WHAT does the future hold for this Cork team?
I think Sunday’s success will liberate them. The pressure is off. They can now go out and play with freedom. With the players they have at their disposal, playing with freedom and confidence, they will be a very dangerous animal from a Kerry perspective. Having been under such pressure to deliver they played well within themselves on Sunday, playing to about 70-75% of their optimum.
There is more in them. Aidan Walsh is going to develop into one of the best midfielders of his generation if he stays injury-free. He has all the necessary attributes and is ahead in his development than even someone like Darragh O Sé was at his age.
Only Alan Quirke, Graham Canty and Nicholas Murphy are the wrong side of 30. Five of the six starting forwards are under 25. The average age of the team that finished on Sunday was 25.7.
Fear? What fear?
Well, there was fear in the Cork dressing room prior to Sunday’s final. There had to be. This group recognised that losing did not bear thinking about. Another final defeat would have finished them. The beauty of sport is there is always a way back. Well, nearly always.
Instead of having to contemplate a nightmare scenario they have shown remarkable resilience to keep coming back from crushing disappointments. In the second half on Sunday, this fear galvanised Cork rather than paralysing them.
The Cork management deserve a lot of credit as they got most of their big calls right. Firstly, and in my opinion (speaking as a defender) most importantly, they got the match-ups right at the back. While the right flank of the Down attack scored six points from play, Danny Hughes and Paul McComiskey were not going to win the game for Down. They needed bigger contributions from their main men. Both Martin Clarke and, in particular, Benny Coulter tried very hard but they did not impact as they had in the previous Croke Park games. Noel O’Leary was tight and aggressive on Clarke and did not allow him space to operate in or time to pick his passes. Michael Shields was similarly impressive as he marked Coulter out of the game.
The defining moment in the match came as Down attacked in the 49th minute, but Shields burst out in front of Coulter to intercept the ball and transfer the ball swiftly downfield via an accurate Ciarán Sheehan footpass which finished with Donncha O’Connor’s second point from play. Down were still ahead by two but this score re-energised Cork and thereafter they kicked for home.
Significantly Alan Quirke did not have a save to make. Down lost two games all year, against Tyrone in the Ulster Championship and on Sunday. These were the only two games that they did not score a goal in. Goals win games and especially the Down tradition of success in Croke Park is built around goal scoring. Cork shut them out on Sunday with outstanding defence.
However, the importance of Cork’s bench cannot be over-stated. This was a major advantage they had over Down. Everyone introduced contributed. Nicholas Murphy was one of the main reasons Cork won. Along with his young apprentice, Aidan Walsh, Cork took over at midfield in the second half. When Cork win midfield they usually win games. It gives them a platform to get their running game going and allows them to transfer the ball post haste. When Graham Canty came in he steadied the ship, Colm O’Neill was as threatening as usual and Fintan Goold made that crucial last catch.
Contrast Down’s bench. While Conor McGinn and Ronan Murtagh both contributed it was in the middle of the field that their lack of strength in depth was clear. Ambrose Rogers’ loss was keenly felt here. Instead James McCartan and his selectors made some baffling decisions. They took off Paul McComiskey who was a threat throughout, and the effective Mark Poland.
Cork have the strongest panel in the country and with the timing and personnel of their substitutions they made sure they now have the silverware to underline this point.
While the Cork management seemed to bristle last week at the suggestion that they should kick more ball, they did just that. In the second half, they created some fantastic scores from fast transfer of possession. This allowed their quality forwards the time and space to score some huge points. Ciarán Sheehan, Donncha O’Connor, Paul Kerrigan and Daniel Goulding all kicked great points from play. Good kicking out the field by Nicholas Murphy, Kelly and Sheehan created these chances before Down could get the cover back to protect their more vulnerable defenders.
For previous Croke Park games this year the Cork full forward line have endured frustrating outings. Starved of quality ball they struggled to show their true worth. This time round, they got ball and they shone. Last year Daniel Goulding’s direct opponent Tom O’Sullivan took the man of the match award. This time the Corkman scooped the individual honour. His scoring contribution was magnificent. The gong could easily have gone to his colleague in the full forward line, Donncha O’Connor. He has shipped criticism in his career but he emphasised his brilliance on Sunday. His free-taking was flawless but his three points from play breathed life in to Cork’s challenge at different and crucial times.
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