Monday 16 January 2017

Vincent Hogan: Rebels rise to conquer their fear of fear itself

Cowardly Lion: "Alright, I'll go in there Dorothy. Wicked Witch or no Wicked Witch, guards or no guards. I'll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I'm going in there. There's only one thing I want you fellows to do."
Scarecrow: "What's that?"
Cowardly Lion: "Talk me out of it!"

Published 20/09/2010 | 05:00

That thing clawing at Cork windpipes in Croke Park yesterday wasn't anything complex or mysterious.

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Fear of fear itself is as unremarkable as the common cold. But if it gets under the skin, it brings down entire armies. Somehow, the build-up to this final became a study of that condition. An exploration of the mind.

Cork -- we reasoned -- had everything going for them, bar a reliable thermostat in the head. Down were polar opposites. A team with obvious inadequacies, but the confidence of an advancing German squadron.

So, essentially, we distilled it down to a question of whether Cork might succumb to panic.

And that's a terrible thing. Because we had come to doubt Cork as men, not footballers. We depicted their county as a place of graveyard faces and tightly clasped fingers. Down? They were football's Mardi Gras boys, the men with laughter in their eyes and entitlement in their blood.

The team of 1960 stood in a line beforehand and there, proud among them, was James McCartan's own father. The McCartan household wouldn't be familiar with the concept of insecurity. Famously, wee James was the youngest Irish squad member for the International Rules series in 1990.

Eugene McGee put him rooming with the oldest, Jack O'Shea. One day, the late, great RTE Gaelic games correspondent, Mick Dunne, enquired of James what it was like "to be rooming with a living legend?"

With a shine in the corner of his eyes, the kid responded: "You'd better ask Jack!"

That's Down football for you. Tipping the forelock to no one. Whatever their bad days in football reflect, it is never deference. How else would they have been with five wins from five September trips to Dublin?

If you could profile an opponent Cork would least have savoured at this juncture in their lives (outside one bearing green and gold hoops), Down fit that profile to a tee. For they embodied all the easy, almost nonchalant self-regard that, habitually, side-stepped Conor Counihan's crew.

And maybe, above all, that was what Cork won yesterday. The right to stick their chests out and stare down an awkward past.

"We showed true character out there to come back," said Graham Canty, an emblematic leader if ever such a man lived.

"I'm very honoured to be captain of a great bunch of lads. You know, we've a very good squad. It's even stronger than it was last year. The likes of Nicholas Murphy to bring on. He got an injury, then Derek Kavanagh came on.

"Derek got injured and we're still able to replace him. It's been like that all year. It's been 15 on 15 in training to strengthen each other and try to sharpen up each other."

Neutrals might have preferred a lighter narrative. Something speckled with goals and grace notes and outbreaks of sweetly lyrical football. But this was actually made to order for Cork.

They needed to mine an All-Ireland out of the cold stone of group resolve. They needed to prove something.

And Down could smell their nerves. Once Brendan McVeigh and then Dan McCartan had repelled Ciaran Sheehan's early plunge towards the Hill, Cork lived up to caricature, playing like a team terrified of their own shadows.

It was as if they could hear sour voices brewing for another empty homecoming. Their play was caught in microcosm 20 minutes in when Pearse O'Neill threw a hospital pass to Paudie Kissane close to the Hogan Stand and poor Paudie spilled under the persuasion of six Down men.

Despite oceans of possession, Cork could not manage a score from play for 32 minutes. Everything about them was pinched and anxious.

Cowardly Lion: "Look at the circles under my eyes. I haven't slept in weeks."

Tin Woodsman: "Why don't you try counting sheep?"

Cowardly Lion: "That doesn't do any good. I'm afraid of 'em."

Down's three-point half-time advantage actually flattered Cork. For all the venom was being expressed in yellow letters.

Though Michael Shields was doing well on Benny Coulter, Martin Clarke was like a conductor directing a chamber orchestra. Even with Noel O'Leary on his case, Clarke looked to be playing at an independent pace.

What was wrong with Cork? "It was probably the intensity that Down were playing with," suggested Canty, at this point still sitting in the stand. "We just weren't matching it in the first half."

Daniel Goulding maybe brought us closer to the nub of it. "We were a small bit jittery," he said. Still, there was no panic in the dressing-room. The Cork routine is for Frank Cogan to direct half-time discussion and Frank has one of those calming voices that would float easily across a psychologist's couch.

He told them it wasn't Cork's nerve that should concern them now, but their work rate. Nicholas Murphy's arrival spoke immediately of a stiffening intensity. His first act was to plough into Peter Fitzpatrick like a dump-truck and the Down man needed smelling salts. Yet, the tide was slow to turn. Ten minutes into the second half, Down still led by three and looked -- to all intents and purposes -- like a team without conspicuous trouble.

They were still being largely overrun at midfield, but had the wit to improvise. As McCartan himself would put it later: "We knew we had a bit of a problem in the middle of the park, even though we felt the guys in there were working very hard. Cork were obviously getting a lot more clean possession.

"So it was a case maybe of them catching it and us trying to take it off them, which isn't a great way to work. But it's what we were having to try and do. Ambrose (Rodgers) wasn't an option for us today, so our options weren't what we'd have liked them to have been."

Slowly, Cork began to find the lion within. Donncha O'Connor clearly had the edge on Dan Gordon and the withdrawal of Sheehan to the half-forward line improved the service in. Remarkably, Cork would get six of the next seven scores and slowly begin to inch their way home.

When Paul Kerrigan scored with 14 minutes remaining, it was their first time to lead since Goulding opened the day's scoring. Slowly now the sheer size and physicality of Cork was carrying significant purchase.

Yet, it wouldn't be them, if there wasn't to be a late drama.

Down kicked three of the last four points and the shriek of whistles around Croke Park as David Coldrick let things run until the clock read '73.20' wouldn't have been out of place in a banshee convention.


"Full credit to Cork," sighed McCartan with impressive grace. "They've been knocking on the door for three or four years. I don't think anybody would begrudge them their win, certainly not us.

"They're all man-mountains. Huge men. And, on the day, they got the better of us around the middle. The six All-Irelands out of six wouldn't have a great bearing for me. But it would have been nice to do it as a tribute to the guys from 1960.

"We'd been wearing a 1960 jersey all year and it was there for a reason. That said, I probably did try to play it down as much as I could. Look, it would have been nice on a personal note, because of the family ties back to then, but we just didn't manage it. I just hope they'll feel we've done something to try and lift their spirits."

In the 'Wizard of Oz', courage comes to the lion only with the onset of wisdom. He finds he has, essentially, been afraid of himself all the time. Which was pretty much Cork's journey yesterday. An escape from the grey light of their own self-doubt.

They made it with big strides in the end. Chests out like bay-windows, heads upright as flag-poles. No sour voices on the wind now. No doubt, no indecision.

No backward glances.

Irish Independent

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