SO much for history and its lessons. Yesterday’s final brought together a team that couldn’t win an All-Ireland final and a county that had never known what it was like to lose one. And look what happened.
Cork did it by tearing up one of the game’s accepted wisdoms: that which says you always start your best 15. Appalling in the first half, they called in the A-team and breasted the tape with the minimum to spare.
There are those who will still criticise Conor Counihan’s selection policy this last few months but the Cork manager has always stood by the maxim that his is a results business and it was one he repeated yesterday.
Who can argue with him today? Cork drew applause and admiration with some of their football in recent years but it was never enough to climb those Hogan Stand steps.
They haven’t made many new friends this year but does that matter now? Hardly.
Trailing by two points at half-time, Counihan made the first alteration with the introduction of Nicholas Murphy for the start of the second half and he followed it up with others of Graham Canty and Colm O’Neill’s calibre.
Quite a support act.
Though named in the starting side, Canty’s place was taken by John Miskella as a result of the hamstring injury Canty suffered during the quarter-final defeat of Roscommon, when the template for such a strong reserve platoon was first used. It was a system they would lean on again for the semi-final defeat of Dublin when, just like yesterday, Cork put aside an unconvincing opening minutes to win a game in which they had been second best for long spells.
It was a close-run thing for a team that has been criticised and castigated by their own – and others – in the recent past and heaven knows what was being said about them at half-time.
Those of a superstitious nature would have been truly alarmed at the first half, one which mirrored that of the final against Kerry 12 months ago when initial promise had evaporated all too quickly into despair.
Here again, Cork played their first few hands to perfection by drilling holes through a Down defence that had undergone serious remedial work this year but the rewards failed to match their efforts.
Ciarán Sheehan engineered the opportunity with the most potential but his two attempts to trouble the Down rigging were denied, first by goalkeeper Brendan McVeigh and then by corner-back Dan McCartan.
Down had played their first ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card with just two minutes on the clock but they never looked like requiring another in a first half which seemed to confirm the worst about this Cork team.
How bad were they? Well, it took them half an hour just to record a score from open play and, of their six forwards, only Ciarán Sheehan and Paul Kerrigan were making any sort of impression.
Down were playing pretty much all the football and their penchant for long, quick diagonal passes bridged the gap between defence and attack far quicker than Cork’s lumbering style through the middle.
Paul McComiskey was the pick of their attackers but there was no single star. Danny Hughes opened brightly, Marty Clarke chipped in here and there, his brother John tapped over a point.
It wasn’t electric. In fact, their performance in that half was typified by Benny Coulter who was industrious all day rather than illuminating but it outshone anything Cork had to offer.
McComiskey’s second point, after 18 minutes, was the pinnacle of Down’s play. Peter Fitzpatrick started it with a sublime ball down the left flank and Mark Poland provided the link for the attempt on the posts.
Cork? Time and again they took the wrong option. Balls dribbled out over the end line and sideline or they were lost in contact.
Down’s advantage of seven points to two on the half-hour seemed a fair enough barometer of events to that juncture but Cork kept the light aflame before the break by adding three more to their opponents’ one.
Bad and all as they had been in the first half, it was no mission impossible and they retreated to the dressing room knowing that they had that handful of aces to throw into the pot when the blinds started to rise.
If there had been one area of comfort for Cork up to the break, it was Aidan Walsh’s display in midfield and the Kanturk youngster’s influence was matched by that of Murphy on the latter’s introduction.
The match stats would claim later that Cork had enjoyed just 53% of possession but the naked eye gave the lie to that slim advantage because Down were simply destroyed in midfield. In the skies at least.
Down had made light of captain Ambrose Rogers’ loss against Kildare but they missed his experience and power here. His replacement Peter Fitzpatrick fared okay but the day passed Kalum King by.
As was the case in the first half, Cork’s own failings further afield negated any of their good work further back. Two ill-advised raids from Paudie Kissane after the interval were evidence enough of that.
Kissane was replaced by Canty soon after the second of those but nothing much had changed – in that Down still led by two – by the time a dozen minutes ticked by in that second half.
In reality, the stage had already been prepared for the defining final act.
Cork didn’t do a whole lot differently, they just began to do it better. Donncha O’Connor started to get the measure of Dan Gordon and Daniel Goulding kicked anything and everything from the ground.
The pair finished with 14 of their side’s 16 scores. Half of Cork’s total came between the 47th and 67th minutes and only another McVeigh save, this time from Colm O’Neill, prevented that figure from rising further.
Down launched a mini-fightback of their own with two late points from Coulter and Hughes in injury-time but it was too little, too late. Unlike Cork, they had misjudged their lunge for the line.
Scorers for Cork: D Goulding (0-9, four frees, three ‘45s’); D O’Connor (0-5, three frees); C Sheehan (0-1); P Kerrigan (0-1).
Scorers for Down: P McComiskey (0-3); M Clarke (0-3f); D Hughes (0-3); K McKernan (0-1); P Fitzpatrick (0-1); M Poland (0-1); B Coulter (0-1); J Clarke (0-1); R Murtagh (0-1).
Subs for Cork: N Murphy for A O’Connor (35); G Canty for Kissane (42); C O’Neill for P O’Neill (55); D Kavanagh for Murphy (66); J Hayes for Kerrigan (69).
Subs for Down: C Maginn for J Clarke (45); R Murtagh for McComiskey (55); B McArdle for Rafferty (58); A Brannigan for King (65); C Laverty for Poland (66).
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved