TONY LEEN: Oh moment, please linger a while

HE didn’t notice himself breaking into a fast, ungainly walk towards Daniel Goulding. Along the sideline with the Hogan Stand suppressing, suffocating. Simple message. Kick it dead and this will be all over. He thought the message was simple. No ambivalence. Kick the ball dead.

And then Cork’s forward with a radar left foot locked on target and floated it across the square, back into the maelstrom Conor Counihan thought he had just escaped.

Not dead.

“I thought it was a fairly straight-forward thing to put it out of play down in the (Davin End) corner if necessary, so when it didn’t happen I was a bit flustered,” Counihan smiles. “Daniel said the ref told him it was the last kick, but I think he made that bit up afterwards.”

For one mind-scrambling moment, Counihan envisaged a draw. He’s thinking down the road to Cork, back to training. How to lift them again.

And then the inaudible David Coldrick whistle and that momentary transportation into a parallel galaxy of ecstatic relief that rapidly, too rapidly, goes from future to history. An Angelus bell. Oh moment, please linger a while.

“You’d just love to freeze that moment when the lads were running crazy around the pitch at the final whistle. The release. The joy. You just wonder could you keep that moment forever.”

Counihan looks wistfully outside. “It’s drifting now. It’s fierce, fierce hard work, but the minute you achieve it, it’s gone. You forget how much it means to people. I’ve the benefit of being that bit older now, and maybe you don’t appreciate these things so much as a player, but, seriously, we made an awful lot of people’s day last Sunday. Now, I know the flip side is we’ve broken a lot of hearts in the last few years too....”

He got to see his mother and father Wednesday night, fleetingly. He knows his mother was sprinkling holy water on the television last Sunday, but it won’t be said because these things are left unsaid. Unspoken pride. The Counihans would be quiet, humble folk but if the All-Ireland victory over Down last Sunday has brought such joy to people he hardly knows, what must it be like in Buckstown, Aghada.

“We went to Crumlin Children’s Hospital on Monday, and it helps understand that there’s so much you can give as opposed to grabbing all. Half-joking, someone said we should have come here last year when we were beaten to provide a bit of balance to things.”

Half-joking.

FROM the members’ bar, we are over-looking the eighteenth green at Fota Island golf resort, a vista that has Counihan swooning. With his measured, easy-going style, it’s safe to presume he plots his way around a golf course, never getting ahead of himself.

Most important club? The one he’s hitting the next shot with.

His on-course persona? Cucumber-cool.

Neither in fact. “I’d get frustrated with golf,” he says. “If the game was going well, I’d be fine, but the idea that it was going wrong after three holes and there was 15 more to go. I’d want to get out of there, I wouldn’t have the patience for it. I’d have to be competitive, and the thought of a putt going three feet beyond the hole and then tapping around to finish...I think Fintan (Goold) is handy, Colm (O’Neill) is supposed to be good too; there’s a few of them at it, but where they get the time for it, I don’t know.”

He received a set of clubs from the family last year and he’s not sure whether they came with a subliminal message. “Well, the problem is worse for them now because I still don’t golf and I’m going to be back in the house again under their feet...”

He’s not going to announce his plans for next season yet, not because he’s coy but because he’s weighing everything up. He marvels at Mick O’Dwyer, but wonders is he the exception that proves the rule.

“You’d want to be careful of it,” Counihan maintains. “Do you end up needing it more than it needs you? If you reach that stage, that’s not a right place to be. I’ll give myself two or three weeks to stand back from the thing. That’s being fair to everyone.

“Sometimes it would irk you, the criticism, because fellas don’t even think it out. There is some irresponsible stuff going on. I’m not even thinking of myself or the Cork lads here. It worries me where we are going as a society with this. We will end up shutting down every bloody place in this country listening to that type of gobshite.”

There’s a strong chance that Counihan already has a sense of the road to travel. He’s not a man to outstay his welcome, but he will surely struggle to walk away from this group of Cork players.

“Three of them have been through three (All-Ireland) final defeats already, but 2007 was the lowest point, I’d say. The way it went, over at half time (against Kerry). After that, you’d be thinking how will these fellas lift themselves again?

