Only one time to cut a blackthorn stick

I HAD a fair hand in Cork losing the 1993 All-Ireland final to Derry. It was a grim, dogged affair and everyone’s mood seemed to be as foul as the weather. Amid the niggle, I threw a left hook at Enda Gormley.

Things were rapidly getting out of hand for referee Tommy Howard, and he decided the next transgressor would walk. Tony Davis committed an innocuous foul along the Hogan Stand sideline and was sent packing. It was still a final we could have won but thereafter we were always a kick of a ball off it. No breaks, but no worries I thought, there’s always next year.

In fact, there wasn’t. It was the last All-Ireland I played and Cork’s last for six years. They haven’t won one since. It’s hard to fathom; 20 years is a long time for a county where there’s an awful lot of football played.

Will it eventually come? Back in my own playing days, I always followed the travails of Clann na Gael in Roscommon closely. I wanted Castlehaven to be like them. But they never got it over the line in terms of a club All-Ireland. That was absolutely cruel. They won countless provincial championships and you always felt this had to be their year. It never came. There is no right to success.

Notwithstanding that, Cork’s final experience has to be a critical factor in Croke Park tomorrow. It’s still a huge occasion. Kerry have had that edge in the last two finals against Cork — been there, done that, how do you like the t-shirt?

People point to Down’s momentum as if their appearance from virtually nowhere bestows on them a head start. I believe it’s the opposite. Pat Gilroy brought Dublin along the road, but you won’t win an All-Ireland from a standing start in seven months. Fourteen months ago, Down collapsed to defeat in a qualifier against Wicklow below in Aughrim.

You can get on a roll, and James McCartan has done marvellously, but at some level, the incline becomes too steep. That moment has arrived. I thought there was rawness exposed late against Kildare, and I wouldn’t have Kildare as world beaters.

I still believe the Kerry albatross was a big factor last year for Cork. Down are not coming with the same credentials as Kerry, even though they knocked them out in August.

I can see Down playing at 200mph and will be three or four points up at the half. That no longer fazes Cork. This won’t be pretty but 2010 is Cork’s time. Next year is a new chapter and as 1993 proved to me, it may not be a successful one.

THERE are critical decisions already made and more to be made on the sideline tomorrow. Cork’s management has all but shut down the bush telegraph. In the hour before the semi-final against Dublin I proudly told all around me in the Hogan Stand that Graham Canty was definitely out. What do I know? What we do have is a dry run for Conor Counihan from the hurling final. Two weeks ago a human moment possibly cost Kilkenny, the selection of Henry Shefflin proving to be a flawed one. Graham Canty has played 35 minutes football in nine weeks and wouldn’t have taken part in A versus B last Saturday. If Cork are intending to start him, I’m surprised.

Michael Shields should pick up Benny Coulter, and I would have John Miskella tracking Martin Clarke if the Cork man isn’t sitting in the stand. Clarke has a lot of similarities to Kerry’s Declan O’Sullivan, in terms of going deep and being a play-maker. I know this isn’t the same John Miskella as a year or two ago but there’s 50 minutes in him. I would then throw Noel O’Leary after Danny Hughes. Positions mean nothing any more, it’s man on man. The bulk of Down’s scores will come off of those three players and Cork must have a watertight plan for them. Cork have gone about their business discreetly this past week, but that doesn’t mean they’ll get it right. They’ve got defensive match-ups wrong in the last 12 months. Big calls have backfired.

That defensive system is now fundamental to everything Cork do, a lot more so than last year. It’s the rugby methodology — grind down the opposition, then take them on in the last 20. Look at Cork-Dublin. Cork played a short game out of defence and then, with key changes made, altered to long balls that delivered scores, frees and penalties. Nicholas Murphy is a key soldier in this game plan.

Why aren’t they doing it earlier? Well, for starters, the inside forwards don’t seem to be expecting the ball in — so they’re either beyond frustration or part of a systematic approach that has got them to a final.

Here’s the rub though. Long, direct ball goes to the very heart of Down’s vulnerability in the full-back line. Cork supporters are craving for a swashbuckling approach. But what has brought them this far has been no deviation from the default setting. Conor Counihan is conservative by nature and will adopt the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ attitude

He’s probably right. At this late stage, all that counts is the result. There’s a number of those seniors one would love to see win an All-Ireland, because next year may not come for some of them. You think it’s years but it’s only a short space of time you play at this level. Some of these lads will find it so hard to come back next February if they lose. The fear of losing is Cork’s trump card on this occasion. They will not let it slip.

* Verdict: Cork by four, with Paul Kerrigan man of the match.



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