It only feels like yesterday. Thursday, April 7th, 2011. Páirc Uí Rinn was packed to the rafters. Cork football was on top of the world after finally winning the All-Ireland while they also were in the middle of claiming three National League titles in-a-row. Meanwhile, the U-21s claimed their fourth Munster U-21 championship in six years.
They claimed it in style too as Kerry was annihilated by 2-24 to 0-9. At the time, it genuinely felt like a seismic moment, a genuine shift in the plate tectonics of Munster football. It felt as if Cork might finally be ready to fulfil its vast potential. It was a night for bellowing that age old tune about locking gates, a night for analogies about lions and Christians, a night of utter exultation.
It was more than just the performance too. Yes, there was plenty to salivate about (Dónal Óg Hodnett, Jamie Wall, Damien Cahalane) but it just felt like something bigger. Below the stand on the Boreenmanna Road side of the ground, the Cork seniors were grouped together, watching the game as one and Cork football seemed completely united. The present was strong, committed, and hardened; the future would surely follow.
So, we waited. And waited. Then, three years later, after destroying Kerry in the league in Tralee, Cork was beaten by double scores in the Munster final down the Páirc and our old rivals were on their way to picking up their 37th All-Ireland title.
Two years later Cork was relegated from Division 1, then in 2018, unthinkably, they flirted with relegation to Division 3 before finally succumbing to the allure of life in the third tier a year later. On the way, there were losses to Tipperary, losses to Clare, close encounters with Waterford and Longford and enough bad days against Kerry to devastate a generation.
The reasons for the fall from grace over the past twelve years are multifaceted, complex and as inexplicable as they are inexcusable. A deterioration in culture here, a budget squeeze there, an ill-advised managerial appointment or two, a simultaneous drain in talent and experience, a lack of success at schools’ level, even a tacit acceptance of all of the above.
There’s also been luck. Or more to the point, there hasn’t been any luck. Cork didn’t do too much wrong in 2016 when they were relegated. Four teams ended on six points, but a cataclysmic collapse against Roscommon was the game that did the damage as of the four, only Cork went down, and down.
The previous time Cork bottomed out was back in 2003/04 as the Larry Tompkins era unravelled to make way for the return of the King, Billy Morgan. Tompkins is, of course, one of our icons and while his tenure delivered a League title in 1999, a trip to the All-Ireland the same year as well as two Munster titles, defeats at home to Limerick and away to Roscommon signalled the end.
Cork has more natural resources than any other county and Morgan was able to harness those and regenerate Cork as quickly as they had fell apart. 2004 ended in defeat to Fermanagh but the following year they made the last four, and they would reach that stage at least the following five years. Morgan gave way to Conor Counihan and Kerry were the only team who didn’t yield to Cork in championship football.
This time around, however, there has been no regeneration, only further degradation.
A healthy amount of self-flagellation has always been part and parcel of being a Cork football supporter. The despair that can accompany you on your journeys home is often temporarily lifted by gallows humour, memories of better times and, more often than not, alcohol. It was an addiction that never lacked soul.
At the moment, it’s much too serious to make light of as Cork travel to Tullamore on Sunday to fight the for the very soul of Cork football. They do so with a list of injuries that makes the task all the more difficult.
A glance at that list would make you think that lady luck has truly abandoned them. But, when you sit back and think about it, there are far too many questions to be satisfied by such a simple answer. The level of serious, long-term injuries that Cork footballers have suffered is phenomenal.
The first time that I ever heard of somebody’s hamstring coming off the bone was when it happened to Brian Hurley. And then it happened him again. It sounded like he was a victim of chance, that fate had intervened on his career. Since then, it has happened to Seán Powter, Liam O’Donovan, Sam Ryan and Eoghan Nash.
Seán Meehan is recovering from an operation on his hamstring, Maurice Shanley has hardly played a game since impressing back in 2020, Killian O’Hanlon still hasn’t recovered from his cruciate injury, Cathail O’Mahony lost a year of his career to hamstring problems, Conor Corbett is recuperating… The list goes on. These aren’t niggles, they are serious injuries that could jeopardize the careers of some of our brightest young footballers. Why always Cork?
It is this as much as anything that makes Sunday so important. A win against Offaly buys Cork time. Time to get their best and brightest back on the field, time to prepare and build, time to start getting things right. That time needs to be spent in Division 2 to give Cork the chance to regenerate like they’ve proven they can do in the past, once things are done right.