TAKE the symbolism any way you like it.
Noel O’Leary is talking about how the Cork team will travel to Croke Park for this weekend’s All-Ireland final, not their journey this summer in the qualifiers.
“We’re getting the bus now rather than the train,” says O’Leary.
“It makes a bit of a difference. The roads are super and you make good headway, it’s direct enough. No-one’s giving out about the change, anyway.”
The team that moved smoothly to last year’s final has made fractured, meandering progress to his season’s decider. Which is better? Front or back door? Bus or train?
“Playing teams in their own backyard in the qualifiers, it was a boost to come out with wins,” says O’Leary. “At the same time our football doesn’t seem to have come on a whole pile through the championship, and we’re aware of that.
“But we’re still winning and that’s the bottom line.”
And back in an All-Ireland final.
O’Leary has lost two; he knows how much defeat in September hurts.
“It knocks you out of kilter. You’re talking about months rather than weeks – you think about things you might have tried differently – but after four or five weeks last year, we gathered ourselves together and got the attitude that we’d get back there again and that we had to atone (for previous losses).
“Thankfully we are back there but we’d a few close shaves on the way.”
None closer than the game against Dublin, as O’Leary admits.
“There was huge pressure coming into the home straight. There were times you’d feel, ‘will we, won’t we get out of this?’ but if you had it in your head that you weren’t going to do it, you wouldn’t pull it out. I think it probably ran through the team, we all felt we could do it. The experience did tell, and while Dublin did put up a great fight, they couldn’t sustain it to the end. That was the big thing. We came stronger towards the end.”
How satisfying was that win, given the widespread criticism of the team?
“It was satisfying. A lot has been thrown at this team in terms of character, but people don’t see what happens at training, and you have lads making comments who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. But there’s great character in this team and it was great to pull it out of the fire, but we knew we had that character.”
O’Leary admits that it will take an All-Ireland title to change that view of Cork.
“There’s no denying that. An All-Ireland is eluding us and it’s fair for the media to be down on us because of that. Until we win one that won’t change.
“Hurling is probably the number one in Cork but the circle is probably coming around again and football is getting stronger. If we could finish this one off it would be very important for the county.”
The Cill na Martra man feels Cork have some advantage having been through the build-up for the final before but doesn’t overstate it. He dwells on tangible advantages, like manager Conor Counihan’s know-how.
“Having been there before helps a little – you’re gearing up for what’s ahead and you know what’s coming. It’s a help, but it’s not going to win the game for you.
“Conor’s done a massive job since coming in. He’s brought the whole thing forward.
“As for the criticism – I don’t think it’s warranted. He’s doing everything he can and he’s prepared the team to the highest standard. In any game you can try things, various moves, and they may not always work out. But there’s no manager with a crystal ball; you’ve got to try things there’s no guarantees they’ll work out.
“I don’t think Conor is a guy who’d pay a lot of attention to that criticism – he’s gotten us to another All-Ireland final. There’s another 30 counties would take that straightaway.”
The 31st county is Down, Cork’s opponents on Sunday.
“There’s no point in trying to colour things,” says O’Leary.
“They’re a quality team and their performances since they hit Croke Park... they’re like a team lapping things up. They’re performing very well and we’ll have to be at our best to beat them. We feel there’s more in us and we’re aiming to produce that on All-Ireland final day.”
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