Rebel's mind field
Published 21/08/2010 | 05:00
On the Wednesday before the 1991 All-Ireland football final between Meath and Down, I spent a few hours with Larry Tompkins in his pub in Cork city.
I was interviewing him on the relative merits of both teams, analysing them line by line and head-to-head. He knew Meath in minute detail, having played against them in four All-Ireland finals and, while he wouldn't have been as familiar with Down, he still delivered a fascinating insight which included several reasons why they were a whole lot better positioned than was generally thought to beat the favourites. Four days later, they did just that.
Having concluded deliberations on the All-Ireland final, the conversation turned to Cork's defeat by Kerry in the Munster semi-final a few months earlier. It was Kerry's first championship win over Cork for five years and had wrecked the latter's All-Ireland three-in-a-row bid, so it was still a sore topic with Tompkins.
It was his first major game since recovering from a cruciate knee injury, sustained in the 1990 All-Ireland final, and understandably he wasn't on full power down in Killarney. Indeed, he was deeply frustrated at being unable to impose his full range of skills on a tight game, which Kerry eventually won by two points.
However, he was irritated by something else too. At least he had an excuse for being below his best, but his colleagues hadn't. Tompkins was disappointed by what he perceived to be a lack of hurt after the defeat. And, he reasoned, if everybody didn't feel devastated after having the three-in-a-row dream shattered, then they weren't in the right frame of mind in the first place, which was probably why they lost to Kerry.
He didn't name the culprits but he was horrified by the attitudes of some players who seemed to think that, after winning two All-Ireland titles, the third would fall neatly into place. It took presumption to a dangerous place and had inevitable consequences.
"We blew a great chance to achieve something special," he said. "Who knows when it will come along again? Who knows when Cork will even win another All-Ireland?"
Deep down, he -- and the rest of Cork -- would have thought more All-Ireland glory was on its way over the following few seasons but, 19 years on, they are still waiting for their next success.
The introduction of the qualifier system has resulted in more All-Ireland semi-final and final appearances for Cork than under the old system, but it hasn't steered them through the door because big bad Kerry have manned it solidly at Croke Park.
Now, for the first time since 1999, Kerry are not in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Neither are Tyrone, All-Ireland winners in 2003, '05 and '08, Galway (1998 and 2001), Meath (1996 and '99) or Armagh (2002). With so many mighty beasts tranquillized, Cork appear ideally placed to deliver a mighty roar and become 2010 Kings of the Jungle.
And yet there are doubts. There are many who still believe that Cork would not have ended Kerry's remarkable reign in 1987 or gone on to win back-to-back All-Ireland titles in 1989 and 1990 without the considerable influence of the Kildare imports Tompkins and Shea Fahy.
Now, all these years later, there's a theory that the current Cork squad is similar to the pre-1987 model: individually gifted, collectively driven but psychologically fragile. It's an assessment which, understandably, infuriates the players but they know that the only way to banish it is to welcome Sam Maguire back to Patrick Street four weeks next Monday.
Ironically, Cork manager Conor Counihan was always one of the players whom Tompkins would have regarded as being carved from the hardest wood, physically and psychologically. Counihan understands what's required to be successful and is now in his third season trying to convey it to his players.
Tony Davis would have been another around whom there were never any doubts about his mentality during his decade in the Cork jersey. Now, as an analyst on 'The Sunday Game', he sees things from another perspective but, in the case of his native county, he has no doubts about the importance of winning this year's All-Ireland crown.
"We have one generation of youngsters who can't remember Cork winning an All-Ireland title and another group who have been scarred by going up to Croke Park so often, only to see Kerry beat us again," he said. "You'd have to say that if the hurlers got half the chances the footballers got they would have won a lot more All-Irelands. There's no doubt that the footballers are under real pressure to deliver now."
One of the great ironies is that in a season when three of the four semi-finalists have come from way off the early championship pace to a challenging position with two fences remaining, Cork haven't been anywhere nearly as impressive as last year.
Given their experience, and the heights they reached at times in recent years (although not against Kerry at Croke Park), there should be few doubts about them at this stage.
However, a failure to close out the deal against Kerry in this year's Munster semi-final, a late leakage which allowed Limerick to take them to extra-time in the qualifiers and an uncertain opening 45 minutes against Roscommon three weeks ago have led to suspicions that they have gone backwards in the very season when the All-Ireland opening appears to be at its widest.
"The strange thing is that they might not need to play as well as last year to win the All-Ireland. It's all about results and it doesn't matter how you get them. We played some horrible All-Ireland finals against Meath but neither of us cared," said Davis.
"They won two, we won one and one was drawn. People might criticise those games at the time but when you win you don't care. As far as players are concerned, it's all about winning that All-Ireland title, or maybe in Kerry's case, winning that sixth or seventh All-Ireland title."
He believes that Cork's unconvincing performance for 45 minutes against Roscommon was influenced by a belief that they could always do enough to win and by the distraction of Kerry's exit the previous day.
"With respect to Roscommon, Cork would have felt things would have had to go badly wrong to lose. It can be hard to switch on to a game in those circumstances," said Davis. "It's nothing to do with effort or anything like that but rather a feeling that you're going to win. Deep down, I suppose Kerry's departure was at the back of Cork minds too."
He acknowledges that Dublin are a totally different proposition, having rebuilt their season from the rubble of the Leinster semi-final drubbing by Meath. "Dublin are brave, honest and have a terrific work ethic. What has happened since losing to Meath is a bit like the transformation in the summer of 1974 under Kevin Heffernan. You'd have to say that Pat Gilroy has handled things very well," he said.
"He has kept expectations in check, even since beating Tyrone, describing it as 'bonus territory'. Look, any team that ever got to a semi-final believes they can win it and aren't there just to make up the numbers, no matter what they say.
"Gilroy has done a good job. He didn't panic after Dublin conceded five goals against Meath. He still has the same full-back line so obviously he not only believed in them, but made it clear that he rated them highly. That's great for a player's morale."
Davis regards Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara as the major threats to the Cork defence but warns too that Alan Brogan could be ready to make a significant impact. Somewhat surprisingly, he does not regard Dublin's excellent championship record against Cork -- they have lost only once -- as remotely important.
"Absolutely not. None of the current teams ever played against each other in the championship. Besides, as a player, Dublin would be one of the counties I would have fancied we could beat. Mayo would be another but for some reason, Cork have always found Limerick very tricky," said Davis.
He doesn't believe that Cork will have any psychological hang-ups over their failure to win an All-Ireland title from what looked like real opportunities over the past decade.
"Kerry were the only team to beat Cork at Croke Park since 2004 and they're gone now," he said. "This is a chance Cork have to take. I think they will too but if they don't, it will do serious damage to the players as a squad."