Will Cork be remembered as the only team in modern GAA history to exit the Championship without conceding a goal?
We won’t be holding our breath. Such a statistic will be as quickly forgotten as the sublime points they scored in Sunday’s second half. As the vanquished, their deeds will be rubbed away even if four clean sheets from as many games this summer is an impressive return.
Still if, as expected, Conor Counihan makes way it’s the type of statistic that marks a fitting tribute to the meanness he inculcated in the Cork panel.
Sure, there are the 10 trophies in five seasons but Cork’s miserliness is a hallmark of the Aghada man’s reign.
Excluding the 2008 season when he had to play catch-up following Teddy Holland’s departure, Cork enjoyed 14 shutouts in 22 SFC games, conceded just 10 goals in total.
If, as Billy Morgan said, Counihan wanted to make Cork tougher he succeeded. He made them stronger too, transforming them into the most physically-imposing team in the country. But maybe their iron fist was too big for their velvet glove.
They were hardly agricultural but the basics were emphasised and safety more often than not preached.
Their 2010 All-Ireland title was won wearing down teams into submission, not steamrolling them into obliteration as so many believed they had the ability to do.
They could be so rigid, refusing for quite some time to relinquish the idea of keeping three men in the inside forward line. They were continuously hit with the charge of playing within themselves, embroiling themselves in deliberate and lateral build-ups.
Counihan this year opted to shake things up. Aidan Walsh and Nicholas Murphy took turns at the edge of the square, while in league games they toyed with the idea of a sweeper.
On Sunday, the manager couldn’t be guilty of being too square when he took the decision to go with seven forwards. All week, it had been emphasised that Cork had to do something different and Counihan at least attempted that.
But what he came up against was an uber-version of his team that muscled their way to the All-Ireland title two years ago.
Cork had rarely been guilty of tiredness in the past but going through the hands so much on Sunday was the equivalent of tackles made in rugby: it had to take its toll. At half-time, they were working harder and they were the better team and yet for all their toil were a point behind.
Unlike Kerry, there was no talk of a championship exit at the hands of Donegal being the end of a team.
Sure, Counihan may decide to call it a day but the majority of the bricks he laid will stay standing next season.
Excluding Alan Quirke, who turns 36 next year, the average age of the players starting for Cork on Sunday was 26.5. Donegal’s was 25.4. Not much of a difference between one team in maturity and the other on the way up.
Yet Donegal under Jim McGuinness are in year two of a five-year cycle with the Glenties man. Cork have just about had their five with Counihan.
Quirke and Nicholas Murphy, 35 next year, will surely exit stage left but there doesn’t appear to be any great need for the likes of captain Graham Canty and Paudie Kissane to call it quits. Losing to a team with the quality of Donegal brings with it no great shame. Their transformation has been stunning in its speed but that brevity should take nothing away from what they have achieved.
For two teams contrasting in styles, each manager has succeeded in releasing their counties from their stereotypical shackles: the softness of Cork, the romance of Donegal.
Like Counihan, McGuinness has guided his county to an All-Ireland final in his second season. It’s just that the Donegal of now is a more sophisticated update of Cork 2009.
However, they have the similarities just as much as their differences. Neil McGee’s plea for supporters to let them now prepare for the final in peace — “I hope that they do now give us the chance to get away and do our training” — was a call no Cork player ever had to make in 2009 or 2010.
But McGee’s words about the spirit in the camp could so easily be associated with Cork’s. “One of the fears we had going into the game is that we would not be going back into training on Tuesday night. We are enjoying it that much. Jim has created that bond within the squad. It is a credit to him. It is hard to get that bond.”
When Cork won they did so for themselves and their circle. Their own private universe preserved by Counihan.
The players’ respect for him had always been high but went into the stratosphere for the manner in which he absorbed the death of his brother Michael prior to the 2010 final to lead Cork to triumph.
Three times the princes of spring, once the kings of September, the jury will remain out on Counihan’s Cork. After winning in 2010, he looked for two further years because he felt there was more in his team.
As it turned out, there wasn’t as much as he had anticipated but should he leave, his successor will graciously accept his healthy legacy.
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