Colm O'Rourke: Still holding out for a hero
Down's system has worked well so far, but Cork have too many options, says Colm O'Rourke
A ll-Ireland finals come and go and many are forgotten very quickly, but the displays of great players are remembered forever. Performances at this level are what make players special -- to be a really great footballer, you must be able to turn it on today.
That brings pressure and it is the ability to perform when the pressure is greatest which sorts the men from the boys. And if a player says that the pressure is getting to him then he is in the wrong place. He should be playing a bit of junior with his club and having a few pints with the boys afterwards. Today is the day for a bit of class -- in mental, physical and skill terms.
In the past decade the great names who dominated finals were men like Peter Canavan, Seán Cavanagh, Stephen O'Neill, Darragh ó Sé, Paul Galvin and, of course, Gooch Cooper.
There were others too, but every All- Ireland final demands something different and today will throw up heroes as well.
This is a great opportunity for Cork. They have been hanging around the edges of success for a long time and with Kerry firmly imprisoned back in the Kingdom, this should be their day. Only if they are good enough though, and it will depend on whether players like Paul Kerrigan, Paddy Kelly and, maybe most of all, Daniel Goulding, can emerge from the shadows and become real stars.
One thing for sure is that Down will not be lacking in the confidence department. They feel they are born rulers and more often than not perform on big days in Croke Park. They have lost plenty of semi-finals over the years and have already lost a league final there this year -- and it is not as if they are like Kerry and in every second All-Ireland final -- but for all that their record is impressive. The players will not want to be remembered in the county as the first group to lose an All-Ireland final.
The other thing that should not be forgotten is that Down had some brilliant players on every winning side. In continuing a great tradition of attacking talent, Down have the three amigos today: Benny Coulter, Danny Hughes and the man they will look to most, Marty Clarke. I first saw Clarke in a challenge match six years ago playing for St Louis Kilkeel against my own school, St Pat's Navan. You could see he was different class, and now he is the leader of Down which is a big weight on relatively young shoulders.
Cork's problem is getting someone to mark him and his mates. In the win over Dublin, their marking was dreadful in both planning and execution. I would opt for Michael Shields on Coulter, who is trying awful hard, sometimes taking on too much; John Miskella, who isn't named to start, looks suitable for Hughes, who is a great unselfish worker, but Clarke is the conundrum. If Graham Canty is fully fit, then there could be a certain confidence in that regard, but putting a jersey on a great player does not make him match-fit. There should have been a heavy price paid for that folly against Dublin.
The next problem for Cork is how to play. Down have no such worries. They will stick to the system they have been using in every game. However, if Cork persist with the style of play they had against Dublin, they will set another record of handpasses and lose the match. They have to be more decisive and the odd long ball, or maybe even more than the odd one, should be the first resort rather than the last.
It is time, too, for Goulding and his friends inside to win high ball, knock their men out of the way and stick a couple in the net. Not much point in being big and strong if you don't use it. Down's full-back line is probably their weakest link. They have survived well in most games with a covering player and slow build-ups by the opposition. In the first quarter against Kildare, though, they were completely stretched until they got that hairy goal.
Something must have happened when the Canal End goal was being relocated in the new stadium. Maybe there was a fairy fort dug up or somebody broke up a witches' convention in that area as there have been strange goings-on down there. Hopefully today it will be a spell-free zone.
The loss of Ambrose Rogers was not felt very much against Kildare as both Kalum King and Peter Fitzpatrick played very well, but today will be a much bigger challenge because Cork will bring in two midfielders in the second half who will be as good as the two going off. The strength of Cork's bench, in fact, means they often dominate possession in the last quarter because they can bring in five subs. Down have at least three but if Rogers is able to come on, it will be a big boost.
The form of the teams makes for an interesting contrast. Down have improved rapidly, getting better with each game. James McCartan has them very well organised and all weaknesses have been masked very well -- apart from the Tyrone match.
That game was also used as a learning experience but it did reveal fundamental flaws. In effect, they were short a few really top-class players and still depend too much on Clarke in particular to get on the ball and make things happen. The brilliance of Clarke in setting up so much play is a double-edged sword; if Cork are able to disrupt him, they are half way there as too many Down players abdicate responsibility by just handing the ball to Clarke and hoping that wine will flow.
Cork, on the other hand, have muddled their way to this point, a strange situation because early in the year they seemed to have moved up to a different level to everyone else.
I watched them playing Tyrone in the league and they looked a very formidable side. They went on to win the league convincingly, but the performances have certainly dipped. One big display, of which they are capable, would see them become heroes in the second city. What they have to do is get back to the system of players like Pearse O'Neill and Kerrigan running at the defence, long kicks to the forwards and no sideways handpassing to men who are standing still. They should be capable of that simple formula.
If league and championship consistency mean anything, then Cork should win; they have far more experience of big days in Croke Park, even if they are bad experiences. Down have come the long route to the final too, but when they came up against a proper championship side like Tyrone, they were exposed.
In hindsight, that form is not bad. I still think Tyrone were as good a side as there was in the championship this year. The victory over Kerry has to have a health warning attached and a few question marks were raised by Kildare, even allowing for the fact that Down did play the better football. There comes a time in every team and every player's career when they have to perform or leave the stage. Cork are looking over the cliff now. Down will probably get better in the future but Cork have only today.
The only thing that has stopped Cork winning before has been the absence of a class forward in the mould of some of the men I mentioned earlier. The obvious match-winners lie in the Down team but the defence is unproven. Cork need O'Neill galloping through the middle -- he has stopped those charges which spread panic.
The rest of the forwards will get plenty of ball too and today I think a hero can emerge from the front rank. It may be Goulding, Sheehan or O'Neill but anyone will do for Conor Counihan. Cork to emerge from a long shadow.