You think Cork are fretting over All Stars?

End of season personal baubles are all well and good, but this Cork squad would prefer collective achievements, says Niall Cahalane

LET me answer my own headline. I don’t care if Cork get no All Star awards this year as long as they win the All-Ireland final on Sunday. And knowing a good number of the Cork players, I’d say All Star awards are far from their minds. But it’s a fair question to ask - is it a good or bad thing for one of the All-Ireland finalists if they don’t have too many obvious candidates for the team of the year? First of all, I don’t think the championship has thrown out a lot of definite All Star selections, no matter what county you pick.

Tyrone and Kerry were blown out reasonably early, so the three or four choices you might make from those teams are gone – players you’d expect to be in the shake-up every year.

On the other hand you’ve a lot of relatively little-known players in the frame. Dublin have been there or thereabouts for a while, but their panel is very different this year, while you have ‘new’ teams in Roscommon, Sligo and Louth coming to the fore for consideration, and you would expect some lads to be picked on the basis that the selection committee feel teams need to be rewarded for getting to a certain level. Apart from all that, a big factor in the perception of Cork as a team without potential All Stars is the way they’ve played – and how the Cork management have used their panel.

If you compare the way Cork are playing this year compared to the latter end of last year, the quarter- and semi-finals of the All-Ireland in particular, you might think Cork have gone backwards. I don’t agree – it’s a more calculated approach this year and I think the team has more direction in what they’re trying to achieve.That’s why you’re not seeing players catch the eye so much and why individuals aren’t standing out. Twenty years ago Larry Tompkins was our stand-out player, a great playmaker and scorer, but now it’s more concerted, more of a team effort, and the outlook seems to be “if it takes us 50 minutes to break down the opposition, then we’ll do it” and they’ve all bought into that.

That’s been a huge factor, because it means players are playing to the system. You might dismiss the fact that lads were saying after the Dublin game “it’s all about the result” as just another cliche, but it wasn’t.

The obvious comparison is Cork’s opposition in that game. Bernard Brogan has been outstanding all year for Dublin and they played a system that worked to get the ball into his hands. They’re right to do that, but it puts a huge focus on him compared to other players. He’ll probably get an All Star but what about the entire team that worked so hard to make him look good?

CONOR (Counihan) and the selectors also deserve a lot of credit for their management of the panel - some of the Cork lads have soldiered for years and have a fair amount of mileage on the clock. They’ve taken a fair battering for the cause but Conor is using them well.

In general the team has done pretty well containing the opposition and staying in games, with lads coming on at half-time and at certain stages of the second half to make vital contributions. Whether they have 70 minutes in them I don’t know, and that’s another reason you haven’t had many stand-out individual displays – some of the lads you’d expect to figure on All Star ballots have not been playing a full game.

Traditionally the question would be whether you start these guys and take them off or bring them on during the game, but with the way Cork are doing it now – with the likes of Nicholas (Murphy) and so on coming on - they have experienced, big-name players to come in and do a job. Those players are able to get into the game straightaway and influence it, which is a major development in Gaelic football. In my time playing it was all about the fifteen starters because you only had the three substitute options that time.

By contrast, Cork have been using their panel very well in the last year or two. Donncha O’Connor against Limerick, Colm O’Neill and Nicholas against Dublin – those switches have worked out very well, even if none of those players don’t pick up a statuette this winter.

That reflects the Cork manager’s own approach as a player, by the way. Conor worked very hard on his own game. A lot of us would have thought when we got the ball that we wanted to get it to the opposite end of the field as quick as we could, just in case we were caught in possession and gave away a goal.

Conor’s view would have been that if you had possession you had to get it safely to the other end of the field and you wanted a score out of it – that you took out the risk of losing possession by not doing something stupid. His team reflects that. There are other factors you have to bear in mind with the All Stars. It’s not unusual, for instance, to see a couple of All Stars given out to players more for their displays the previous season than the current one. It’s like the Oscars – fellas get an award for their entire career, not the film they actually win for.

There’s also the fact that the All-Ireland final itself generally wins or loses a few of those awards for players. For instance, Sunday will throw up a few candidates for player of the year. Martin Clarke is probably one, Benny Coulter to a lesser extent, while with Cork Michael Shields has had a marvellous year and has played in most positions in the defence, while Paddy Kelly has done trojan work for Cork.

Whoever wins them can take a lesson from me. My attitude was that the All-Star was very personal. You had a marvellous night in Dublin and ended up in Chicago or New York six months later. I’d have gone on a few trips even as a replacement, and they were great. You played your two matches but it was fun, really. Bobby Ryan of Borris-Illeigh and Tipperary was a replacement along with me for a couple of years and we roomed together.

We got on very well – we’d get up around 12 o’clock in the day, have everything planned out, and then see all the plans go pear-shaped once we went for a beer. That was the All Stars: you hadn’t a care in the world, a few bob in your pocket, though the likes of Bobby usually went home with more money than he came out with (just kidding, Bobby).

My mother has my All Star awards. But I have the All-Ireland medals in my own house. There’s no comparison between winning an All-Ireland and winning an All Star award. The All-Ireland medal is the one.


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