Beginning to appreciate them now?

WE DIDN’T anticipate streamers and party hats, nor cartwheels, when Cork’s captain and coach came in to put words on their year’s work, but beneath Conor Counihan and Graham Canty’s studied dignity, a volcanic sense of vindication must have been bubbling.

Either that or both men are ice cubes.

While many of his colleagues buck-leapt and wept around Croke Park after finally overcoming their September turmoil, Canty looked around and whispered that the press auditorium just seemed that bit nicer a place in victory.

Nothing glib about pressure being for tyres. He spoke of situations on Real Street which relegate sport to it’s rightful berth. It was all admirably measured; it was left to the rest of us to fill in the pieces, to surmise that here sat two men who had turned the last corner of their being to find sporting salvation.

Cork’s first All-Ireland in 20 years. Finally.

Canty doesn’t play the media game; indeed he has been known to break into a rash at the sight of camera or dictaphone. But his barely audible responses were substantive and real. It’s not difficult to see why his players queue up to walk into battle alongside him. The fact that the great unwashed don’t see that doesn’t mean it’s not there. As Conor McCarthy said on these pages last week, this group of Cork players eschew the back-slappers. They prefer anonymity.

The captain spoke of being “humbled” to be in the same jersey as a group of players who’ve been light on support in their own backyard but laden, by the same constituency, with expectation. Neither imposter receives much of a welcome in the Cork camp.

Soon he was gone, back to the dressing room, but it wasn’t the big-eared piece of silver that caught his eye.

First he eyed Aidan Walsh. A rookie by trade, he’s spent the season being told not to put himself in the way of play in an advanced position. Stick to what you do best son. He might have curled himself up into a ball at one stage. Yesterday? When Cork were struggling to catch second wind after a frenzied, but false dawn, Walsh bestrode the central boulevard with an intent that brooked no debate. You want trouble? I’m here.

Savouring the scene too was Donncha O’Connor. An hour earlier he was frustrated as he dashed one way and other, to find ball arriving too slow or too high. It took half an hour for him to get a sight of goal, all the while knowing he had the measure of Dan Gordon. He might have capitulated but by the half’s end, he’d engineered two sights at goal and bull’s eyed both.

This son of Ballydesmond once turned back from a Cork trial because he didn’t feel he belonged. But as yesterday’s All-Ireland final reached its zenith, O’Connor was front and centre. In June he ballooned a free hopelessly skywards to present Kerry with a get-out-of-jail opportunity. But as the summer pulse quickened, O’Connor’s heart rate slowed. A game-changing penalty against Dublin, a batch of killer frees. And then yesterday. When it was all over, O’Connor had no legs left, but he had five points and a number of questions answered.

Not as many perhaps as Daniel Goulding, a polite personality for whom the car crash intensity of September Sunday would always be too much, they said. A corner forward who obliged the ‘neat and nice’ stereotype.

Conor Counihan mightn’t agree there. “He’s a phenomenal guy,” the Cork coach glowed last night.

“He has grown so much over the last two years. It takes a lot to stand up and take those big kicks and you need fellas like that. Maybe they’re the chances we squandered in the past.”

In fact, he probably undersells Goulding’s man of the match impersonation of William Tell. There hasn’t been a dead ball exhibition like it in a final since Páraic Joyce nine years ago and before that, Maurice Fitzgerald, in his 1997 tour de force. It wasn’t that the three successful 45’s in the second half weren’t problematic in their own right. But the dead burden of pressure on each one was immense. The first came moments after Paul Kerrigan punted Cork into a 0-12 to 0-11 lead – their first nose in front since the opening score of the game.

Two minutes after that, Goulding did that little Indian Dance around another kick fada before converting. And with three minutes remaining, he landed his ninth point of the day with another.

It wasn’t just Goulding either who embraced pressure this time. Paddy Kelly and Michael Shields earned their All Stars yesterday, especially the latter who snuffed out Benny Coulter.

If the pre-final training ground grapevine was leaking anything, it was the form of Nicholas Murphy. It proved a reliable portent of his display upon his timely introduction for the second half yesterday. For 30 minutes, Walsh and Murphy’s dominance was so complete that it brought an immediate admission of blame from James McCartan afterwards that the Down management had done nothing to limit it. Murphy’s first act was to meet Peter Fitzpatrick with such ferocity that the Down midfielder collapsed in an untidy heap. It was as much as call to arms as anything else – from the man who took Tadhg Kennelly’s calling card a year ago.

It had taken 36 minutes of this final – some might say a few years more than that – but Cork players were locked, loaded and taking charge of their own destiny.

Their first half effort was so calamitous, it appeared the weight of pressure had finally suffocated them. Two points in the opening 30 minutes, both frees, suggested the spurning of two early goal chances had turned Cork legs to rubber. They had gone long as planned with the ball, but the quality and the timing of the delivery to Donncha O’Connor et al was rank bad.

Cork were lucky to change ends only 0-5 to 0-8 behind, but the final 35 minutes of their season may reshape history. From being the most unimpressive champions in recent years, they may just be the grittiest. Shields, Canty, Cadogan, Walsh, Murphy, Sheehan, Kelly and Goulding began a tsunami of undiluted will that brought them level at 11 points each with 15 minutes remaining. Get busy living or get busy dying, someone said.

Cork build a three point lead (0-14 to 0-11) before that peer-through-your-fingers stage of the proceedings. They stopped chasing the finishing line, expecting – nay, hoping – it might come to them. A three point lead became one, and Fintan Goold may never catch another kick out as important as the final one of this game. And as sanity tottered for a moment, Daniel Goulding galloped down the wing and drew the prettiest foul in recent Cork GAA history.

Beginning to like them now?


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