Cork relish life on the edge
Astonishing run of close victories shows fighting mentality of Rebels
young Cork players have had to grow accustomed to holding their nerve to win All-Ireland titles in recent years.
The impression of the senior team being a collection of chokers had gathered pace as they endured repeated Croke Park misery to Kerry. Right up to last weekend that impression lingered.
But a look back at the two All-Ireland U-21 football titles the county garnered in 2007 and 2009, titles that have continued to fuel their current boom, provides an insight into how the new generation of Cork player thrives on the white-knuckle ride.
There is an inherent steel there, a steel that allowed them to come through their toughest games this year with an assurance that even when they were playing well below their best they could still survive.
They have never been -- and continue not to be -- easy on themselves. But they have developed a capacity for getting the job done. All three All-Ireland finals, the 2007 and 2009 All-Ireland U-21 finals and last Sunday, have been won by just one point.
Not only that but the three semi-finals that complemented each success were also, quite incredibly, won by just a point!
The only common denominator to all six games is Colm O'Neill, the talented full-forward who has slipped back into a more peripheral role this season for the seniors.
But when Tony Leahy's U-21 side of 2007 edged past Armagh (0-13 to 0-12) in the semi-final and then Laois (2-10 to 0-15), thanks to Daniel Goulding's late free, O'Neill had Ray Carey, Michael Shields, Eoin Cadogan, Fintan Goold, Paul Kerrigan and, of course, Goulding for company.
Two years on and Aidan Walsh and Ciaran Sheehan provided company for O'Neill as they survived an onslaught from Dublin, who shot 16 wides to lose the U-21 semi final by 1-10 to 1-9. In the All-Ireland final itself, a late goal broke Down hearts giving Cork a 1-13 to 2-9 win.
Almost half of Cork's first 15 on Sunday took their cue from those All-Ireland U-21 wins, while O'Neill and Goold were capable replacements.
It's no surprise then, in hindsight, that they were able to prevail in another tight finish given their history. Their emerging talent have success in tight finishes down to a fine art.
By their own admission, they didn't do things pretty -- "nasty" was one description used by one of their veteran players on the national airwaves yesterday morning.
For sure, it hasn't been pretty and that may be reflected in the spread of All Star awards to be bestowed on the champions next month.
Twelve months ago, Cork lost an All-Ireland final by four points, scoring only 10 times, yet they claimed five awards.
This year they won an All-Ireland, kept five clean sheets in eight games but will do well to surpass three, albeit in a much more open championship where the number of counties represented could be up to seven or eight.
But for Cork it's a case of ignoring the quality and feeling the width.
Getting over the line was all that counted, the aesthetics didn't matter for a hardcore of players who, the veteran goalkeeper Alan Quirke admitted yesterday, were beginning to feel the pressure.
"We said to ourselves that we weren't feeling pressure, but deep down we were -- that pressure had to be there," acknowledged Quirke.
"And we were favourites for every game we played this year, including the two games against Kerry. It's hard to carry the favourites' tag all the time into matches.
"The pressure was there and maybe we did play like a team under pressure, but we got the job done in the end and that's the main thing."
Quirke admits they were starting to believe the perception of them out there, when they lost that replay to Kerry after extra-time on their own home turf in June.
"People were saying that we didn't have bottle and they were probably right at the time because we should have won that game," he said.
"The Limerick game was probably the turning point for us. It was a game we should have put to bed earlier, it went to extra-time and that 20 minutes in Limerick made up our minds that it was s**t or burst at that stage.
"From then on we knew that we could get out of most situations if we were in touching distance of teams. It was a real dogfight down there and I think it was the turning-point for us."
Watching Kerry and Tyrone, their chief rivals over the previous years, exit the race on the same day was both a relief and a further compounding of pressure on them, he admitted.
"It was a double-edged sword. They were the two favourites for the All-Ireland along with ourselves. They were two big guns gone, but it meant that there was even more pressure on us.
"People talked about us playing to our potential. There was a bit more pressure on us because people were saying 'if they can't win one now, they'll never win it'. Having two teams like that gone out of the championship left the door open for everyone -- Dublin, Down, Kildare would have all fancied their chances. It opened it up for everybody really."
For now they can savour the moment. The climb has been difficult, treacherous at times. But then they've never been easy on themselves and maybe they wouldn't have had it any other way.