“But they never went away. They were at the summit of the mountain and they were kicked back down again, but they kept re-appearing. And you sense well, there’s something there. You’d know the quality of the people, there’s resilience there. You could be a boxer, twice as good as me, putting me on the floor, but if I keep getting up, there’s some point where I’m going to put you on the floor.”

The long haul to last Sunday in Croke Park began a year ago, in the days after the final defeat, again to Kerry.

“There was a collective sense of ‘right, we’re going for this’. But to make sure, I wrote a few notes in a diary to remind myself and the lads how it felt that week. I wanted something I knew was going to be important for us this season. You’re hurting, you’re quite sore and you don’t want to forget it. Once you have that fuel in you, it was drive on.”

Counihan amplifies the different emotions between now and then. “Relief this year, frustration last. Decisions that happened on the day last year, you can’t change them, that’s the killer. But Sunday, getting over the line is sheer relief. Fellas have achieved something that looked beyond a dream for some of them. And it wasn’t just the players either. The whole back-room team was hurting. We have no egos, everyone has an equal say, and we’d chance anything if we thought we’d get an inch out of it – sometimes we got that inch, other times it didn’t work, but we certainly tried it anyway.”

MEET at Cork Airport, the players were told. 3pm. And bring your passports. Some laugh now that individual luggage included suntan oil and Speedos. And as they gathered outside the terminal, they were directed towards a bus that drove them back out of it again.

“We had been away the previous year in Portugal...” Counihan explains now, and already you get a sense of where this is going. Counihan isn’t old school; he’s the old school they knocked to build the old school.

“I’d have a view, and it’s something the players might not agree with, that the modern day sportsman and the general lifestyle of folk is much softer than it used to be. Twenty years ago fellas would be picking spuds or thinning beet, physical work that meant you didn’t need to go near a gym. Now everything is geared towards putting everything in place for people and minimising distractions. But there’s no-one going to put it in place for you come the championship. We had to take them out of the comfort zone.”

And so the bus spilled its contents onto a ferry headed for Bere Island February boot camp. “It was good from a bonding point of view,” says the coach. “There were aches and pains but there was more fellas smiling than grimacing at the end of it. (Bantry man) Niall Twomey did it very well, broke them up into different competitive teams. People then forgot about the pain, even though when they reflected on it afterwards, it was pretty rough. It’s one of the things they’ll remember.”

He’s not so quick to presume that, with the load lifted, next season will see a breezy, formidable Cork.

Attitude is important, he says. “Yes they should be all the better with confidence, but will success change them?”

He thinks not, at least on the basis of what he sees from young tyros like midfielder Aidan Walsh and attacker Ciarán Sheehan. “They’re young, they don’t think too much, they just go out and play. And they can play, by the way. Aidan is that kind of a fella, full of enthusiasm but solid. I don’t see Aidan changing. In five years’ time, he’ll be the same kind of a guy. Ciarán is very similar, just smiles along and does his job, himself and Aidan plodding along nicely.”

He’s seen bits and pieces of Sunday’s win on video playback in buses and bars, ratifying initial half thoughts. “The early chances we had for the goals... winning ball in midfield but not getting value from it... the few points before half time being critical.

“We settled down after half time and Daniel knocked over great frees, and Aidan seemed to be everywhere. Ciarán got up (after those missed chances), got some great ball in the second half, his work-rate and ability to turn over ball are phenomenal when you consider what age he is.”

Counihan throws his thoughts back to the league, the floodlit meeting with Dublin. “The first night we played Ciarán in the league, he just slotted in so easily as if to say ‘I should have been here for the last number of years’.

Walsh, Sheehan and Eoin Cadogan, now All-Ireland football winners. A trump card in the dual debate in Cork? “We didn’t go the road of convincing them (to opt for football) really,” Counihan insists. “Ciarán made the decision early on, Aidan wished to play the hurling too and at one stage he set about withdrawing from the hurling because he was missing things at our end. But I stopped him doing that because you don’t want to pass up the chance of a (Munster Championship) U21 medal either. But then he got injured. There’s a lot of versions of that story, but they are the facts.”

