Cork’s potential is quite frightening

WE like to believe that all champions are the best. But often teams succeed by virtue of not being as bad as everyone else. There is a difference.

For instance Manchester United could very well win this year’s Premiership title on the basis that they just weren’t as woefully inconsistent as Chelsea and Arsenal. Few would argue that United have been any good this season.

There are those who believe that Cork’s All-Ireland victory last year fits into a similar bracket. The theory is that the Rebels were the pick of a mediocre bunch.

It’s probably fair to state that Cork have failed to capture the public’s imagination. There has certainly been a general reluctance to foist praise on them.

Despite landing the league and championship double, there wasn’t much carping when only four Cork players received All Stars.

While there were a few gripes about the absence of any Cork forwards on the team, there were as many complaints about the awards handed to Graham Canty and Aidan Walsh. The argument was that Kevin McKernan and John Galvin were more deserving recipients.

Apart from the country’s natural inclination to shun all things Cork, the main reason why the celebrations for last year’s victory were largely confined to Leeside was because the team’s performances were so uninspiring.

Conor Counihan’s men didn’t so much bedazzle their opponents as bulldoze them. There was a mechanical dimension to Cork’s displays.

Consider their victory over Down in the All-Ireland final. The key elements in their success were: 1) the man-marking jobs done by Michael Shields and Noel O’Leary on Benny Coulter and Martin Clarke; 2) winning 70% of the kick-outs; 3) an exhibition of place-kicking by Daniel Goulding and 4) the introduction of Graham Canty and Nicholas Murphy from the bench.

In essence, Cork’s victory was built on their ability to defend, win ball, and convert free-kicks. They were like the robotic England rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003 with Goulding playing the role of Jonny Wilkinson.

They certainly didn’t bring the same showbiz quality as Kerry, who can always rely on Colm Cooper, Kieran Donaghy and Declan O’Sullivan for some added sparkle. Nor did they play with the same fluidity and clockwork precision as Tyrone.

If Tyrone and Kerry treated us to champagne football, then Cork served us a half ‘un of whiskey and a bottle of stout.

It must be stated there were contributory factors in Cork’s underwhelming path to glory. Hot favourites against Dublin and Down, they carried a huge weight of expectancy into both games.

And following their All-Ireland final defeats to Kerry in 2007 and 2009, Cork were definitely haunted by the notion that they would never get a better chance to secure the Holy Grail.

They looked tense throughout the first half of the All-Ireland final and only provided a glimpse of their potential during a brief purple patch in the second half.

However, it must also be stated that Cork contributed to their stuttering and incoherent attacking play. The tendency of their half-backs to continually run with the ball meant that their full-forwards were easy to bottle up. We never saw Goulding and Donncha O’Connor in full flow because they rarely received an early pass.

Yet for all their limitations as an attacking force Cork still climbed to the top of the pile, and there are not many teams that can win an All-Ireland title while playing within themselves.

Once Cork got the monkey off their backs there is always the possibility they could scale hitherto untouched heights.

Their potential is quite frightening. Imagine what would happen if Cork combined their strong defence and capacity for winning possession with sophisticated attacking football and superb finishing.

It was Down’s huge misfortune to witness that very prospect unfold on Saturday night in a 3-17 to 0-15 rout.

Unlike the All-Ireland final when Cork relied on Daniel Goulding’s free-kicks, the Rebels converted just six frees in Páirc Uí Rinn. An eye-watering 3-11 of their tally came from play. All six of their starting forwards got on the scoresheet. They ripped the Mournemen to shreds.

Last year when they visited Celtic Park last year, Paul Kerrigan was unmarkable while Fintan Goold nearly burst the ball after he hit the top corner of the net from 20 yards with a bullet-like drive.

Goulding, Donncha O’Connor, Colm O’Neill, Ciarán Sheehan and Paddy Kelly would waltz onto any county team in the country.

At 5/2, Cork are currently the clear favourites to win this year’s All-Ireland title. With only Clare and Waterford standing in their way, they have a skip and a jump into the Munster final. A place in the All-Ireland quarter-final is virtually assured.

It must also be remembered that Cork only have to be marginally better than the rest. Right now, the opposition doesn’t look that hot. Neither Kerry nor Tyrone appear to be getting any better while Dublin’s lucky escape against Monaghan raises further concerns about their progress.

Conor Counihan played in the last Cork team that managed to retain the Sam Maguire Cup. For all the praise heaped on Tyrone, it’s worth noting that the Red Hands never managed to defend their crown.

It’s only by winning back-to-back titles that Counihan’s players will receive the type of acclaim that was dispensed so freely to other All-Ireland champions.

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