Rebels can push on where ’95 Dubs failed
YOU can understand why the new All-Ireland champions have such a tense relationship with their dominant neighbours. No sooner had the celebrations by the Lee got into full swing, than a text was doing the rounds saying how Kerry too had enjoyed winning their seventh All-Ireland title -- back in 1926.
Kerry will be secretly kicking themselves watching Cork finally get over the line. They know they hold the Indian sign over their Munster rivals and had the Kingdom not misfired completely against Down, they could well have contested the decider.
And watching Cork in the first half, there's little doubt that Kerry would have exploited such a nervous display and could well have had the game finished as a contest by the interval.
However, Cork's performance in the second half against Down was that of a team that had collectively decided enough was enough. And while they sort of fell over the line in the end, they deserved their victory.
Cork were excellent after the break and were boosted by three players who are essentially better than those they replaced and they had too much for a Down side that just ran out of ideas. Direct ball to Donncha O'Connor worked a treat with so much space in front of him and once Cork got the supply line right, they dominated.
I always fancied that Cork would get stronger as the game went on, regardless of some of their finishing in the first half.
Initially, I was disappointed that they didn't push on and open up a gap after going three up (I had backed them to win by between four and six) but then I was drawn back to our own experience with Dublin in 1995 when we also just edged over the line.
And watching the players celebrating at the end -- something we can now do thankfully with fans being kept off the field -- we saw massive relief, the joy of realising that, at last, it was all worth it.
Football is a simple game but sometimes you need to go to the pit of your stomach to win. Enough Cork men answered the hard questions last Sunday and that's why they are All-Ireland champions.
It was a gripping climax to the season even if the final never scaled the heights, but the second 35 minutes was the best football Cork played in Croke Park this season. Aidan Walsh and Nicholas Murphy really impressed me, while Noel O'Leary did a great job following Martin Clarke.
Murphy, in particular, helped swing both the semi-final and final. He has more football in him than some of Cork's other giants.
How the finalists build on last Sunday's experience will be interesting. Cork have been through the mill and have now got their reward at last. Dublin haven't won a title since '95, but Cork are not an old side and, if Conor Counihan stays in charge, they should be brimming with confidence heading into the new season after completing the double.
In comparison to the more dynamic football they played last year, hunger, fighting spirit and perseverance were Cork's strong points this season, allied to a fairly brave strategy by their manager of introducing impact subs at crucial points in the game.
Dead-ball kicking also played a crucial part in their journey and Daniel Goulding's exhibition proves that regardless of your tactical approach, a good free-taker is priceless. Dublin and Down were put to the sword on the back of frees and '45s'.
Down's season has been much more of an adventure but they've showed enough class throughout to suggest that they can build on the trip. If Down can hang on to Clarke, they have enough firepower to put themselves into contention again.
TEAM OF THE SEASON
With the annual debate under way, it will be very hard to reach a consensus on a team of the season, with a lot of positions wide open.
For starters, my goalkeeper would be Stephen Cluxton, who didn't even get nominated for the All Stars.
The Meath game was out of sync with the rest of the year (the referee had a hand in three of the goals) and I have never seen a higher standard of kick-outs -- he is an integral part of his side's tactical set-up.
Because Cork's performances were more bite than beauty, it is hard to make a case for some of their players individually, although Michael Shields squeezes in on the back of a good final ahead of Tyrone's Justin McMahon.
I'm also inclined towards some of the lesser lights in my selection, including Louth's Paddy Keenan and Limerick's Stephen Lavin.
Disagree you may, but this is a team I'd be more than happy to manage:
My Team of the Season: Stephen Cluxton (Dublin); Charlie Harrison (Sligo), Michael Shields (Cork), Philly McMahon (Dublin); Tomás Ó Sé (Kerry), Emmet Bolton (Kildare), Stephen Lavin (Limerick); Paddy Keenan (Louth), Michael Darragh Macauley (Dublin); Daniel Hughes (Down), Martin Clarke (Down), Graham Reilly (Meath); Daniel Goulding (Cork), Bernard Brogan (Dublin), Johnny Doyle (Kildare).
PLAYER OF THE SEASON
Bernard Brogan (Dublin)
There were a couple of great performances last Sunday -- Goulding's striking was wonderful -- but none to challenge the displays of Bernard Brogan, who lit up Croke Park, particularly at the business end of the championship.
Bernard was under a sharp spotlight this year and he delivered for his team in spades and was central to Dublin's impressive run through the qualifiers and on to the semi-final.
MANAGER OF THE SEASON
Conor Counihan (Cork)
To the victor, the spoils. Criticised all season, he never flinched in his selection policy and while Cork were more direct last Sunday, they still had to endure the now familiar dip in their performance before the big guns were introduced to change the course of the game.
However, it's important to remind ourselves that Counihan came in as manager on the back of the Cork football strike, steadied the ship and has bridged a difficult 20-year gap for his county -- an enormous achievement.
SURPRISE PACKAGE OF THE season
Louth (Leinster champions!)
I suppose I'm biased towards Leinster because Limerick certainly gave all-comers a run for their money in this category, while Sligo and Roscommon also had decent claims.
But I was particularly taken by Louth and manager Peter Fitzpatrick. They should have claimed the Leinster crown and played great football during the provincial campaign.
BEST ASPECT OF THE SEASON
I was really impressed with what was brought to the table this season by the four semi-final managers -- Counihan, Pat Gilroy, James McCartan and Kieran McGeeney. I think it's a point worth noting as counties look for someone to change their fortunes that all four were new to the inter-county scene when they came on board.
McGeeney has proven his ability to improve a side over the long term; McCartan has injected huge impetus to take his side from the backwaters; Gilroy found his team through the qualifiers; and Counihan, well, he won the All-Ireland. Enough said.
WORST ASPECT OF THE SEASON
When asked to preview the season back in early May, I pointed out that we might hopefully avoid too much controversy over refereeing decisions. Well, once again, we had our bellyful of them and the GAA need to get real with regards to video technology, while also increasing the powers of the linesmen and umpires to assist the referee in his task.
MOMENT OF THE season
There were many, as the football was particularly entertaining from the quarter-final stage onwards. But for me the moment of the year was the response to the loss of Dermot Earley Snr.
The GAA are unrivalled on occasions like this and the fact that Dermot Jnr played hours after burying his father shows just how important Gaelic games are to us.
Tragic as the occasion was, it was genuinely uplifting to see the scale of the funeral and the positive message relayed.