Self-inflicted wounds cut deepest
I MUST admit that I've found it very hard to swallow being told all week how well Dublin did, much as I understand the sentiment. I know a lot has been spoken this season about measuring progress and burying the ghosts of the hammerings of 2009 and '08. That was done, without question.
The players exceeded expectations and were hugely focused and committed to the new set-up. They had the favourites truly on the rack and deserve great credit for working themselves into that position this season. Jim Gavin's U-21s secured an All-Ireland title, Dessie Farrell is set to take over the Dublin minors and there are certainly great reasons to be optimistic about the future.
The biggest problem accepting future prospects, of course, is trying to put the present reality out of our minds. And that reality is that Dublin are, once again, trying to figure out this week how we blew a massive chance to reach an All-Ireland final.
Deep down, everyone knows just how difficult a journey needs to be travelled to get even close to where we were at 4.50 on Sunday evening. Sport is brutal, war without bullets and determined ultimately by the harshest measure of all -- results.
I've little doubt that the Dublin players are furious they let it slip. Five points up in the second half and Dublin were no longer in 'bonus territory', we had one foot in the final. But we lacked the composure to work crucial scores to bury Cork, before getting to the point at the end when we seemed to lack the composure to do anything right.
Whether it was the system we played, exhaustion, bad decision making, lack of experience, indiscipline or bad refereeing decisions -- or a combination of the above -- it's hard to tell. We don't want to believe it's just like previous collapses and it probably wasn't, but, ultimately, it is the same net outcome -- we blew a game we should have won.
As for Cork, well the only thing that really matters at this point is that they are in an All-Ireland final. They kept a hand in the game, partially through Dublin's failure to convert a number of chances, and they had the experience, legs and bodies to pressurise Dublin in the closing quarter.
This Cork team have been through the wringer; Dublin don't have a monopoly on heartache. And at this point in the side's history, Cork won't give a toss whether they're entertaining people along the way. In fact, if they happen to be annoying Kerry more in the process of reaching a decider without playing particularly well, then they'll be even happier, which I suspect is the case.
As we know, football at this level is about inches. Had Dublin been a bit more composed, it's likely that Conor Counihan would no longer be the Cork boss. And even though they escaped, Counihan continues to feed his critics, who claim he doesn't know his best 15. There's no doubt he knows his best 20, but he could still pay the price for a poor start in the final.
Looking at their impacts last Sunday, Counihan will be under serious pressure to give starting places in the final to Nicholas Murphy, Eoin Cadogan and Colm O'Neill. Cork know for sure this year that their collective experience is a powerful force when the game is in the melting pot and that, one way or another, they have serious back-up on their bench. Donncha O'Connor showed good bottle too, which augurs well for the final.
Dublin came up short when it came to countering Cork's substitutes, but really should have had the game out of reach by then. Besides the obvious turning point of the penalty, Dublin missed several decent opportunities prior to that which might have ended the game as a contest.
Cork needed a goal and went for it in the oldest and most obvious way possible -- by lobbing it into the square. That Dublin didn't defend an obvious route of attack only adds to the sense of a self-inflicted defeat.
Following the penalty it was a different contest and, initially, Dublin's reaction was really encouraging. However, there's no doubt that the sight of a snatched effort or a shot from an impossible angle as the endgame approaches sends panic through the Dublin support, something you could sense once again last Sunday.
Whether Dublin players suffocate when that happens I really don't know because it wasn't something I was ever conscious of. For sure, we struggled on many big occasions to finish off teams at club and county level, but the older you get, the more you realise that cuteness and instinct are sometimes the only way of getting over the line.
When you're absolutely wrecked, and Sunday's game was relentless, you are prone to making bad decisions. That's when your instinct should kick in: tell you when not to shoot, not to dive into a tackle, work the ball back out, draw the hit and take your free.
For years opponents of Dublin have always believed that, by staying with Dublin, slowing their momentum and hitting them in the closing stages when the crowd becomes restless, you can beat them.
I'm not sure Sunday's game really followed that pattern but it was clear that, with the game slipping beyond their fingertips, Dublin lacked the steadiness to avoid defeat. Once Cork equalised, the worst-case scenario should have been a draw. There should have been no football played after that.
I couldn't help thinking about the free Colm Cooper engineered in Killarney earlier in the summer with the game up against Cork. And if I'm asked why Conal Keaney or anyone else didn't do so last Sunday, I can't honestly say. Maurice Deegan had, in my opinion, given a really harsh free against Michael Fitzsimons moments earlier, leading to a crucial Cork score, so there was no reason why he wouldn't do so again at the other end.
Instinct, cuteness. Read the ref, read the situation. I suppose no matter how much you analyse Dublin's performance you'll still come to the same conclusion that they were the better side and they blew it. Maybe it was exhaustion and maybe, looking at how Cork finished, it will take Dublin more than one season to ditch old habits completely.
We know that, in the short term, future prospects will be of little consolation to these players, who are now straight back into club championship action this weekend. But, as always, winter has a way of blunting the anger and sharpening the appetite.
How else would Cork be 70 minutes from an All-Ireland title once again?