Dublin great tips Cork to end final hoodoo - if they have the nerve
OF all the summations of tomorrow's All-Ireland final, John O'Leary's assessment is, perhaps, the most perceptive.
"Cork have a three-foot putt to win the Open. They've been here twice before so they know the slope of the green. They also know that they misread it before," he said.
"Down are on the edge of the green after putting in a round that hardly anybody thought was in them. They've never played this green before but they're so confident in their game that they don't even think about missing."
The former Dublin goalkeeper and captain can speak with a unique insight, having been in Cork's position in 1995 and in Down's shoes 12 years earlier.
Dublin won on both occasions, beating Galway in 1983 and Tyrone in 1995, so obviously something has to give tomorrow, in that the newcomers (Down) and the seasoned contenders (Cork) both can't win.
"In 1983, Dublin had come from a roughly similar position to Down this year. We had lost the previous year's Leinster final heavily so there wasn't a whole lot expected of us in 1983, but we went on a run and won the All-Ireland," he said.
"We built up momentum, game by game, and never looked back until we were champions. Back then, of course, there were no second chances, but we didn't need them.
"It's a different world now and Down have made full use of the back door this year to get where they are.
"Cork are back in the final for the third time in four seasons, which has advantages and disadvantages.
"It's a plus in terms of having experienced the big day but it can be a negative if things start going against them, as the doubts that undermined them for the last few years could resurface."
The Dublin team of 1995, which O'Leary captained, was in almost precisely the same position as Cork are going into this final. They had lost the 1992 and 1994 All-Ireland finals and the 1993 semi-final, leaving them perilously close to being the 'nearly' team of that era.
O'Leary recalls the sense of devastation Dublin felt after losing the 1994 final to Down and likens it to how Cork would have felt last September.
The Dublin post-match function was in Jury's Hotel, Ballsbridge, and while the squad were there in body, their minds and spirits were still back in Croke Park trying to figure how they had lost to Down.
O'Leary knew he would have to speak at the function and enlisted the help of team psychologist, Tom Moriarty to help him hit the right note. Tom advised him not to dwell on what had happened but to talk positively about the following season, as if it were just weeks away.
"It's all you can do in a situation like that. A year seems an awful long way off but the thought of putting things right is all you have. Cork would have felt that way after losing to Kerry last year and now their big chance has arrived," said O'Leary.
Unlike Cork, who could afford a provincial defeat, Dublin had no safety nets in 1995 and, in fairness, they kept their balance extremely well right up to the closing stages of the All-Ireland final against Tyrone, when they came mighty close to being caught on the line.
Unlike Cork, who have had a patchy campaign this year, Dublin turned in an excellent performance in the 1995 Leinster final, beating Meath by 10 points before Jason Sherlock's goal helped them past Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final.
"We were conscious that year of how we'd let so many chances slip in previous seasons," said O'Leary.
"It wasn't just 1992-'93-'94. We also felt that we let 1991 slip by losing to Meath in that four-game affair so we were desperate to succeed in 1995, just as Cork are now. That can work two ways. It can drive you to heights you haven't reached before or it can weigh down on you when things start to go wrong.
"If Cork get into their stride against Down, the experience of playing in two finals over the last three years will be helpful but if they're struggling, it can add to the insecurity.
"A missed free, a bad wide, a few points conceded can all become multiplied in terms of importance if you start looking back to what happened before. That's what Down will be trying to exploit. They'll be out to set the agenda and put little doubts in Cork minds. Down's approach and style of play is suited to doing that. They did it to us in 1994 and are in much the same mindset this year.
"The one big difference between us in 1995 and Cork this year is that we played consistently well on our way to the final. Cork haven't, which has to be a worry for them. It's all very fine saying it will come right in the final, but you can't be sure."
O'Leary has been surprised by Cork's approach this year, particularly against Dublin in the semi-final where it was only in the closing minutes that they really pressed on.
"You'd expect a team like Cork to take the game to the opposition, but they allowed Dublin to dictate for a very long time.
"It was only when they started running at Dublin that they began to draw some frees, which won them the game. They probably wouldn't have got those frees against a more experienced defence.
"Dublin played into Cork's hands by conceding those unnecessary frees, but I still can't understand why Cork weren't more direct all through the game rather than playing across the pitch and getting caught in possession. It very nearly cost them the game."
He has no doubt that Down will react well to the demands of an All-Ireland final but that can't conceal the fact that they are conceding a whole lot of experience to Cork.
"From Cork's perspective, it's all about mental management. Can they harness the pain of the last few years as a force for good or will they allow it to weigh them down? That's entirely up to them," he said.
"We used it as a positive in 1995, but even then we had to play damn well to win the All-Ireland.
"Just because you have lost a few finals, it doesn't mean you'll win the next one. Every game is a challenge in its own right and has to be taken on as such."
O'Leary believes that Down are in an excellent position to continue their fine run but wonders if they could cope with a really big Cork performance.
"That's the key question. There's so little to go on because these teams haven't clashed before in league or championship. It's down really to whether Cork play to the scope everybody believes they can. If they do, they're a stronger squad but if they don't, Down are exactly the type of team to get in among them and upset them."
While Cork are under immense pressure to end their poor run in finals, O'Leary doesn't go along with the notion that a defeat for Down wouldn't be a major setback to a developing squad.
"Look, the All-Ireland final to win is the one you've reached. Who knows what will happen next year? Down might not even be back in the final for another 10 years. They've got to play as if this is the only chance they will ever get to win the All-Ireland," he said.