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Dublin: 5°C Saturday 27 February 2021

'You'd be forgiven for thinking we all want to pack it in but I don't, I want to fight it out'

Inter-county GAA returned with the Cork and Louth managers grappling with a new reality yesterday.

Cork's Ronan McCarthy and Louth's Wayne Kierans were in opposition yesterday (file photo).
Cork's Ronan McCarthy and Louth's Wayne Kierans were in opposition yesterday (file photo).
Image: INPHO

AFTER THE FINAL whistle Ronan McCarthy was encircled on a spot of the Páirc Uí Chaoimh pitch by his Cork players, a variation on the team huddle necessitated by the current climate.

He saluted them for achieving promotion, the primary goal way back when they were setting them in advance of the 2020 season. 5-19 to 0-16 was a definitive result.

Further down the sideline Wayne Kierans was trying to process what he had witnessed. An 18-point loss confirmed his Louth team were headed for the relegation trapdoor, finishing with 12 men after a series of red cards illustrated their disintegrating fortunes in the second half.

A sixth win in a row puts Cork up to the second tier, a sixth defeat in a row pushes Louth down to the bottom tier. And yet those outcomes seem notional.

This Round 6 fixture came on the weekend of the GAA’s big inter-county return, 230 days had elapsed since Cork held off Derry and Louth were taken down by Leitrim. 

The natural impulse of being back in action after so long away should have been to celebrate but reassurance was in short supply.

On an afternoon where the floodlights flickered on after only two minutes of action, a reminder was provided that this was no end of spring game and we are not on the cusp of summer football.

The league is almost over and the championship is accelerating into view but no one is any way certain as to whether we’ll even reach the start line for next weekend’s schedule.

Like everyone else inter-county managers have had to accept they have ceded control to Covid.

“I just said to Tracey Kennedy (Cork chairperson) below, it’s very anti-climactic. Job done and done well but there’s so much uncertainty now for everybody that it’s hard to know what to make of it really,” remarked McCarthy.

“You’d have to be very doubtful about it now at this stage. I don’t envy the GAA hierarchy. They’re in a difficult position because the games mean so much to people and yet really you have to ask yourself the question about the risk involved. No matter what call they make they’re not going to do the right thing.”

For Kierans it had been a trying day after a trying week in a trying season. Before lockdown came in Louth were struggling and had to tap into some form here against the divisional pace-setters to save themselves. Into that mix was thrown the logistical challenge of ferrying their setup from Dundalk early on a Saturday morning for a 300km plus trip to Cork with ample time to prepare for a 4pm throw-in and factor in a pitstop for some grub along the way.

“It was certainly strange,” reflected the Louth boss, leaning up against the wall in the tunnel of the South Stand.

“Notwithstanding how tough it was going to be on the pitch. Like up until the other day we didn’t know whether we were coming at all. We did request that it be played at a more suitable venue in terms of distance. We wanted to overnight in terms of the toll it would take on the players travelling on the one day. It was difficult but we should have been performing better basically.

“We’d two buses. So every player has his own seat. All the management are on a different bus. 

“Might be a good thing on the way home!”

the-louth-team The Louth footballers (file photo) Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Cork moved away from their typical home game routine. The players sorted their own pre-match meal and met up at 2.30pm, instead of gathering three hours in advance to eat together, usually at the Rochestown Park Hotel. They adapted and McCarthy was satisfied with how it went. Next Sunday they are away to Longford and have to prepare as if that game will get the green light.

“I imagine we’ll have to travel separately,” said McCarthy.

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“We’ll stay overnight, we’re going to Johnstown I think in Meath. We’ll make the most of that also for preparation for the championship, get up there early and try to do some work.

“That’s the beauty of being promoted with a game in hand, we can use that time, the Sunday get time into players in the game, but also use the Saturday as preparation for championship.”

Two managers operating at different ends of the league spectrum. But they both sang from the same hymn sheet on sticking with the home and away system.

“I suppose it’s easy to say now when we’re after getting a hiding down here today but what was the sense in having us come all the way to Cork?” questioned Kierans.

“That’s something that maybe common sense should have prevailed there. Hand pick the venues in terms of where is not a hotspot in terms of this bloody thing. I would imagine in fairness to them there’s an awful lot of decisions them guys have to make and if they get games played at all I’ll be happy.

“I just want to play the games. Despite the difficult experiences like that, I still want to play football.”

McCarthy agreed.

“I can see the problem from Croke Park’s point of view in that you play a competition where five of the games have been home or away, and you now finish with neutral venues.

“But the problem was there they were probably open to an appeal if some team fell short by a point for promotion or relegation. I think if counties signed up and said they wouldn’t appeal the outcome of the competition, then it should have been done. It does lessen travel and seems practical to me.”

McCarthy estimated between long-term injuries and minor knocks that he did not want to risk due to the proximity of championship, Cork were down 12 or 13 bodies.

This is the Douglas native’s third season at the helm, a more efficient underage production line has yielded deeper reserves to cope with personnel losses. Fresh faces have been added. Last spring Niall Hartnett was a Leaving Cert student, captaining CBC Cork team to the Dr Harty Cup final. He made his Cork senior football debut off the bench yesterday.

niall-hartnett Niall Hartnett in action for CBC Cork in the Dr Harty Cup. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Cork have taken a battering in recent years, championship beatings and league disappointments feeding into the sense of a county afflicted with chronic football underachievement.

Promotion was not achieved in the fashion that would have been desired, and may well not deliver the expected outcome, but they still took a moment to enjoy it.

“All I said to them in there was, ‘Look well done, job done.’

“We’ve come a long obviously since the Armagh match last year. We won a great game above there, on 70 minutes we were actually still up in Division 2, on 71 we were gone.

“They went on from there and great momentum through the summer, played Super 8s and then had done very well in Division 3. I said we can look forward to next Tuesday night and let’s not look too far ahead, none of us can at this stage. Regardless of what happens, if the league is restructured next year, we got ourselves promoted and that’s all we can do.”

Kierans was heading back up the motorway after a beating yet still retaining an optimistic outlook despite the prevailing anxiety.

“You’d be forgiven for thinking we all want to pack it in but I don’t, I want to fight it out.

“I would advocate that we would hopefully get the season finished. The feedback to me (from players) is that we’re happy to continue. I think some of them would have had concerns and that’s fair enough. As long as we have our own protocols in place in the likes of Darver and in our camp, then we’re happy. It’s been a very difficult season. We just have to try to keep going.”

The Cork players headed up to the concourse of the South Stand afterwards to remove boots, put on masks, pick up gearbags and swiftly exited, collecting boxes of food en route. They left an empty stadium behind, not that they are a side accustomed to a large support rowing in behind them, and the key question that no one could confidently answer was would they be back here in three weeks time to face Kerry in a Munster semi-final?

david-moran-and-ian-maguire Kerry's David Moran and Cork's Ian Maguire in action in the 2019 Munster final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Louth packed up and headed north, a fortnight out from a Leinster date with Longford in Mullingar. Will they be on the road again that day?

On a day that settled league issues, the championship uncertainty persists.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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