Cork: Are they the best of a bad lot or the face of the future?
SOMETHING unusual happened to Cork footballers last year -- they won the All-Ireland title without beating any county that had been champions over the previous 14 years.
In fact, none of their six victims reached the final over that period, while only two -- Dublin and Roscommon -- had won provincial titles.
Whatever about the pre-back door days when, provincial draw permitting, it was possible to win the Munster or Connacht provincial titles and the All-Ireland championship in four games, it takes a minimum of five nowadays so you would expect to meet some big sharks along the way, especially if forced down the qualifier route.
In Cork's case last year, it took six games to win the All-Ireland, following their rebuild after the Munster semi-final defeat by Kerry. They went on to beat Cavan, Wexford, Limerick, Roscommon, Dublin and Down. The most recent All-Ireland winners from that lot were Dublin (1995).
So what? All that mattered to Cork was that Sam Maguire headed to Leeside on September 20. However, from a broader perspective, the question arose: just how good was last year's Championship?
Less than a month later, Cork had another curious experience. Despite winning League and Championship, they only got four players on the All Stars team: Michael Shields, Paudie Kissane, Graham Canty and Aidan Walsh.
For the first time in the 40-year history of the scheme, the All-Ireland champions had no All Star forward. Daniel Goulding's absence was the most controversial, drawing howls of protest from Cork, although manager Conor Counihan refrained from joining the ranting classes.
He thought it was an outrageous mistake but adopted his usual quiet, measured approach, although his view of the selectors would have been: "forgive them for they know not what they do". Shortly afterwards, there was yet another shock for Cork. The GPA Team of the Year included Goulding but found room for only two other Cork men, Shields and Kissane, whereas All-Ireland runners-up Down had five on board.
This came as a quick jolt for the Cork squad. They could dismiss the All Star selection as poor judgment by journalists, but now their own peers had dished out an even harder hit.
Three of 15 awards for a squad which won the League and Championship titles really was a very small return. Even then, the All Stars and GPA couldn't agree on the most worthy Cork winners, with only Shields and Kissane selected on both teams.
Cork suffered yet another setback on the awards circuit when the various Player of the Year gongs all went to Dublin's Bernard Brogan.
So there it was: Cork won the All-Ireland without beating the elite of many years previously; two awards schemes gave them the lowest representation of any county that had ever won the League/Championship double, and the Player of the Year award, which tends to be the preserve of All-Ireland winners, went elsewhere.
If Cork weren't too busy celebrating their first All-Ireland win for 20 years, they really would have been gripped by paranoia. All of which raises the question: are Cork being judged excessively harshly, or are they merely the best of a moderate lot who don't deserve special recognition?
There are takers for both theories so in terms of proving which is the more substantial, it's really up to Cork themselves. If they're to win over the broader public, they need to press on and assert themselves as double All-Ireland winners this year.
A succession of defeats by Kerry in Croke Park since 2002 devalued their good record against their neighbours back home in Munster. They have beaten Kerry in three of the last five Munster championships, but their failure to follow it up with a repeat success in Croke Park (they haven't beaten Kerry from six attempts in All-Ireland semi-finals since 2002) remains a sharp stone in their shoe.
Kerry edged past them by a point after 160 minutes (extra-time in a replay) in last year's Munster semi-final but it was to be their last meeting of the year as Down sunk the Kingdom later on. Tyrone didn't get onto Cork's orbit either, losing to Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final, while previous All-Ireland winners (since 1996) Armagh, Galway and Meath all withered at various stages too.
Such a scattering of empires helped clear the way for Cork, who had been heirs apparent to all recent champions.
And with most of the big boys scattered, Cork appeared to have the capacity to deliver the title in swashbuckling style, especially when they turned into the home stretch where their rivals were Roscommon, who had won a sub-standard Connacht championship, Dublin, in rehab mode after being demolished by Meath, and Down, back in the All-Ireland final for the first time in 16 years.
Cork dismissed Roscommon comfortably enough after a slow start before beating Dublin by a point in a game where the latter's lack of cuteness destabilised them on the run-in. Dublin were two points clear after 66 minutes but panicked under increasing pressure, conceding three unnecessary frees which turned the game Cork's way.
It was a triumph for experience and resolve as much as anything else and it was much the same on All-Ireland final day after Cork trailed Down by five points in the 27th minute. Cork's recovery was well constructed but just when it looked as if they would pull away, they tightened up in the closing minutes and were hanging on grimly at the finish.
Cork can rightly contend that the result was all that mattered but, having finally won the All-Ireland title, they now face a whole new test.
There's a view -- one that I share -- that they have the capacity to grow considerably as a squad over the next few years. Counihan, a smart manager with a great attitude, certainly has lots of resources at his disposal, although slotting all the jigsaw pieces together to complete the picture has proved tricky. Still, it's easy to make a case why Cork are still on the way up.
Alternatively, it's being claimed that Cork got lucky in a moderate season, yet found it remarkably difficult to close out the deal against teams who aren't nearly as advanced.
If that's the case, could they be a one-hit wonder?
It's most encouraging for Cork that they are back in the League final after completing the double last year. No county since Mayo in 1936 has won successive League titles separated by an All-Ireland win, and while that certainly wasn't a motivating factor at the start of this season, it's significant that Cork have done so well in the League.
It took Counihan's Cork team of the late 1980s three seasons to make the All-Ireland breakthrough but, having achieved it, they pressed on and won the double in 1990. Then, as now, they had the quality of their first All-Ireland questioned on the basis that they beat Mayo, rather than Meath, in the final.
Their response was grimly defiant as they safely negotiated the 1990 course and finished it off with an All-Ireland final win over Meath in a game where they were reduced to 14 men in the first half. Counihan was a central figure in that Cork team so there's nobody better qualified to quietly motivate his squad towards replicating what was achieved back then.
As of now, opinions are divided as to whether Cork are the best of a mediocre bunch or the face of an exciting future. Tomorrow's game won't provide a definitive answer but if Cork win, it will certainly boost their share price.
After all, if they can win a League title while still playing very much within themselves -- as has been the case this season -- then it augurs very well for the year ahead.