Destiny shines brightly on Down
Published 17/09/2010 | 13:02
IF Conor Counihan was told after the Munster semi-final replay defeat by Kerry in June that Cork would rehabilitate themselves so successfully that a third All-Ireland final attempt in four seasons lay ahead in September, he wouldn't have been remotely surprised.
It's what the top teams expect of themselves and since Cork had seen Kerry and Tyrone negotiate it so successfully throughout the last decade, they would have expected it to be well within their own target range.
What Counihan wouldn't have anticipated was that Cork's opponents in the final would be Down, whose season seemed to be once again headed for mediocrity after an enterprising opening against Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final veered way off course as it lost power. Down's All-Ireland odds drifted out to 80/1 and even then it's unlikely there were many takers.
After all, Down had a poor record in the All-Ireland qualifiers in the last decade so their prospects of safely negotiating three fences to even reach the quarter-finals didn't look especially encouraging.
Indeed, as Counihan scanned the horizon for qualifier dangers, he would have regarded several others as being much more likely contenders.
Three months on, Down and Cork are the last two standing in a confusing season where form guides were notoriously unreliable. As one of the 'Big Three' for the last few years, it's generally assumed that Cork's All-Ireland pedigree is more substantial than the version put forward by Down.
The Cork players may well believe that too, but Counihan is old enough to remember how Down emerged in unlikely circumstances to become such a powerful force in the first half of the 1990s.
Cork's bid for the All-Ireland treble in 1991 didn't survive the visit to Killarney for a Munster semi-final with Kerry, but just as the Kingdom started to believe they were about to emerge from a five-year All-Ireland recession, they were reintroduced to reality by Down in the semi-final. It was the start of a glory period for Ulster during which they won four successive All-Ireland titles. It began, and ended, with Down, while Donegal (1992) and Derry (1993) collected the in-between pair.
Down beat Cork in the 1994 All-Ireland semi-final in what was the only senior championship clash between the counties. Counihan was no longer aboard, having quit at the end of 1993, but he will recall how a Down forward line that included current manager James McCartan, Greg Blaney and Mickey Linden proved far too enterpris-ing for an experienced Cork defence.
McCartan has pleasant memories of his jousts with southern defences in 1991 (Down beat Kerry and Meath) and 1994 (they beat Cork and Dublin) and will, no doubt, be happy to share them with his attackers as he plots strategy. He will also be concentrating on how Kerry unhinged Cork so successfully in the 2007 and 2009 finals.
Counihan's task is different. He needs to take the positives from their bad experiences in Croke Park (admittedly all against Kerry) and transform them into plus points. Cork know what it's like on the really big day whereas this is new territory for Down. And while there are several examples of teams who made the All-Ireland breakthrough quite quickly, they tend to arrive less frequently than they used to.
Galway managed it in 1998 as did Meath two years earlier. The royals' All-Ireland wins in 1987-88 tended to overshadow the successes of the following decade.
However, the reality of Meath's 1996 win was that it came with a new-look team that included several U-21 players. Galway were largely similar 'overnight' successes in 1998.
However, Armagh (2002) and Tyrone (2003) won All-Irelands after being edging ever closer for a few years. Neither squad had reached the final in the preceding seasons, but Armagh had won two Ulster titles, while Tyrone had won two National Leagues and one Ulster title.
Cork have even more experience than Armagh or Tyrone, but some of it has been of a negative variety, leaving question marks over whether, in fact, they are 'damaged goods'.
Down will arrive in Croke Park with the memory of the defeat by Tyrone last June buried so deep as to be irretrievable. Instead, they are trading on the freshness and enterprise assembled so carefully throughout the qualifiers before being enormously enhanced by the All-Ireland wins over Kerry and Kildare.
It's as if there's a destiny about Down, a feeling they will be happy to harness as they seek another powerful surge.
There are several counties who believe that they are as good as Down and who are now eyeing McCartan's boys with undisguised envy. Their trouble is that they didn't avail of the opportunities which arose in a season where there was no standout team.
Down seized their chances and are now within one win of seeing out the most remarkable recovery since the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001. Galway, Tyrone and Kerry won All-Irelands via the long-distance qualifier route, but all three started those seasons in a much more advanced state than Down, who weren't regarded as All-Ireland contenders until they delivered a superb performance against Kerry.
Cork have been among the All-Ireland favourites for the past six seasons, while Down have had little more than six weeks in the really fast lane. Not that it will bother McCartan and his super-confident adventurers. That's the Down way.