Two years ago he patrolled the sidelines on a championship Sunday for the first time in the Gaelic Grounds and experienced a Munster semi-final that shredded his nerves. Cork dangled on the precipice for much of that afternoon before two desperately late goals by Graham Canty and Daniel Goulding baled them out.
Fast-forward 12 months and the narrative of last July’s Munster decider in Páirc Ui Chaoimh followed a similar template. Cork were flat for large chunks of that encounter as Limerick surged to the front and it took another closing scoring salvo before Cork fell over the line with just a point to spare. Tonight the action shifts from provincial familiarity to qualifier uncertainty but Counihan is expecting the pattern of recent years to continue.
“I’ve always had the utmost respect for Limerick and they’ve been quite formidable the last couple of years. I don’t think this will be any different.
“When they got level against Kerry in Killarney, I felt the Munster final was there for them but unfortunately Kerry stole away. I think that day confirmed again how important John Galvin is for them. Over the last number of years, he’s shown himself to be an exceptionally good midfielder. They’ve become a far better balanced team around the field this year and the full focus in the county now seems to be on the footballers.”
It would be perfectly understandable if his Limerick counterpart Mickey Ned O’Sullivan had emitted a howl of anguish when Cork popped up out of the draw drum last Sunday evening and were paired against the Treaty men. These past two years O’Sullivan has been on the cusp of orchestrating a famous triumph but twice he has seen the spoils cruelly whipped away from him at the death. But O’Sullivan’s pragmatic nature leads him not to dwell on that heartbreak.
“Look, the way I see it is that Cork deserved to win on those occasions because they didn’t throw in the towel. I wouldn’t look it as heart-breaking games. We know Cork well, I nearly see them in my sleep at this stage. But we’re still looking forward to this.”
The two teams have meandered along different paths in recent weeks. Cork have been busy touring the qualifier circuit and that has generated novel and unexpected challenges.
“With so many games, we’ve had to try to keep everyone in good shape,” says Counihan. “The lads in our backroom team are very important in trying to keep the lads fresh. It’s about mental fine-tuning at the moment and the importance of the panel becomes greater again. Heading down to Wexford was a new challenge for us last week. The weather was a massive problem you wouldn’t plan for in July, with the wind and rain factored together. There was a big local crowd there and that was quite intimidating, so close to the pitch. But there was a very good Cork following as well and the players responded well.”
For O’Sullivan, the task has been to coax an enthusiastic response from the Limerick players after the Munster final defeat three weeks ago.
“We didn’t shut it out against the All-Ireland champions but lots of people have struggled to fight it out against Kerry. There’s only two teams who have beaten them over the last few years.
“Since then, things have gone well for us. People might say we’ve an advantage in having the rest since losing to Kerry, but a lot of our lads were out club hurling last week. Limerick’s a dual county and 22 of our panel play hurling. Not many other inter-county football teams have to deal with that.”
Limerick’s prospects did get a fillip during the week when the toss to decide the venue for tonight’s clash fell kindly for them. O’Sullivan appreciates a break that he feels has been overdue.
“It was nice for our supporters and the players. If this match was on in Páirc Ui Chaoimh, it would be our eighth consecutive championship match away from home, so we had to get a break at some stage.
“Cork are everyone’s perception as favourites, so it’s good to be against them. It’s only a matter of time before this team succeeds.”