Vincent Hogan: Harsh lessons learned
But inevitable focus on Dubs should not obscure Cork's class
The team now dominating Gaelic football goes to work unnoticed as a whispering breeze in Oklahoma.
Are Cork actually just a trick of the light? The game scarcely recognises them, yet they've now bookended an All-Ireland title with back-to-back National Leagues. It's as if they slip in and out of these days through a trade entrance, cat-flap, air conditioning grill, whatever.
The point is they come and go, furtive as house thieves.
Their story is polarised from Dublin's by the attitude of their people. The Dubs are a team chased endlessly by expectation and drum-rolling fanfare (an occupational hazard of carrying the prayers of the Big Smoke). But Cork seem forever insulted by ambivalence.
Save the few brave Indiana Jones types who formed tiny pockets of red in the lower Cusack yesterday, the champions had little palpable support in Croke Park.
True, it's easier for a Dub to roll in to Headquarters after the Sunday roast than it is for someone who faces a 320-mile round-trip, but Cork's footballers have never triggered the kind of worship commonplace for their hurling brethren.
Yet, here is a team that should have people throwing petals at their feet. They are so big, they could have been constructed by NASA, so talented they can slip into national finals with the group demeanour of a coach party pulling into a services restaurant.
Yesterday, they gave Dublin an eight-point lead, then reined them slowly in with astonishing calm. How?
The sceptics immediately fussed over Dublin, wondering if -- perhaps -- nature has planted a time-bomb in their psyche. Errant nonsense, of course, but an attractive narrative nonetheless to those who believe that defeat must always be bound up in some class of basic infirmity.
The truth is Cork won because they knew how. Noel O'Leary talked afterwards of players being "cool and calm" in the maelstrom, and of their experience "telling a small bit". He touched on a team belief that, if they kept chipping at the score in increments, they could eventually rope Dublin in.
And that they did.
Still, Dublin's attack had been shorn of Bernard Brogan, Bryan Cullen and Diarmuid Connolly by the 54th minute and it was at that very juncture they began slipping into crisis.
Little doubts began to settle by the rib-cage and then, slowly, palpably, began reaching inside. Remarkably, Cork won the closing 20 minutes on a 0-8 to 0-1 scoreline. As they turned the screw, Dublin began to accumulate an intemperate number of wides. The team with experience of winning just sank into the beat of things and won.
Tactically, the teams are cut from the same cloth. Happy to concede short kick-outs on the basis that, if a team is set defensively, patience will eventually bring possession. The process of suffocation begins only when the opponent crosses into opposition territory. Border control is on the half-way line.
There, it's all razor-wire and bad news.
You'd think it would make for grim viewing but, actually, the opposite occurs. At times yesterday, Dublin played with extraordinary flair and ambition.
Brogan took on Michael Shields at the very first opportunity and his wonderful run set up Tomas Quinn for a seventh-minute goal.
That score was what separated the teams at half-time and there were gasps in the Hogan Stand as they piled down the tunnel like disturbed wildebeest, fists flying and hormones sizzling furiously.
"A bit of pushing and shoving," was Pat Gilroy's read on the eruption. "A damp squib," shrugged Conor Counihan. Maybe they should have gone to tea in camouflage fatigues.
Dublin took the first three scores of the second half, Brogan brilliantly fielding Quinn's line ball behind Shields' back to bury a Hill end goal. And that was their moment. The time to place a boot on the Cork jugular. They didn't do it, though.
Gilroy bristled afterwards when asked if that failure might, perhaps, have been attributed to a "mental block".
"Do you think I'm going to say yes to that, in fairness?" asked the St Vincents man. "No. If I really believed that, then I should walk out the door here and never be in front of this team.
"This team has more character and more guts to put up with the kind of stuff that surrounds them every day and they get back out there and they train and they work.
"And I'll tell you they're the most honest guys. They'll get stick for this, we had an eight-point lead and we lost. People will say what you've just said and we'll deal with that. And we have to deal with it. Because that's our job. We are the Dublin team and we have to listen to that.
"When we have the All-Ireland, some day, that's when we'll stop hearing that. But that's the challenge, because that's what everyone's going to think. But I know what's in that dressing-room. They have serious character.
"Anyone who would question it, well, they might get a surprise. Some day. In fairness, that question is well asked and it's going to be asked every day for the next two months and it's up to us to answer it during the summer. It's as simple as that."
He is a straight-shooter, ever mindful of the irrational scrutiny placed on Dublin teams. They exist in an environment where defeat is over-analysed and victory over-hyped. That can be wearing, but it comes with the territory.
If anything, Counihan's life is spent on the other side of the moon. His quiet nurturing of a previously neurotic team stands as, arguably, the managerial achievement of the last decade. Yet, the people of Cork seem genetically incapable of love for them.
Typically, Counihan was gracious in his analysis of what happened here.
"It can be difficult having a seven or eight-point lead at times," he observed. "People see the finish line and focus is lost for a while. In fairness, we probably have an element of experience built up in the squad now that can exploit that kind of thing.
"Look, we've been down that road before in terms of defeat. It can either make you or break you. I know Pat Gilroy, since he came into that job, has done a tremendous amount of work. I wouldn't be suggesting for one minute that it will break them."
And it wasn't as if Dublin disappeared off the face of the earth in those closing flurries. They didn't. Their spirit was intact, their pulses just began to overheat.
Quinn was off target with two frees, and Ger Brennan and substitute Dean Kelly spilled wides so lurid they brought banshee wails spilling down off the Hill.
Even the excellent Kevin McManamon misdirected a short free to Shields and the Cork captain's interception was the trigger for Ciaran Sheehan's 67th- minute winner.
The candour of Gilroy's assessment brooked little argument. "Today their squad proved to be stronger than our squad," he said. "And that was the winning of the game. It is disappointing, especially when you've been eight up and probably could have been 14 up with the chances we created.
"What we had on the field at the end of the game today wasn't strong enough. We didn't finish with a very strong team in comparison to them. We learnt a lot about our resources today. There were guys who were playing and guys who came on and they maybe were just a little bit shy of this level.
"We seem to like to learn lessons. I'll be glad if this is the last one."
He had made a point of standing in a wrecker's yard of crumpled blue jerseys afterwards, encouraging his team to watch the presentation. Why? "You know, they're the All-Ireland champions. They're the National League champions again. That's not a fluke," he stressed.
A small detail that seems to escape a multitude.