#TheToughest: Where has it all gone wrong for the Cork footballers?
The location is Fraher Field in Dungarvan. Cork line out against Waterford in their first match of the Munster Championship and it is just a formality, right?
Wrong. Cork didn’t just make hard work of banishing the Déise but they very nearly found themselves dumped out of the competition and into the qualifiers before it really began.
Two minutes into injury time and the scores are tied at 1-10 apiece. Cork are down to ten men and it seemed like a major upset was on the cards. It wasn’t. To their credit, the Rebels pulled it out of the bag and were victorious by the narrowest of margins, a single point.
With the utmost of respect to Waterford, it was embarrassing for Cork, a county that has a history and a culture of winning.
It has been a gradual fall from grace for the county over the last few years; they haven’t won a Munster title since 2012 and were relegated from the top tier of the National Football League in 2016.
They have not reached the last eight of the All-Ireland Football Championship since 2014 and are generally a far cry from what they used to be, winners.
The night in Dungarvan may be the lowest point for Cork footballers in recent history but the writing has been on the wall.
Reports emerged at the beginning of the year that the squad didn’t have a gym to train out of and were using a warehouse as a makeshift location to do their strength and conditioning work.
The players moved the equipment in themselves and painted the place, but it is hard to imagine that the Cork footballers would be training out of a warehouse back when they were reaching finals for fun in the late 2000s.
In fact, it is hard to imagine any county training out of a warehouse, not least Cork.
In recent years, the county has been written off in both codes but where the footballers whimpered to a win against Waterford on 27 May, six days earlier the hurlers showed an abundance of fight and spirit to beat reigning All-Ireland Champions Tipperary.
Camogie star Ashling Thompson said on SportsJOE Live that in Cork, results don’t matter, but it is all about the performance, the fight and desire to give it your all.
Yet, the footballers don’t have that. Paddy Kelly recently retired from the setup - playing for Cork had taken its toll mentally and physically on him after nine years as a Cork senior - but in an interview with the
Paddy Kelly recently retired from the setup - playing for Cork had taken its toll mentally and physically on him after nine years as a Cork senior - but in an interview with the Irish Examiner he summed the fed up attitude of many in the county that question why they are devoting their time.
“I suppose if I thought Cork had a realistic chance of winning the 2017 All-Ireland, that would change my thinking and I’d be willing to go back and play some part. But in my mind, that’s not a realistic goal. And I just feel as if the appetite has gone anyway.”
The appetite is gone, and with that so has the confidence of believing they are the best side in the country.
Roy Keane admitted that Alex Ferguson always had a feel for the group of players he was managing and there’s a reason his Manchester United side were consistently at the top of the food chain in 26 years, they believed they were the best.
Before a match against Tottenham, Ferguson made the simplest of pre-match speeches. “Lads, it’s Tottenham,” he said. The players knew they were better and that is all they needed to know.
Cork have lost that confidence. As Darragh O’Sé mentioned in his column in the Irish Times , there is a golden rule when playing teams weaker than you.
“The rule against weaker teams has always, always been to knock any dangerous thoughts out of their heads quickly. Don’t be giving them bad habits such as thinking anything’s possible. Bang in a couple of early goals and make them reconsider their life choices.”
Cork couldn’t seem to put Waterford away and as time went on, it was visible that Waterford believed they were equals.
There is no apparent reason that all of this should be happening to Cork. They have had their fair share of early retirements, Paddy Kelly included, but they have an abundance of young talent.
They last won the U-21 All-Ireland title in 2009, which means, in theory, a lot of the players involved should be hitting their prime.
Of course it is not as straightforward as that but they have won five of the last seven Munster U-21 titles, yet from the outside it looks as if the transition to the senior team hasn’t been as successful as supporters would have hoped.
Their Munster semi-final against Tipperary on Saturday evening is being dubbed as their most important in the county’s history. The idea, peddled by Darragh O'Sé at least, is that Cork will fall into despair if they are to lose and impressionable young players will be more likely to pick up a hurl rather than football.
But the Rebels can never be quite written off; they will be installed as favourites despite their stuttering start against Waterford.
They are a team in transtition, no doubt, but all they need is one big performance to get the critics off their back and beating last year's All-Ireland semi-finalists gives them a chance to cement themselves as one of the two top sides in the province.