Monday 1 May 2017

Winning hearts and minds

Eamonn Sweeney

N ever mind The Banks, the most appropriate theme song for the Cork footballers this year would be the Black Eyed Peas hit Where Is The Love. Because it's seldom that a team has reached an All-Ireland final while suffering such a barrage of criticism, ridicule and general all-round disparagement.

And should Cork lose today to a Down team which a couple of months back was seen as All-Ireland no-hopers, the reaction will not be pretty. It would probably spell the end of Conor Counihan's term as county manager and it would certainly do serious damage to the future of this promising team.

It's not just the Dublin media who have been putting the boot into Cork. Friday's Irish Examiner suggested that should they lose today, they would be entitled to one All-Star and that on the grounds that, 'well they have to get one'. Last week's Southern Star ran a lengthy piece enumerating the many ways in which the team has supposedly got worse this year. The feeling of anticipation within the county is muted by a kind of dread about what it would mean for Cork to come up short in their third final in four years.

Yet all this doom and gloom seems somewhat excessive. After all, Cork will be going into today's All-Ireland as odds-on favourites to win their first football title in 20 years and only their seventh of all-time. They are also in with a chance of becoming just the sixth team in 20 years to do the league and championship double. And you have to go back to 2004 for the last time Cork were defeated by any team other than Kerry in the championship. Fermanagh were their conquerors then and football in the county was viewed as being at such a low ebb that it would take several years to restore the team to any kind of respectability. Yet since 2005 Cork have been in the semi-finals six years in-a-row, hardly the achievement of a poor team.

All the same there has been a distinct lack of respect shown to Cork. This is unfair. The serial losses to Kerry had less to do with Cork's supposed propensity for bottling it on the big day than because man for man the Kingdom were greatly superior, up to last year at least. Even last year Cork looked less like the finished article than Kerry because too many of their key players lacked the experience of the Kingdom's stars. The likes of Paul Kerrigan, Daniel Goulding, Pearse O'Neill and Michael Shields, talented and all as they are, were at a disadvantage against a team powered by the likes of the ó Sé brothers, Mike McCarthy and Colm Cooper. If Cork kept falling short, it was because their time had not yet come.

The feeling at the start of this season was that this could be Cork's year, an impression confirmed by their extremely impressive progress to the county's first league title since 1999. It looked as though the naysayers wouldn't have the Rebels to kick around anymore.

But old habits die hard. It was remarkable in the aftermath of the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Dublin how few positives were credited to the winners. Yet here you had a team which had managed to come back from the dead in the closing minutes and overhaul a Dublin side, brimming with confidence off the back of a superb win over Tyrone, backed by the most partisan crowd in the country and benefitting from an extraordinary tour de force by Bernard Brogan. It was, by any standards, a major achievement to produce the kind of comeback which Cork managed.

Yet in the aftermath of the game the conventional wisdom was that Dublin had been brilliant with Pat Gilroy deserving massive credit. Cork, seemingly, had been terrible even though they'd actually won the game. It was almost as though Cork were being made to pay for disappointment over the failure of Dublin to make the breakthrough into the All-Ireland final, a much sexier story than a triumph for the under-rated men from Munster.

Similarly, I've lost count of the times this year when Cork found themselves being slagged off in comparison to Tyrone. Tyrone, we heard countless times on RTE, did everything right in ways which Cork simply could not match. Cork were rubes, their lack of sophistication obvious by even the most cursory comparison to the Ulster champions. It was almost as though the hammering delivered by Cork to Tyrone, while playing with 14 men for over half the game, in last year's All-Ireland semi-final had been written out of history. These days, Cork are a better team than Tyrone. Yet the comparison kept being made as though it showed up the flaws of Conor Counihan's team.

Last year Cork played some of the most stylish attacking football of the championship, most notably in the Munster semi-final replay victory over Kerry and the All-Ireland quarter-final demolition of Donegal. They were told this champagne stuff didn't matter half as much as the result.

This year, when they've been concentrating on eking out results with a more cautious approach, they keep being asked what happened to those entertainers of 2009. I wonder if even a victory today will be enough to earn them the plaudits which are their due. I can almost see it being portrayed as a 'soft All-Ireland' should Cork do what nobody has done before and beat Down in a final. They won't care, any more than Kerry didn't worry too much about their grinding wins over Longford, Sligo, Antrim and Meath last year once they were in possession of Sam Maguire in September.

The perceived dourness of Counihan's approach has been much derided. The Aghada clubman is not a flamboyant soul but he exudes the same kind of ruthless solidity as manager that he did when manning the centre half-back slot on the last Cork team to win an All-Ireland.

He is not the kind of character who can be portrayed as either a management guru or a folk hero. Terrible flak will descend upon him if he proves to have got things wrong today and if, as many people believe, Cork would be better off with Colm O'Neill and Nicholas Murphy in the starting line-up and the severely hampered Graham Canty being dropped for his own good.

Yet other gambles which Counihan has taken have paid off. Cork's best player this year has been Paudie Kissane, whose inter-county career looked to be well over before Counihan rejuvenated him. Their second best has been Paddy Kelly, a player without the natural talent of his rival for the wing-forward slot, Fintan Gould, but one who has also rewarded his manager's faith. As has Eoin Cadogan, disproving the notion that you can't have dual players in the modern game.

Noel O'Leary has been immense for Cork this year as Counihan disregarded the warnings that he didn't have the discipline to be risked in big matches. He stood by Alan Quirke when the goalkeeper was dropped at club level and by Aidan Walsh when everyone said the Kanturk man was too raw for senior football. If he has got some things wrong, he has got a lot right. And all this from a manager who inherited a team that had just been through a bruising players' strike.

I want Cork to win. Can't deny it. I'm biased because my kids and their classmates went into their Gaelscoil weighed down with Cork colours on Friday, because earlier in the week they were writing a good luck card for Noel O'Leary who came all the way down to Skibbereen a while back to perform an awards ceremony on his own time, bits of sawdust from his lumberjack's work still stuck to his jeans, and because I know the lift it will give to the football people of Duhallow, Carbery and Beara, the forgotten divisions of Cork where they love to see the hurlers win All-Irelands but know the game is not theirs in the same way football is.

But more than that, I think, I want to see Cork win because it's a terrible thing to see a hard-working bunch of players being laughed and sneered at and generally traduced in a way which doesn't happen to lesser teams, the kind who don't even reach the All-Ireland final to lose there. Cork have so much to lose today, it's frightening.

And if you can't give them your love, at least give them your respect. It's time.

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