Comment: Changes on Cork football landscape plain to see from the outset in 2014

‘it’s still early days yet’, was Michael Shields victory podium proclamation to the Cork supporters in Mallow yesterday.

Brian Cuthbert sang from the same hymn sheet afterwards, stressing that he didn’t see ‘anybody jumping around the place’ in celebration. The McGrath Cup had been collected with a victory over Kerry but it was safe to bet that it was going to be quickly stowed away.

For Cork football, the hoarding of silverware in the early months of a season is common. Yesterday they won their third McGrath Cup in six years. In the same time frame they’ve won four National football league titles and the county’s U21 sides have been masters of Munster on four occasions.

But the litmus tests will arrive in summer and autumn rather than spring. Ever since they lifted Sam Maguire in 2010, the senior side have had a heavy weight of expectation hang over them before every campaign.

Not managing to get back to the dizzy heights of four years ago means the outset of 2014 is different. Dublin look the benchmark and Cork are part of a chasing park. The spotlight on them is less intense.

The theme of change was prominent yesterday in Mallow. Cork had learnt little in swatting aside college teams the previous two Sunday afternoons. Kerry in the opposition corner demanded more of them and heightened the interest of the locals.

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Jonathan Lyne of Kerry with Eoin Cadogan and James Loughrey of Cork
Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer

It was all change on the sideline and on the pitch since Cork had last faced Kerry. The personnel overhaul over the winter was well-documented. O’Leary, Canty, O’Neill, Quirke, Kissane and O’Connor were surnames that populated team sheets during the Conor Counihan era. For some their service stretched back further to Billy Morgan’s reign in charge.

Their departures left Donncha O’Connor as the only player north of 30 to feature at some stage for Cork yesterday. The experienced core of the side is now the 2007 All-Ireland U21 winning team – Ken O’Halloran, Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Fintan Goold, Andrew O’Sullivan, Daniel Goulding and Paul Kerrigan were all in action yesterday.

New faces are clamouring for introductions. John McLoughlin and Kevin O’Driscoll have bedded in well in defence for instance. There’s a wave of college-tied players to come back into the reckoning while Damien Cahalane, Colm O’Neill, Patrick Kelly and Jamie O’Sullivan are all on the treatment table. Pruning the panel will not be easy.

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Cork’s Kevin O’Driscoll.
Pic: INPHO/Donall Farmer

“The next couple of weeks we will be finalizing the national league panel and it’s going to be cut throat to be honest”, admitted Cuthbert. ” That’s the nature of the beast. Once everybody understands everything is done in the best interests of the group, I think nobody could have any complaints.”

Cuthbert is the new man steering from the sideline. He brings a familiarity factor to some having been the county’s minor boss in 2010 and 2011 and to more he was a senior selector in 2013. Ronan McCarthy also carries over the legacy from last season. Don Davis, Owen Sexton and Ciaran O’Sullivan – a West Cork trio who were at the heart of the Cork senior side in the 90′s – offer a fresh view.

A changed management team has coincided with a noticeable shift in style. Cork looked keen to pump long foot-passes into their forwards yesterday. They have been vilified in recent seasons for focusing on athleticism and keeping the ball in hand.

The varied approach brought mixed results yesterday. Sometimes it went awry – Kerry mopped up plenty loose ball in the opening period at the back. Sometimes it paid off – the scoring spree in the third quarter came as Cork started to cut open Kerry and John Hayes showed the necessary composure to pounce for a vital goal.

Cork have a fortnight now to prepare for their opening league joust at home to Westmeath. The league will reveal more as to the effects of their changes in personnel on the sideline, their player overhaul on the pitch and the emphasis on a differing style of play. Three weeks into January, Cuthbert is pleased so far.

“I think the exercise with the McGrath Cup was to find players and get three games. There was a lot of players moved on by their own accord before Christmas. There was huge talk about how are we going to replace them and it is going to be hard.

“But certainly in terms of desire, effort and enthusiasm, any of the fellas that we have training with us can’t be faulted. They are all pushing on trying to get in.”

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