Perseverance delivers respite for war-weary Cork
B ecause they have laboured hard in the field, and endured more than their share of suffering, these Cork footballers should be riding a wave of popular support as they close in on the prize they've been chasing for so long.
People admire sportsmen and women who keep coming back, despite all the failures and crushing disappointments. This Cork team has been in that place more times than seems fair or right.
But there comes a point in the life of any team when they get knocked down once too often and finally they don't come back. The defeats become part of their self-image: this is who we are, deep down we really don't believe we deserve to win.
Last year, they rebelled against this seemingly pre-ordained destiny with a performance against Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final that was fuelled by purpose and conviction. It looked like a turning point. They made a statement that day: we're mad as hell, and we're not going to take it any more. Then they came out against Kerry in the final and reverted to type. Passive, fatalistic, they went back into their shells.
This year they've played like a team carrying an anvil on its back; weighed down, worn out, sapped of self-belief. Their identity more or less remains the same as it has been for the last half decade or so: physically formidable, psychologically fragile.
After all the years on the road it is a side still struggling to find its own personality. Rarely have we known a top team to play with so little emotion. They make a crucial score and it's the same hangdog expression you will see after they've conceded one. One of them gets hit hard and late and no one reacts, no one takes offence, they all just carry on. Emotionally, they are a buttoned-down team.
Now, they don't have to turn into the Waterford hurlers, they don't have to wear their hearts on their sleeves if it's not in their nature -- but surely some level of self-expression would help, if only to let off a bit of steam.
Instead, they have been dutiful, conscientious and quiet. And it's one reason why the public has found it hard to warm to them.
The other, of course, is their style of play. The ponderous, laborious handpassing movements from the back endear them to no one. It's a style that reflects the team's inhibited, self-doubting character. And it is bound to have a debilitating effect on the confidence of their inside forwards. They keep making runs, only for the ball to be held up out the field by colleagues who frequently seem paralysed by indecision.
And if they're not throwing it around in pointless, lateral patterns, they insist on running with it, carrying it into traffic until they have to recycle it back, or it's taken from them, or they draw the free.
The last option seems to be to kick the ball long and early. And last Sunday it was only when the situation reached crisis point that they shed their inhibitions and started to play more direct, without worrying about the consequences. Out of that urgency, came clarity; and out of that clarity came quick ball and vital scores.
Paddy Kelly wasn't hanging about when he angled in a superb raking ball to Colm O'Neill at full-forward. He couldn't afford to be hanging around any longer -- it was the 66th minute and they were two points down. O'Neill was being tightly marked but the time was gone for caution; Kelly spotted his run and instantly made the decision to target him. It was instinctive, and the delivery was perfect -- maybe because it was instinctive. O'Neill claimed the ball, was fouled and Donnacha O'Connor nailed the free.
But Dublin had been doing this all afternoon, and it had been working spectacularly well all afternoon, driving long ball directly to a two-man full-forward line that feasted on the supply. The tactic worked because their opponents helpfully facilitated it. Cork were by far the more experienced team and yet it was Dublin who dictated the terms of engagement. The Dubs packed their own defence with bodies while, at the other end of the field, Bernard Brogan
and Eoghan O'Gara were operating in prairies of space. And they only had two defenders to deal with: Cork, remarkably, refused to drop a third defender back for extra cover. They came frightfully close to paying the price.
But they survived. If there was no consolation in those traumatic defeats of recent years, at least there was a dividend in the experience gained from them. And it paid out on Sunday, enabling them to keep their cool in the crisis and fall over the line just a fraction in front.
They should win it now, and no team in the modern game will have earned it harder if they do. Deserve has nothing to do with it, but the likes of Canty, Murphy, O'Leary and Kavanagh deserve their All-Ireland. There is honour in perseverance and they have persevered. It is typical of sport's random cruelty that another member of that faithful generation, the brilliant Anthony Lynch, will probably be on the sideline, unable to contribute to the final push.
Whatever happens on the day, Cork fans will surely be hoping that this powerful team finally cuts loose, once and for all.