30 steps to heaven

O hAilpin lifts Liam McCarthy

By Michael Moynihan, Croke Park
TURNS out they fooled us all. Cork put All-Irelands back to back yesterday, repeating the results of 1986 and 1990 by replicating the Cork style of old.

For the last couple of years, hurling neocons in the deep south have lamented the loss of the direct ball, sacrificed for the new running game. Yesterday Croke Park hosted a revival of that old-time religion, and there was no shortage of believers. Rumours that the Cork full-forward line might not go grey with age waiting for the ball yesterday were circulating on Leeside earlier in the week, and they were proved right.

Exhibit A for the conversion was Ben O'Connor's goal: Diarmuid O'Sullivan attacked the ball and found space in front of the Galway goal with his quick delivery. Ben O'Connor had a lot to do, cutting towards the corner flag as Ollie Canning bore down on him with uncharitable intent, but the Newtownshandrum man's finish was immaculate.

"We were trying to get the ball into the full-forward line faster," said O'Connor after the game.

"We'd done a good bit of speed work in training and we decided to concentrate on getting the ball in that bit faster. That might be only a split-second faster, but it all counts. We didn't abandon our game plan altogether, we only hit the long ball when it was the right thing to do."

If that surprised spectators, the second half was often Old Testament Cork Hurling. Selector Ger Cunningham, the keeper in 1986 and 1990, must have been nodding in approval of his successor's strategy after the break, because Donal Óg Cusack simply bombed the ball into the heart of the Galway defence. With Tom Kenny and Jerry O'Connor rampaging forward, Galway began to crack, pressed back until they were defending the D on the 21 from aerial assault. Against another midfield pairing, Galway might have survived, but Kenny and O'Connor ran so far so fast, their boots must keep travelling around the dressing-room when their owners hit the showers.

It would be unfair to say it was all Cork at Croke Park yesterday. Galway are a coming side, and they had enough possession to win yesterday, but the old saw about losing one to win one was never more apt. Derick Hardiman, for instance, was terrific, winning ball after ball, but he didn't always have a purpose to his delivery. Put that down to lack of composure, and if Galway want to find out how to take that extra step they could do worse than consulting the team which lost the 2003 hurling final.

Ben O'Connor acknowledged as much: "A lot of us are playing in our fourth final, and our third in a row. That experience stands to you, and maybe we were that little bit cuter than Galway on the day."

Cork also had leadership in every line. As expected, the Tribesmen started full of fire, and Cork were thankful that Brian Corcoran was on hand to show that while form is temporary, real class is perpetual. His exit in the semi-final and slow recovery from injury were worrying for Cork, and the big man's early industry yesterday helped to give his team-mates focus in the opening exchanges.

At the other end of the field, Donal Óg Cusack was immense. As always the Cloyne man quarter-backed the defence, if that's not a contradiction, but he also made terrific saves. After O'Connor's goal, Galway ranged forward in search of a riposte, and Alan Kerins' shot would have beaten most keepers. Not Cusack. In the second half he was even better, at one point killing a ball going over the bar before working it outfield for Ben O'Connor to give Cork a valuable two-point swing. As a cameo of belief in one's ability, it spoke volumes, and other players kept the faith also. Joe Deane was beaten for three balls in a row at one stage in the second half but the Killeagh man still had the grit after that to point a free from the sideline: belief.

SIGNIFICANTLY, Cork players who went into the game, if not under a cloud then at some slight risk of precipitation, made huge contributions - Ronan Curran had his best game of the year, as did Timmy McCarthy.

Eventually, Cusack was beaten; he stopped a Richie Murray shot from close range, but Damien Hayes nudged the rebound home, under Diarmuid O'Sullivan's retreating legs. You don't have to break the net to score a goal, but Hayes' effort barely broke a stroll as it trickled over, inhaled by the sizeable Galway contingent on the Hill.

Even then, Cork refused to panic. John Gardiner had a free within his range - just - after the Galway goal, and he nailed it. Belief. The game started to slip from Galway slowly, little omens everywhere; Ollie Canning, heroic throughout, had a clearance intercepted by Ben O'Connor for a point. Liam Donoghue's puck-outs began to drop into John Gardiner's baseball mitt of a left hand. With 10 minutes left, Cork took over and strangled their opponents.

When the final whistle went, Sean Óg Ó hAilpin walked up the steps, and during his passionate speech as gaeilge, the roller-coaster ride this Cork side and its fans have taken was brought into focus. Three years ago, they were beaten well by Galway, but Cork reinvented themselves. They have become a great team, overcoming strikes and stand-offs, controversies and collisions, departures and developments, affirming the power of the red jersey throughout.

Cork hurling. It's okay to believe.