Legend Davis praying Cork curse will not strike again
Serious injury woes and inconsistent form are hindering Rebels' attempt to retain crown
IN the week before the 1991 All-Ireland football final, I travelled to Cork to interview Larry Tompkins about the Meath and Down teams, in particular his assessment of how they compared on a man-to-man basis.
Task completed, tape recorder switched off, we got chatting about Cork's defeat by Kerry in the Munster semi-final three months earlier. His mood darkened as he talked of his unhappiness with the build-up to the game and of how Cork, All-Ireland winners for the previous two years, really hadn't steeled themselves for the reality of taking on the three-in-a-row challenge.
"Okay to put the tape recorder back on, Larry?"
Over the next half hour, he spoke of a slippage in zeal and drive within the camp and of how there seemed to be an assumption that, having won the previous two All-Ireland titles, the third would follow automatically. He himself had spent most of the year rehabilitating a knee following surgery on a torn cruciate, sustained in the 1990 All-Ireland final against Meath.
He made it back for the Munster semi-final in June, but wasn't at his best in a game, which Pat Spillane later described as "probably my sweetest ever victory over Cork in championship football."
The reason for Kerry's delight was two-fold: the win had been totally unexpected after losing to Cork by 15 points the year before and it also ended their neighbours' four-year dominance in Munster.
Tompkins' analysis centred on how Cork hadn't got themselves right for the Kerry game which, unlike now when there's a second chance, defined their season. He was also critical of the squad's response to the defeat, believing that in some cases at least, it didn't appear to hurt as much as it should have.
"I hope this isn't a Cork thing. Lads have got to realise that however talented they might be, the good times don't last unless you work harder and harder every year. Who knows when Cork will win their next All-Ireland?" he said.
It would be 19 years before Sam Maguire next went Leeside, brought back last September after Cork availed of the second chance. And when they won a second successive Allianz League title in April, it looked as if they were perfectly focused for the big championship challenge.
And yet, 10 weeks later, in what should have been a major policy statement about their seasonal intentions, Cork were completely tongue-tied for 45 minutes of the Munster final against Kerry.
Trailing by eight points at half-time, they were nine behind 10 minutes into the second half, leaving their supporters totally bewildered. It was only at that stage that Cork awoke to the gravity of the situation. Over the next 15 minutes, they out-scored Kerry by 1-5 to 0-0, but just when it looked as if they were about to press on and complete the recovery, they lost power again, failing to score over the final 10 minutes. Once again, it raised doubts.
In the end, their report card read: plenty of ability, but must show more application. Unlike 1991, their season remained intact, but the nature of the defeat still left an uneasy feeling in Cork.
"You'd have to be disappointed with the attitude Cork showed for a long time in the Kerry game. There was no bite to Cork's play. They were far too nice to Kerry and if history shows anything it's that when you're nice to Kerry, they'll exploit it," said Tony Davis, now an RTE analyst, but who was, of course, a major part of the Cork set-up for over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s.
Like so many other Cork people, he is still wondering if it was a one-off blip or a sign of a deeper problem.
"Hopefully, the curse of Cork football hasn't struck again. It took the current panel a long time to make the All-Ireland breakthrough and you would have felt that after doing that, they would press on. You look at them and how much talent they have and say to yourself: if the hurlers were that good, they would be winning All-Irelands all the time. The footballers could still get it right and win again this year, but that still doesn't excuse the terrible performance for so long against Kerry," Davis said.
"You're All-Ireland champions, you're playing Kerry in a Munster final in Killarney and you hardly get in a tackle for ages. The lads themselves know that wasn't good enough."
He does not accept that Cork were under so much pressure going into the Kerry game that it impacted on their efficiency. "Not at all. The monkey was off their back after winning the All-Ireland last year. It would be different if they were playing Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final or final in Croke Park where Cork have a bad record against them, but this was a Munster final. Cork people went to Killarney to see the team put down a marker. At the very least, people expected they would get stuck in. They did in the end, but had left themselves with too much to do.
"There's no doubt that there's huge talent in this panel, but they need to go about creating their own tradition and become the team that Cork people will be talking about in years to come. All the better if the rest of the country are talking about them too as the team of their generation. That's what they should be aiming towards," he said.
One area of concern for Cork is the accumulation of injuries and retirements which have left the squad looking somewhat less intimidating than last year. Ciaran Sheehan and Colm O'Neill are long-term absentees, Nicholas Murphy has been troubled by a hamstring injury, while Derek Kavanagh has retired. Sheehan started last year's All-Ireland final while their other three made significant contributions as subs.
"Cork are evolving as a panel, but they don't have the same level of experience on the subs bench this time which is a concern for them. Cork had several game-changers on the bench last year, but the injury bug has taken its toll this year," said Davis.
For all that, he expects them to beat Down today, but only if they switch on from the start. They allowed Down into a five-point lead in the first half last year, but had the resilience required digging their way back in impressive style. They also had the resolve to recover against Kerry in the Munster final, but it wasn't enough to clear up the mess created by their first-half inertia.
Now, the big question is which version of Cork will be unleashed today, the remote, disinterested outfit which hardly got within touching difference of Kerry for 45 minutes or the slick executioners which hit every target for the next 15 minutes.
"They've got to be more consistent because there's no room for error now. They have the right man calling the shots in Conor (Counihan) but there's a limit to what he can do. It's up to the players to show that what happened for three quarters of an hour against Kerry was a one-off and that they're right back on track," Davis said.
Otherwise, Cork's All-Ireland defence will have ended off a double defeat by a county that always believes they are superior to their neighbours anyway and a Down team who came up short last September. That would be quite a dreary epitaph for the current phase of Cork football, one which has promised so much and which could, of course, yet deliver.
That's assuming, of course, that the curse doesn't strike again.