Cleary tips young Rebels to stand tall
THIS may be the only championship meeting between Cork and Down apart from the 1994 All-Ireland SFC semi-final, but Sunday's rivals have one interesting bit of 'previous' from underage competition.
The Rebels snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in last year's All-Ireland U-21 football final and the fact that it was Down they beat that day certainly adds spice to the mix.
And, while Cork's inability to get over the senior finishing line has been seen as their Achilles heel, their recent U-21 history could provide them with the vital missing piece in the jigsaw -- according to the man who managed them to the that All-Ireland title.
"Both teams will probably have two players each from last year's U-21 final -- (Cork's) Colm O'Neill and Ciaran Sheehan and (Down's) Paul McComiskey and Peter Fitzpatrick -- who will definitely be involved on Sunday," says John Cleary.
An All-Ireland winning corner-forward for Cork at U-21 and senior level himself, Cleary was also a selector with the Cork U-21s in 2007 when, managed by Tony Leahy, they pulled off a similar late smash-and-grab raid to break Laois hearts in the final.
It is not the fact that they beat Down in 2009, but the dramatic last-gasp nature of both of those U-21 final victories which makes Cleary believe that the younger players among Conor Counihan's squad can provide some vital mental resilience if things get tight.
O'Neill's introduction against Dublin the last day proved vital and Cleary says the forward typifies their youth talent.
"Colm has been in three All-Ireland U-21 finals and won two, so he has lots of experience of big games and tight finishes, and you have to believe that kind of experience is an advantage at senior level," Cleary stresses.
"These younger lads have a lot of experience of winning crunch games narrowly because, actually, in both 2007 and 2009, we won the All-Ireland U-21 semi-finals and finals by just a point each time."
Yet Cleary believes that it was the 2006 All-Ireland U-21 final that provided the most seminal moment for many of Cork's burgeoning stars.
"We lost the 2006 U-21 final narrowly to Mayo and the players really felt that was one they should have won.
"They showed great ability and determination to bounce back and win it the following year, and I'd say there must be 10 or 11 of that U-21 team in the senior panel now."
In recent years, the form line of a county like Tyrone certainly indicates that there is a strong connection between All-Ireland U-21 success and senior breakthroughs.
The Red Hands contested three U-21 finals in a row from 1990 to '92, winning the latter two and subsequently reaching, though losing, the 1995 senior final.
Tyrone's second wave of All-Ireland U-21 success -- winning the 2000 and 2001 titles and losing the 2003 final -- clearly laid the platform for their subsequent senior victories of 2003, '05 and '08.
Cork's recent U-21 progress is eerily reminiscent of another era when they also dominated that grade nationally and it led, eventually, to emphatic senior glory.
The Rebels won three U-21 titles in a row from 1984-86 and also won the title in 1981 and 1989.
"You would have to believe there was a connection alright between our U-21 success in the eighties and our senior victories," asserts Cleary, who won a minor All-Ireland in 1981, an U-21 in '84 and two seniors in 1989-90.
"If anything there is probably more of a connection now between U-21 and senior. Back then, the U-21 final wasn't played until the end of the season, like the U-21 hurling.
"Now the U-21 football championship is played off much earlier in the year, which allows senior managers to see who is performing well and use them to bolster their senior panels."
Down's involvement on the losing side in last year's U-21 clash clearly gives them extra motivation for revenge on Sunday. Many of their seniors were also involved in the 2005 U-21 final -- a 10-goal thriller in which Galway's 'twin terrors' of Michael Meehan and Sean Armstrong won the day for the Tribesmen.
But many of those U-21s -- like James Colgan and Marty Clarke -- were extremely young and were rewarded at the end of the same season with victory in the All-Ireland minor decider.
Cleary notes a substantial difference between today's U-21s compared to his own playing era.
"These days you have U-21s doing weights and strength programmes. They are started on them from their minor days, so they are a lot more powerful and professional now in everything they do," he observes.
"But that is all relative because, when they get to senior football, they are also up against players who are a lot stronger and more powerful than in our day.
"Still, the same adage still applies -- if you're good enough you're old enough -- and hopefully all the experience that our fellas have gained, especially at U-21 level, will stand to them on Sunday."