The last time that Cork were promoted out of Division 2 in 2009, they opened their campaign with a 1-15 to 0-9 victory over Meath in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. They then travelled to St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge in the following round where they drew with Kildare before going on to finish second behind Monaghan, but then they turned the tables on the Farney men in the league final, beating them by 1-14 to 0-12.
Cork then went on to beat Kerry by eight points down the Páirc in the Munster semi-final before beating Limerick in the final. Donegal were brushed aside by fourteen points in the All-Ireland quarter-final, reigning champions, Tyrone, were dismissed in the final four before the Kerry-Croke Park hoodoo struck again, bringing a sour end to an enthralling year. In a county with endless psychological scars, few cut as deep as that one. We all remember it, viscerally. Kenneally, Griffin, Tommy Walsh. It’s one of those that will never fade, no matter what redemption may have followed, much like Meath in 1988.
I’m sure even the most optimistic and superstitious of us weren’t anticipating that the game against Meath on Sunday was going to act as a catalyst for a revival in our fortunes to that extent, but going into the game, there was a reasonable amount of expectation. Why? Well, I suppose, in the end, last year didn’t turn out to be as bad as it could have been, the injury situation seems to have improved considerably, there are plenty of good footballers in Cork and the addition of Kevin Walsh to the coaching ticket pointed to an attempt to tackle some fundamental flaws in the Cork set up.
The necessity for somebody from the outside does lay bare, however, one of the greatest structural failings in Cork over the past thirty years. In both codes. Cork have fallen off the cliff when it comes to thinking about the games as we continue to play with a naivety that leaves us open to gleeful ridicule. Every year we find ourselves playing catch up and hoping against hope that this will be the year where we’ll see signs of improvement. As ever, it looks like we’re going to be waiting a little while longer.
Of course, one game shouldn’t lead to a total existential crisis, but the way that the game slipped away from Cork and a quick look at the fixture list along with more of the same in terms of playing style means that the dark cloud that descended on our fortunes somewhere between 2012 and 2017 is showing no sign of lifting.
The worst thing is that for a long time on Sunday, it looked ok. Cork were the better team in the first half but the concession of the goal and a superb double save from Micheál Martin left a nagging feeling that things could go wrong. Goals will be conceded by all teams, obviously, but it was the type of goal that it was that contributed to the nagging feeling of inevitability. It was no James Carr effort, it was just way too easy and exposed a passive defence that simply didn’t put enough pressure on the ball. Innocence is a precious virtue that we often wish we could cling onto and cherish for a bit longer, but it has no place whatsoever in inter-county football.
Cork were two up at the break, Meath were soon level and after that there came an edgy period of the game as both sides tried to force their will on proceedings. So when the impressive Chris Óg Jones, Steven Sherlock and Seán Powter pushed Cork three clear with twenty to play, it seemed like something might have been stirring.
And then it all fell apart, the centre just could not hold. Another goal was conceded after another act of self-flagellation and though the resultant kick-out gave Cork an immediate chance of atonement, it wasn’t to be. Another Meath goal again uncovered Cork’s defensive passivity, Cork’s carelessness, and while one could, rightly, be snarky about the amount of steps Cillian O’Sullivan took, the game was up.
Even when they were very, very, very good, Cork’s football was based more on hard running and breaking lines than total football. For some reason or the other, I was expecting a change in that on Sunday. You’d always hope they’d strive to move the ball a bit more quickly using foot passes, particularly when breaking out of their own half, but again hard running seemed to be valued the most, and as the game progressed, more and more of those runs ended in players being isolated and good positions being butchered. It was probably the most disappointing element of the performance, however, it’s important not to let the black dog take complete control after one game.
Back in 2009, Cork followed up the win over Meath with a draw in Newbridge. This time around they’ll be going there on the backfoot, and if a draw was offered now, it would be hard to refuse it. Cork need points on the board, quickly, just to give them some space to breath. 2009 may have been the last time Cork were promoted out of Division 2, but it wasn’t the last time they exited the division. 2019 was a year of demotion, and if Cork are to stay clear of that on this occasion, they need to find away to shut the door before the horse has bolted.