ONE of the first intimations I got of this being a landmark year for Down football was a brief chat I had in Dingle in February with Maurice Hayes, former Down GAA secretary and man of vision when Down made their breakthrough in the 60’s.
Hayes had travelled south in the company of Seán Ó Neill to honour a great Kerryman, Dr Jim Brosnan, but their immediate priority that Saturday evening was ensuring they got to stop off in Newbridge on their way back the following morning to see how the blue blood manager, James McCartan was getting on with his new charges on their first day out in Division Two.
When pressed for a prediction about the fortunes of the Down football team against Kildare, Hayes boldly went further and with great conviction said that this was going to be one of the good years for Down.
We all know at this stage that Down went on to hammer Kildare by 11 points in Newbridge, went unbeaten throughout the league until the final game in Croke Park and recovered from a dismal second half performance against Tyrone in the Ulster Championship to clear a path for themselves all the way to those seminal September dates that they love so much.
I am not alone in my surprise at seeing Down arrive at tomorrow’s All-Ireland final party. I expected them to perhaps fall to Sligo, more than likely to Kerry and certainly to Kildare. Whatever I may offer as mitigation for being wrong on three successive occasions, the facts of the matter are this: the two best teams in the country generally contest the All-Ireland final and the best team always wins.
Despite Down’s famed sense of entitlement and despite the vitality and strength that has carried them so confidently through the qualifiers, there are plenty of questions yet to be asked of them. Players that have up to now gotten away with the slightest dip in concentration can’t expect the hiding places to be there tomorrow. If Cork are doing their stuff properly we have to expect that they will get the likes of Paddy Kelly and Paul Kerrigan to draw fouls from the Mourne men’s least disciplined backs — Declan Rooney, Damian Rafferty and Dan McCartan.
We also have to expect that Cork will have noticed that the discomfort Kildare caused in the Down full back line with long, direct and immediate ball into the area in and around the ‘D’. Even though he had a super showing against Kerry in June I’m not entirely convinced that Paul Kerrigan will play on the inside line tomorrow but if he does, Cork will need to get him on the ball as early and as often as they can.
We can say with some degree of certainty that Brendan McVeigh is going to hammer his kick-outs down the middle as long as Kalum King and Peter Fitzpatrick are contesting honestly and as long as Daniel Hughes keeps winning the scraps that fall to the ground. This lack of an obvious strategy can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it is predictable, but on the other it gives the opposition brains trust very little to zone in on when trying to counteract with tactics of their own.
Being one of the most instinctive football teams around makes Down hard to second guess but even allowing for Martin Clarke’s sustained excellence in Croke Park for the quarter-final and semi, one wonders where and how they can create the conditions for a free scoring contest tomorrow.
We have to assume that Cork are going to give their most disciplined and detached defender (Michael Shields?) the task of going man to man on Clarke and that perhaps Eoin Cadogan picks up Benny Coulter.If this is the case, Hughes, Poland, McComiskey, and John Clarke have some heavy lifting to do to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
The most worrying aspect from a Cork viewpoint heading into tomorrow’s game is that lessons don’t appear to have been absorbed through the qualifier run in July and right into the quarter-final and semi-final in August. When they embarked on their back-door adventure against Cavan in early July, we expected Cork to arrive at their best 15 formation within a month. That doesn’t appear to have happened.
The pre-occupation with retaining possession in the face of sweepers and hardworking wing-forwards has seen Cork accused of playing dumb football. They may well be working harder than they should have to given the talent at their disposal but even Einstein recognised the value of persistence over instinct. Maybe Cork too have realised that it’s not about being smart, more about staying with problems longer. Surely at this stage, they have devised some strategy for moving the ball quicker from defence to attack and surely Colm O’Neill has some part to play in that strategy. If we see Aidan Walsh, Noel O’Leary or Pearse O’Neill having more than one pot-shot for the posts tomorrow, we’ll know that Cork aren’t learning.
These are some of the central plots ahead of tomorrow’s game but there is a lot of substance to the sub-plots at play too: How will the broken weather affect both teams? Will David Coldrick let much go? Will Cork’s greater experience ensure that they don’t panic as they did at the start of the second half of last year’s final? Will the fear of losing be a liberating or an inhibiting factor for Cork? Will the free-takers nail the ones they’re supposed to or will somebody like Martin Clarke or Daniel Goulding have an off day? Whose subs have more to offer?
Regardless of which way the game unfolds, Cork have a number of advantages before throw in. Their experience of the pre-match routine is one such advantage. The match is likely to be another exercise in the art of defending and individually, Cork have the edge here. As a unit, though, how do they go about getting back to the form that saw them dismantle Tyrone last year and put the fear of God into every team across the land? How can a question be answered that asks an entire 13 months of questions? Can Cork give us something we haven’t seen all year?
In a season of surprises, I suspect the last act of the drama will be a rebel act. Cork to stand tall and finally deliver.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved