HAD things been so slightly different last month we could well be looking forward to an historic all-Leinster All-Ireland final between Dublin and Kildare this weekend.
The impression is that Cork are arriving in Croke Park tomorrow devoid of form while Down have played all the football but the reality is that both teams were fortunate to come through their respective semis.
Cork’s travails against Dublin have received the greater attention but Down are where they are this weekend thanks in no small part to an illegal Benny Coulter goal and Kalum King’s fingertips.
So, question marks linger over both.
Cork are keeping their fingers crossed that Graham Canty will be fit to start, and finish, Eoin Cadogan starts a football championship match for the first time and there are doubts as to whether they have named their best midfield.
The same could be said for an attack that has spluttered all summer but which has no place for Colm O’Neill, whose illuminating cameo against Dublin provided the platform for victory.
The Munster county’s failures at this juncture last year and in 2007 also places a psychological hurdle over which they must vault to reach their Holy Grail but Down, too, have concerns.
The expected absence of Ambrose Rogers is a blow even if they have long come to terms with it. King and Peter Fitzpatrick did well last time out but they are a young and inexperienced duo for such a grand stage.
Defensively, they have come on enormously this season but Kildare still managed 1-14 on them and would have claimed a lot more besides only for some trademark wides and sloppy passing.
Dan Gordon’s switch to full-back has been a crucial building block in Down’s regeneration but the big man is not a natural number three and it will be interesting to watch his duel on the edge of the square with Donncha O’Connor.
Cork require a big day from all their forwards. They need a Daniel Goulding or Paul Kerrigan to have a day of days and, on that score, Down have been the more impressive of the two on the evidence to date. Marty Clarke’s poise and vision pose an alarming threat to Cork. Much has been made of his return from Australia and the simple fact is that he has lived up to the hype. And more.
Benny Coulter and Danny Hughes have been eulogised similarly this summer. They, too, possess the ability to set the agenda tomorrow and negating that trio’s influence must be top of Cork’s agenda. Another priority will be matching Down’s work-rate. It went largely unnoticed last month, but the Ulster’s side’s tenacity without the ball was highly effective in discommoding Kildare.
Should Cork manage that — and hunger will hardly be an issue — then Counihan clearly has the stronger bench with which to kick for the finish, as was the case against Dublin.
In fact, if that impressive last 20 minutes in the semi-final resembled anything, it was Kerry’s closing quarter against Antrim in Tullamore last summer when they, too, seemed to find their stride after so many stumbles. It was only in retrospect we recognised that as their season’s defining turning point.
Cork, but not by much.
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