Can Cork control those eternal upstarts?

Sunday’s football final has been billed as one between self-confidence and self-doubt, between audacity and conservatism. True or false, asks Dara Ó Cinnéide

THE MOTTO on the coat of arms of County Down is Absque Labore Nihil or ‘Nothing Without Labour’. I don’t know how popular that motto is among the people of Down but it certainly seems singularly unsuited to the county’s football tradition.

‘Everything with ease’ might be a more suitable maxim for a county whose infrequent adventures in the limelight are always undertaken with a swaggering self-confidence and disregard for reputation or pedigree.

If the conventional wisdom holds that a team has to lose a final to win one then Cork would win this year’s All Ireland just as the Tipperary hurlers did two weeks ago. Unfortunately for a Cork team that has served a painful apprenticeship in Croke Park in recent years, conventional wisdom doesn’t apply to Down.

As Conor Counihan’s team trundle towards Croke Park you would forgive them for looking a little enviously at the Down method of winning All-Irelands. Show up in Croke Park when the mood takes you and head back across the border with Sam Maguire, an overnight success yet again. No talk of heartbreak or mental scarring or being unable to beat Kerry when it counts.

When it comes to football it is Down rather than the Rebel County that have mastered the art of the ambush and retreat and it is their county motto that would probably be more suited to this year’s Cork team. Nothing without labour. Not even a score. In reality, James McCartan’s team take winning and losing as seriously as anybody else. In Gaelic football, as with all sports, too much is read into the myths that build up about tradition. Down’s happy status as the eccentric and fearless flying column of Championship football probably owes more to chance and historical circumstance than anything profound. We all know that tradition is generally over-emphasised in GAA circles and reputations usually only serve as distractions or entertainment for those of us who don’t see things the same way as current players and coaches do. But they have served Down well this summer.

It has been said that audacity augments courage; hesitation, fear. Sunday’s clash has almost inevitably been billed as one between self confidence and self-doubt, or between audacity and conservatism. Where Cork are perceived as lumbering, purveyors of dumb football, Down are the brash, heads up, dancing feet and fast hands team of the moment.

As recently as Down’s defeat in this year’s national league final against Armagh and their subsequent Ulster championship exit to Tyrone, there was no talk of the traditional swagger and self belief that Down carry with them on big match days. Many of the same Down players showed very little of the impudence and irreverence we now come to expect from them when losing to Wicklow last year. The obvious changes have been the addition of Martin Clarke as play-maker and the appointment of James McCartan as manager, but something more fundamental appears to have happened since last August weekend.

Sometimes a team wins one match and grows after that. What was ignored or lost in all the talk at quarter-final stage of how the qualifier system has filtered the best teams in the championship through to Croke Park, was the growth of players such as Brendan McKernan, Kalum King and Mark Poland. The Down team that left the field on August weekend were two feet taller than what entered the arena an hour and a half earlier. Having realised that Kerry were as fearful as they had been fearsome, Down set about dismantling the most impressive of the teams that travelled the qualifier route with them, Kildare. Winning against Kildare in such a dramatic fashion will only have copper-fastened the belief amongst Down’s players and supporters that this anniversary year will be laden with luck to the end. Down are now a very audacious and dangerous hunter.

As the game draws near there will be those in Cork who will view their county’s four All-Ireland final losses since their last win in 1990 as akin to a disease that paralyses and immobilises their team. Many in Cork are afraid to truly support this current team, partly because of historical and stylistic factors and partly because they’ve been disappointed so often in recent times by the serial indignities in Croke Park. There are others within the county who believe that victory will herald a period of dominance that should yield a further two or three titles. Both perspectives are feeding into how the team has been playing all summer and the result is at best, confusing, at worst infuriating. The reality is that many of the history lessons being handed out this summer have little or no effect on a team’s performance on a given day and those inside the Cork bubble should remember that.

In his 1974 bestseller, The Inner Game of Tennis, coaching guru, Tim Gallwey says that “there is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game.”

Elements such as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions need to be controlled or eliminated to produce the performance required to win an All Ireland title. At the moment all those limiting traits are exclusively Cork’s.

Even now, a simple example illustrates the difference between the mindsets of the two teams. Almost every one of the eight goals scored by Down in this year’s championship (even Benny Coulter’s square ball) suggested design and intent. Very rarely, apart maybe from once in the Kildare game, did Down deviate from the Seán O Neill school of thought in front of goal: “In Down we don’t believe that you take your points and the goals will come; the Down way is to go for goal and only settle for a point if you’re forced to.”

Contrast that with the amount of times Cork players passed up opportunities of going for the jugular in front of goal. Four goals (one lucky strike for Daniel Goulding, two Pierce O’Neill strikes and one penalty) hardly represents a true reflection of what Cork’s forward talent are capable of with the smell of blood in their nostrils.

I know Cork have, at times in this year’s championship, played against some of the most crowded defences imaginable, but they are going to have to throw off the shackles and get the ball quickly into the full forward line to get goals on Sunday.

Even so, Cork will end the year as they started – as favourites. Last winter, when they began plotting their latest bid for glory after another soul-destroying defeat to Kerry, it is unlikely that they factored into their plans the eternal upstarts in black and red. Cork must surely have shed a little of their self-doubt when Kerry departed Championship 2010. Now Conor Counihan’s team find themselves facing a different tradition, but one equally capable of exploiting any hint of insecurity.

Nothing without labour indeed!


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