Counihan learning from pain of final agony
Published 13/09/2010 | 05:00
HE may not bounce into a room fizzing with the energy of an overactive puppy but don't let his doleful looks fool you into thinking that laid-back Cork manager Conor Counihan is not brimming with positivity or confidence.
His side are attempting to break a depressing cycle -- having lost two of the last three All-Ireland finals -- while their opponents have, famously, never lost one when they've reached a September Sunday.
Yet Counihan has an interesting twist on this historical trend.
"As someone said to me a while ago, it's only a stat and have they beaten Cork in any of them? I don't think so ... .not yet anyway," he quips.
"I think these records are there to be broken, and you wouldn't like to be carrying that record on your back either maybe, as potentially the first team to fall," Counihan says. "It can be a plus or a minus, depending on what way you take it."
Counihan is keen to play down Cork's recent final losses because he, of all managers, knows how such a record can be turned around.
Winner of an All-Ireland junior title in 1984, the Aghada wing-back was Cork senior captain when they won four Munster senior titles in a row from 1987.
Provincial victory propelled them into All-Irelands each time but in the first two of those four consecutive finals they met the immovable object that was Sean Boylan's burgeoning Meath.
Three times (one replay) these heavyweights clashed heads in the bruising deciders of 1987 and '88 and each time the title crossed the Boyne.
Yet in 1989 Cork brought Sam home (beating Mayo) and, in 1990, they finally toppled the Royals in a final.
So when you ask Counihan how he will inure his players from the possible inhibition and/or complacency of recent final losses he has no hesitation.
"I have been through it myself as a player -- having lost two and drawn one before I won one -- so you take nothing for granted in sport," he says.
"There is a lesson there, and fellas have to take those lessons on board," Counihan says of Cork's final record of the late 1980s.
"We have emphasised it to a certain extent but you are talking to a different era and a different group of players as well.
"I won't dwell on it too much, but I would always emphasise that sport is sport; there is a time there, you get an opportunity, you take it, or else it's gone."
So what did he learn from last year.
"I think we were a bit impatient and lacked a bit of composure at particular times in that final. It's important we've learned from the past, and I believe we have," he insists.
Counihan also believes that Cork's more scenic route through the qualifiers this season has helped battle-harden them.
"Last year we won the quarter-final (versus Donegal) reasonably well and the semi-final (against Tyrone) went well for us.
"Maybe we felt in our hearts that we had an awful lot of work done after the semi-final, and didn't get the proper focus for the final," he concedes.
Yet, despite winning the league comprehensively and reaching their third All-Ireland in four years, people still doubt the Rebels.
Inching past Dublin may have answered those who question their bottle in Croke Park but their critics still wonder why a team blessed with such height and physique plays such a short-passing game.
In their last game Cork made 145 handpasses (to Dublin's 59), had 111 solo runs (to 61) and made just eight long kicks (to 16). Against Roscommon they used hand before foot even more (155 handpasses to the Rossies' 64), had just another eight long kicks and also made twice as many solos (91-50).
"Look, I'd prefer to be direct but you've got to look at what is ahead of you and make decisions then," Counihan argues.
"People are talking about the direct ball but if you have five defenders in the full-back line against three full-forwards, it doesn't make sense."
His philosophy, clearly, is that direct ball, if not accurate, can too easily concede the initiative to your opponents and, in Down, who employ extra defenders, they certainly now face a classic counter-attacking side.
That indicates Cork are unlikely to radically change their style on Sunday, though one thing Counihan does want altered is their scoring rate, which disappointed him in their last two games.
"It's just small things, about patience and composure and confidence, and hopefully that bit of steel when the going gets tough," he notes.
He took particular consolation that his players displayed that attribute against Dublin and believes such composure came from their recent final heartbreaks in Croker.
"That comes from a certain level of experience and confidence and it comes from within the players themselves," Counihan stresses.
"It doesn't happen overnight. We've tried to develop it in some ways, by spreading around various tasks, but, at the end of the day, the guy has to stand up himself and make the decision that 'I'm going to make a difference'."