What’s rare is wonderful

FOR the Cork players, and all they have been through over the past few years, this was the sweetest thing.

What was noticeable was how many Cork fans remained in the stadium afterwards to soak up this one. It wasn’t champagne football, but All-Ireland finals are for one thing only – winning them and 20 years is far to long for a county which is regarded as one of the powers of the game.

Some people talk about a lack of appreciation for this team but supporters are human and they get exasperated at failure like anyone else. Watch the shift in public mood now after this victory.

Not just the victory, the manner of it. This side has been all about grit and determination this season, negotiating every obstacle that has been thrown at them. The evening in Limerick, when they almost blew a qualifier win in a crazy last few minutes, might have sunk other teams, but Cork deserve credit for taking a number of punches on the chin this season – and rebounding everY time.

And once more yesterday, they showed extreme mental strength after half-time to banish those demons that seemed to spook them in the first half at Croke Park.

Approaching the 30th minute of yesterday’s final, one of the few things that was sustaining me after the disappointment of the minor final was the fact that Down had not created any goal chances.

At 0-7 to 0-2 in front, I sensed that if James McCartan’s men had snaffled a goal at that stage, it may have proved a gap too big to bridge for Cork.

Not least with the hangover of those early goal chances still lingering over the Cork players. Against a backdrop of the losses to Kerry, this was a killer cocktail.

Ciarán Sheehan could have had three goals in the first five minutes; Paul Kerrigan was delaying his shots and getting blocked and Donncha O’Connor seemed to be a second late to everything.

Cork were sleepwalking their way through the first half, committing elementary, and cardinal errors. Kick passes going long, fist passes going short. Or when three Cork defenders chased Mark Poland up the Hogan Stand wing, leaving Danny Hughes on his own to score Down’s seventh point after 26 minutes.

Nervousness can only account for so much.

I believe that those missed goal chances rattled Cork, and all the old bad vibes, which they thought had been exorcised, came flooding back.

The one redeeming feature was the knowledge that Cork had been here before in the semi-final against Dublin. They had a good six or seven minutes before half-time with two points from O’Connor and once they had both Nicholas Murphy and Graham Canty installed within six minutes of the restart, the tide started turning.

Credit the management. Noel O’Leary had a very good outing on Martin Clarke, Michael Shields snuffed out Benny Coulter and Aidan Walsh came good. Boy, did Walsh come good. Even when he wasn’t clean-fielded, his positivity in the air was a deterrent to Kalum King and Peter Fitzpatrick. They were subconsciously more intent on stopping Walsh than winning their own ball. He may be only 20 – imagine U21 again next season! – but the Kanturk man arrived on the big stage yesterday. To take the game to the opposition like that from midfield – and when all around you are struggling – indicates that this is a man who Cork could build a team around in years to come.

Canty’s introduction was a gamble that worked. Along with Nicholas Murphy, he steadied the ship, became a defensive pillar, and was the first point of attack. Speaking of the attack, they also stepped up, not least O’Connor and Goulding who contributed 14 of Cork’s six points. It took a while but Cork eventually exposed Dan Gordon, who is not your traditional sour, dour full back that you need for these occasions.

When Cork settled, passes started going to hand, and space was used more judiciously. Colm O’Neill came on and immediately stretched the Down full-back line (what a prospect he is) and I prayed hard that Cork would somehow extend their lead to four points or beyond. Because I knew that the closer the final whistle came, the more Cork would retreat back into their shell. It’s a human reaction at this stage – and completely understandable.

Will we see a different Cork now that the monkey is off their back?

I think so. There was some very impressive passages of football yesterday when they opened their shoulders and let it fly. Perhaps now they can play with the handbrake off in 2011 because there is huge talent in the squad.

And some talent too in the minors, who came up short after having a similarly disappointing opening against Tyrone.

I openly declare an interest here with my own fella playing, but may I plead with the GAA authorities through this medium to deal with the added time issue in games. It now seems that it’s the obligatory two or three minutes at the end of the game, but there was that much time lost in added time alone at the end of the minor final. If players want to roll around playing dead or faking cramp, let them do it – but punish them on the clock. Add the proper amount of time, lads, please.

We seem to have dealt with the curse of the ‘GAA draw’ now, so let’s do the right thing with added time too.


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