Are Rebels ready for Mayo challenge?

Are Rebels ready for Mayo challenge?

THIS IS how it ends, a weary resignation worth a few paragraphs in the papers, the logical follow-up to a whimper of a 10-point qualifier home defeat.

But for James McCartan, it began with Down bursting into Croke Park with all the panache and arrogance of their great predecessors.

Ever since they handed one of the best teams of this or any era a trimming, and lost the All-Ireland final by a point, Down have been in a two-bounds-ahead-and-three-in-reverse cycle. It has left them so far from that 2010 starting point that the two points bear no relation to each other.

The regression probably has more to do with the generation of talent they have lost rather than any foolishness from the driven McCartan.

Still, as we face into All-Ireland quarter-finals that appear so predictable, recollections of Mark Poland and Marty Clarke and Danny Hughes destroying the Kingdom give us pause and wonder whether we should expect anything remarkable this Sunday or next.

Mayo, Kerry, Donegal and Dublin are the close to unbackable final four. If that comes to pass, however, it will be only the third time since this championship format was adopted in 2001 that all four champions have survived early August.

If Cork were to send Mayo to the canvas like Down floored Kerry it would be a startling turnaround. Plenty of teams take harsh criticism from their own every season but it is difficult to recall a team taking the volume of character-related jibes that the Rebels did after their Munster final humiliation.

It is a defining moment for Brian Cuthbert and we do not envy his position. He is on the back foot in every interview and even if he has managed to retain the faith of his charges, to foster unity in the storm, his problems are still only beginning.

Take as an example the tactical conundrum he faces ahead of Sunday. Having perhaps failed to pay enough heed to the warnings in Castlebar and Croke Park in the league, Cork, judging by the way they set up against Sligo, are playing with more caution.

Colm O’Driscoll and especially Mark Collins swept to effect against Sligo, but Cuthbert must weigh up whether repeating the formula in Croke Park would be a lethal mistake. It does not take a football genius to identify Mayo’s attack-inclined half-back line of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle as one of their great strengths.

That leads to the fear that dropping off them might be a mistake. Packing the defence could work, like it did for Roscommon this year, or be the path to oblivion, like it was for Donegal last year.

What would you do? Drop the blanket or push up or try to do both? We will all be able to tell Cuthbert after the game what the correct approach was.

If Cork are hammered, it will be the opposite of whatever he did. Designing a gameplan before the match is the tricky part, especially if you are riddled with doubt, as Cuthbert must be on foot of the waking nightmares that Cork endured against Dublin and Kerry.

His strategy must address the problem of winning possession from his side’s own kick outs. Cork were battered here against Kerry, and it is debatable whether enough has changed when, if anything, Mayo have a more imposing midfield than the Kingdom and Fintan Goold suggested when introduced against Sligo that he merits another start.

Remember, too, that under Conor Counihan, when fielding ball and winning breaks and working hard were the least of Cork’s problems, it so often was not enough to see them through the first days of Autumn.

It was hoped that the departure of their old half-back warriors might herald a new era where Cork were calmer and more creative on the ball. Not only has flair not been added, but the desire for battle has been diluted. For all those players’ limitations, Cork would feel greatly reassured if there was a fit Noel O’Leary or Graham Canty in their ranks on Sunday.

And yet there is still promise there, in the way Collins moves the ball, in the way Paul Kerrigan is playing even in defeat, in Colm O’Neill’s vast potential, in the hope that Brian Hurley might realise that he doesn’t have to score from every possession, that he belongs at this level and doesn’t need to try so hard to prove it.

There is hope, too, in the likelihood that Cork might pay scant respect to Mayo, even if the arrogance that comes with the jersey is too often bluff with the footballers, as much as it is unshakeable self-belief with the county’s hurlers.

Cuthbert must hope against reason that Cork can summon a rare fury on Sunday, that they can mirror what Mayo did to them at this point in 2011, that they can play with the abandon that is somewhere within them, that he can follow in the trail of James McCartan in 2010.

Because if, as seems more likely, the doubt and blame and dissent has taken hold to too great a degree, he will be a step closer to being shoved down the path that McCartan has chosen in 2014.