Joe Brolly: Rebels my arse - Cork are great at looking brilliant when it doesn't matter and wilting on the big day
Walking into Croke Park several years ago for a Cork v Kerry final, I found myself in the company of a Kerryman from Cahirciveen. Some young Cork supporters spotted us and started roaring over.
“Go on the Rebels,” shouted one, his fist in the air.
“Rebels?” said the Kerryman. “Sure you only ever had one rebel and you shot him.”
A few hours later, the rebellion didn’t materialise. Instead, that final began with a symbol of Kerry’s psychological dominance. From the throw in, Tadhg Kennelly contemptuously pole-axed Nicholas Murphy, Cork’s prize bull, in the manner of the King of the Travellers levelling a young pretender. As Tadhg himself conceded in his autobiography, it was a premeditated act of violence. Yet, the Corkmen didn’t even so much as throw a punch in return. Instead, for the remainder of the game, Cork played like a team that knew their place. Kerry won at a canter. Rebels my arse.
Since the demise of the 1987-90 team, Cork’s footballers have suffered from a lack of belief on the big stage. Yet in the last 13 years, they have churned out fine minor and under 21 teams. Meanwhile, their Kerry neighbours produced nothing at underage until last year. Yet, in that time, Kerry have won six senior All-Irelands, including two crushing wins in finals against Cork.
In 2010, Cork finally fell over the line against Down, the worst team in living memory to get to a final. That Down defence was the GAA’s equivalent of the Territorial Army. But they were Down and they played with belief, which was almost enough to beat a Cork team quaking in their boots. Cork came through by a point in the end, but the victory owed more to the quality of the opposition than any greatness on their part.
Since then, Cork have continued to look brilliant when it doesn’t matter. Or as Darragh Ó Sé once put it to me, “They’re a great team in the league”. They are certain to wilt on the big days, sensational victories over the likes of Kildare followed by ignominious collapses against Kerry or Donegal or Mayo.
Their fear of Kerry is palpable. In last year’s Munster’s final, they were in full-on panic mode. James O’Donoghue spent the day soaring up the scoring charts, untouched by human hand, save for the high fives from his own team-mates. They have enough good players. They are one of the best prepared and resourced teams in the country. The problem is in the mind.
Pat Gilroy faced a similar problem when he took over the Dubs. Like Cork, they played rock and roll football in the league, and in Leinster, only to capitulate when the pressure mounted. Gilroy built mental strength by constructing a formidable defensive structure and insisting on total compliance. So, Bernard Brogan, their selfish star forward with the Hollywood smile, was forced to sit on the bench for long stretches of the league until he submitted to the team ethic. Once they had learned to defend and play as a collective, the Dubs were able to soak up pressure without conceding. In this way, their confidence grew. They became ruthless. As a result, by the time the final against Kerry came round in 2011, they were able to survive on the ropes for most of the game before landing the knock-out blows in the last quarter.
Jim McGuinness engineered an even more spectacular transformation of a team who for years appeared to have turned up in Croke Park by mistake.
Cold, winning football is what is required. The Persian adage, strike at the shepherd and the sheep will scatter, has been on my mind this past week. When McGuinness took over in Donegal, he identified Tyrone as the crucial battleground. They had a psychological vice-grip on Ulster and Donegal. Brian Cuthbert should sit down and watch that 2011 Ulster championship match. Donegal began with uncertainty. Tyrone played with the pomp of the Kingdom. But as the game wore on and Donegal’s game-plan and big hits took their toll, the chemistry was transformed. Sean Cavanagh was repeatedly sacked, hit, trash-talked. The shepherd was struck. His sheep scattered. The rebels had won a momentous, lasting victory.
Likewise, James O’Donoghue has played twice in big championship games against Donegal in Croke Park. He was held scoreless in last year’s final and managed a lone point in the 2012 quarter-final. Against Cork in last year’s Munster final he scored 10 points. Jesus wept. If you scored 10 points in an end-of-season club game you’d think you were Georgie Best. But in a Munster final against a high calibre group of Division 1 players? I watched Cork as they left the field, humiliated and abject. What a waste.
Another good example was Kerry’s assault on Michael Murphy in last year’s final. Eamonn Fitzmaurice identified him as the beating heart of Donegal. So Aidan O’Mahony and his team-mates set about ripping it out. Shameless, vicious and ruthless. It is what winners must do.
Cork looked great in the league last year and again this season, only to collapse in Croke Park when the Dubs went to battle speed. On both occasions, the swiftness with which they succumbed to blind panic was shocking.
In 1980, the Derry minors met Kerry in the All-Ireland final. Our young men took the field filled with hope, only to collapse soon after throw-in. By half-time the game was over and at the final whistle the scoreline, for posterity, was 3-12 to 0-11.
The following year, the same group made it back to the final, this time against Cork. They had promised themselves and the county there would be no repeat. It was another funeral for good intentions. Derry were frozen to the spot from the throw-in and a turkey shoot quickly developed. At half-time, as the Derry lads trooped, shell-shocked, back into the changing room, manager Matt Trolan met them with the immortal line, “Shit in the nest again lads, cup of tea in the back room.” As Eamonn Coleman put it afterwards: “That’s what’s wrong with Derry teams. Far too fucking nice.”
Cork have been far too fucking nice for far too long. High time they got off their knees today and justified their nickname. Otherwise, they face another decade of tea in the back room at half-time.