THERE are many Septembers in which the GAA form book is as solid and reliable as a Presbyterian family’s leather-bound Bible.
There are rare Septembers though when that form book is flimsier than the first jotter of a child in junior infants.
This is one of those Septembers.
The form book has been torn to scraps and flitters during the wicked month of August. The ripped scraps on the floor bear the names of Kerry and Kilkenny already.
This scrap has Tyrone and Dublin on it. Another has Galway and Armagh. Amongst the debris of an intriguing football championship to date, you will find Kildare and Roscommon and Donegal. All done and dusted. Only one flimsy page remains in the book.
CORK is at the top of the page in capital letters, strongly tipped for success. At the bottom, in smaller type, comes Down.
Given the summer that was in it, and all those overturned applecarts, that means that Down will almost certainly win the Croke Park final. It has been that kind of year. Ask Brian Cody. Ask Jack O’Connor. And say thank God for Septembers like this when nobody really knows what is going to happen on the day.
The RTÉ pundits on The Sunday Game last week voted two to one in favour of the men from the Lee.
Cue a Down triumph! As an Ulster man I want to see them win against the odds. Like so many, though, my heart says Down even as my head shakes in denial.
For Down to overcome, Cork have to once again fail to find their full potential when the chips are down. They have strength and experience and an Ardnacrusha of raw power in the tank. They have learned hard lessons over the past couple of years and have a canny manager.
If they do not win, it will most likely be their own fault.
Are they a bit like the huge Ukrainian heavyweight Vladamir Klitschko who seems unable to knock out beaten opponents until long after he should? And they are facing Down. Down are different to anybody else. They have never lost an All-Ireland in Croke Park. That is some record. They are an outfit that were pallid and listless in the Ulster cockpit, staggered several times during the qualifiers and did not show all that much. But they have always been a different team on their five or six big final outings at headquarters. Instead of being reduced by the pressure they somehow play above themselves. They trot afield with a strut and swagger that suggests they KNOW in advance they will win. And these lads are young and pacey and know their county’s unique Croke Park history.
One of their sponsors is a stonecladding company in Castlewellan whose slogan is “Facing the future with the past”. The team is like that too.
There is a Down supporters’ breakfast tomorrow at 8am in a Newry hotel. There has been a rush to pay £40 (€48) a head for £400 (€480) tables for 10.
That is almost a celebration in advance of the deed. If the team (inevitably) is led by a McCartan and has a panel studded with the illustrious surname, it is also, I see, clad by the McCartan Brothers drapery firm in Newry. The clothing was picked by the players themselves and there is a bias towards the casual clothing they would hope to be wearing during a triumphant coming home across the border. There’s a different brand of confidence for you.
The players will follow the tradition established by their first title winners back in 1960. They will not come down to Dublin on Saturday. Down never do that. The players will sleep in their own beds on Saturday night and travel down on Sunday morning. They will have Mammies’ breakfasts in their bellies when they march before Hill 16! The colours clash dictates they will not be wearing their ritual red and black strip. They will instead be clad in the same shade of gold from inside which they defeated the Rebels in the semi-final 16 years ago. !
One of my favourite images is of the meeting (in Ivanhoe) of the burly Crusader and the wiry Saracen. They discussed weaponry and, to prove his point, the Crusader cut a heavy bench in two with one blow of his mighty broadsword. And the Saracen responded by throwing his silk scarf into the air and slicing it into two drifting halves with his gleaming scimitar. Power comes in many forms.
Were I a Cork mentor I’d use the broadsword of long high balls into the Down square to crush a defence that has not responded that well to such tactics over the season.
The Down forwards spearheaded by Benny Coulter will definitely go for the slashing scimitar approach at the other end. It will be powerful stuff to end a year in which that form book has been ripped to ribbons already.
I’ll go with my heart and predict a Down triumph.
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