Cadogan “likes the occasion, can play the big day well,” Counihan says, but last Sunday, too many of his colleagues were under-throttled in the first period. Struggling in the thin air of a September Sunday again.

“Looking back, the experience we had gained was the key thing. From this perspective now, you see Kerry and the incredible experience those guys have garnered. This time around, we had that. It wasn’t that we weren’t trying to win Munster this year, but even if we did, we were no further down the road than last year. I was annoyed that we were dominant in the two games against Kerry and didn’t win it but we had prepared ourselves anyway for Plan B this year. The qualifiers brought an edge to us that enabled us to get out of a few tight corners. This year experience was beginning to count.”

As were other things. “Don’t have any doubt, we had a bit of luck too,” Counihan concedes. “I’m thinking of the Dublin game more than any other. We haven’t played the best football in the country this season – we got rid of that last year. The idea of winning dirty when you have to dig deep was something we achieved this season but haven’t done before. It’s a results business.

“People praised us last year and the Rolls Royce football we played and some thought it was a case of turning the key and off we go again. But the different roads we were going down this year weren’t necessarily suited to a Rolls Royce.”

The practical side of Counihan, the logical evolution he believes in, is talking now.

“People have attacked us not going with the long ball more. We’d love to do that, but if there’s four defenders inside against two forwards, are we going to pike it in? I accept there were times this season when that balance went too far the other way, but that’s something you have to live with. Players react to the environment around them, they’re not machines.

“We possibly went too much the other way (holding onto possession), but for people to be crucifying us for not kicking it long...that stuff is gone 40 years ago. We figured Down expected us to play it short and so they didn’t defend as deep as other teams, say like Dublin, so it was possible to go longer, quicker last Sunday.

“Even after winning an All-Ireland, you wouldn’t be happy with the all the performances. Certainly in the semi-final (against Dublin), I wasn’t too happy. But there is no absolute performance. Against Dublin we let it go very late which is dangerous. Down gave us more space to operate in than Dublin, but the flip-side is that Down were more dangerous in attack than Dublin in the second half.”

AFTER the final whistle of the season last Sunday, Counihan describes the mayhem as bang, bang, bang. He went to bed at 4.30am on Monday morning, his head still swimming. Three hours later he surfaced, thinking not only of those on the inside.

“Last Thursday night (week) in training, I was thinking as well of the fellas we had left out of the panel. I mentioned names. They were serious quality, so if they’re outside, what does that say about the quality in here? Some of those lads outside would have done anything to stay in there, and it was not easy to let them go. That’s the rough bit.”

Even within the All-Ireland winning group, there are pushers and pullers. “You are as strong as your weakest link. The 15 fellas playing wouldn’t bother me at all because they’re getting the opportunity, but the 15 others are making the same sacrifice with little of the same chances. But if they weren’t there, the others wouldn’t be as good as they are. Numbers 16 to 30 are the key people in many ways.”

He knows management hasn’t always got it right, this season or last, but offers a revealing insight into the co-operative mentality in this Cork set-up.

“The one thing we worked on this year was enjoyment. You’re supposed to be liking it and not getting irritable and tense about sport. But it was easy to be uplifted by the sheer drive that was coming from everyone in the group this year. No one ever felt uncomfortable about offering an opinion.

“I’d be a bit mad anyway, I love people who come up with different ideas; the routine stuff isn’t good enough any more, you have to come up with something different. Lads are always challenging you, players are hungry for information and they are researching it. The players would have come up with the bulk of the ideas. When you have 34 footballers, that’s a lot of brain power and ideas.”

This morning, Conor Counihan is planning his first lie in since whenever. He might, if the mood takes him, scan the newspapers but it’s more likely he’ll have a little look at the final seconds of last Sunday’s All-Ireland final. To see can he hold onto it for another second or three. And he’s smiling now at the memory of Aidan Walsh collapsing in joyous relief. “They’re spoiled little so and so’s, Aidan and Ciarán. They haven’t gone through the torment of losing a few All-Irelands. Winners straight away, and they’re thinking ‘well, how many more’?

“But it never works like that.”


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