real thing. Eventually, you have to bring the auditions to an end and rehearse the cast you’ve got.