Slow-burning Dublin and Cork rivalry coming nicely to the boil
Two of the game's superpowers haven't crossed paths too often but that might be about to change, writes Vincent Hogan
The rogue in Kevin Heffernan never met an opponent whose name he couldn't blacken. In '74, he fixated on the 'arrogance' of Cork as a reason why the defending champions could not deny Dublin a place in that year's All-Ireland football final. The two counties had no great history of acrimony, so Heffo essentially invented one through the recycling of some harmless banter as insult.
Jimmy Keaveney has been a lifelong friend of Billy Morgan's and, two weeks before that game, Keaveney and his wife Angela were guests of Billy and his wife Mary in Cork. At some point, they visited the home of Billy's brother-in-law Frank Cogan where, as luck would have it, the Sam Maguire happened to be in residence.
As the Keaveneys were leaving in the early hours, Frank took hold of the cup and waved it at them, grinning "Take a look at that, it'll be the last ye'll see of it!"
Later, Jimmy recounted this moment of fun to Heffernan, little realising the purchase his manager would find in it.
But Heffo felt Dublin needed stoking. Compared to games against the likes of Kerry or Meath, contests against Cork seemed to represent little more than gentle cultural exchanges. The two great urban strongholds simply had no personal history.
So Heffo took that image of Cogan waving the Sam Maguire, captioning it with the words "typical Cork arrogance". And Dublin duly won.
It was a convenient lie for, truth to tell, the cities' Gaelic football communities still had no great feelings for one another. Of any kind.
That game might have been the catapult for something epochal, but it registered instead as a kind of requiem for that Cork team. Kerry and Mick O'Dwyer were coming over the horizon and, by the time they needed to stop for air ('83), Heffernan had built another Dublin team programmed to curse Cork.
Their meeting in that year's All-Ireland semi-final is best remembered for the Dubs' exhilarating performance in the Pairc Ui Chaoimh replay on a day the mass exodus south brought unprecedented colour to GAA terracing.
Dave Barry reflected years later: "Even Cork supporters remember it as one of the best occasions they were ever at, even though we lost. Just a fantastic sporting occasion for everybody."
For generations, though, the plenary terms upon which championship was run meant that Dublin-Cork games were, largely, spring curiosities left to find their own context. The counties have met in four league finals – '52, '89, '99 and 2011, all won by Cork – and two semi-finals – '55 and '57, Dublin winning the former.
Yet, maybe their most storied encounter was the '87 quarter-final that culminated with the surreal spectacle of Barney Rock kicking the winning goal into an empty net after Cork refused to reappear for a designated period of extra-time.
Cork's management insisted afterwards that they were due to take the early train home and seemed to believe they were thus entitled to a replay. But the referee awarded the game to Dublin, Rock having 'scored' what he would declare the 'easiest' goal of his inter-county career, and there would be serious internal repercussions afterwards within Cork.
County board chairman Con Murphy reputedly came close to resigning over the issue, such was his anger with the team management, and all murmurs leaning towards an appeal against the team's dismissal from the league were decommissioned.
Former Cork great Eamonn Young subsequently wrote: "While we got the train, we missed the bus!"
By the end of the '80s, Heffo's race was run with Dublin and a 19-year-old Stephen O'Brien played full-back on the Cork team that defeated them in the '89 All-Ireland semi-final en route to winning the Sam Maguire.
For O'Brien the age profile of the team Brian Cuthbert brings to Croke Park tomorrow encourages him to believe that the natural cycle may again be turning in Cork's favour.
That Cork side of '89 had again found Kerry's measure in Munster and all the evidence of last Sunday's league game in Tralee suggests they may again be facing into a period of provincial ascendancy.
O'Brien suggests: "I remember my attitude in '89 was that I just wanted to go out and have a cut off it. That's the way it is with very young players. In Cork, the word on the street now is 'Jesus, the footballers are flying!'
"People were probably dubious at the start. Maybe they didn't know much about Cuthbert or whatever and, with all the retirements, the general consensus was that it would take time to rebuild. But the team seems to be reacting to him and the feeling is very positive now.
"And I think it's brilliant they're now getting the experience of Dublin in Croke Park again. This is another chance to be sampling the stadium, sampling the bus in and out of the place, it's all little steps forward. Because if you're not used to the intensity of playing Dublin in Croke Park, there's a question mark as to whether players can handle it or not when it comes along.
"The last thing you want is going up there later in the year, facing into a rip-roaring atmosphere and all you have in the tank is what you're used to at Pairc Ui Chaoimh or Killarney. All of a sudden, you're going into that cauldron thinking 'Jesus look at this, it's unbelievable!'
"I think teams going cold into Croke Park in a championship situation, that's when they can get caught."
Dublin, undoubtedly, represent the ultimate litmus test today, given their looming pursuit of a third All-Ireland in four seasons. Last year's investment in the league (which they also won) seemed to work in Jim Gavin's favour, a fact perhaps calling into question the county's oddly anaemic approach to league football throughout much of the noughties.
When Dublin got to the 2011 league final under Pat Gilroy – a game they would lose to Cork after squandering an eight-point lead – Tommy Carr recalled a grim day he believed might have coloured the opinions of Dubs against the competition.
He was the county's young manager in '99 when they qualified to play Cork in the league final, duly conceding home advantage as if to convey the message 'We'll play it anywhere ye want.'
Carr believed that Dublin needed to radiate greater levels of confidence and self-esteem, yet their experience of a rain-sodden Sunday in the crumbling tenement of Pairc Ui Chaoimh would, if anything, carry a diminishing impact. They had to share their dressing-room beforehand with a club team that had just played in the curtain-raiser and the almost comedic circumstance of that shared intimacy left them ill-prepared for battle.
Carr told this writer: "It was a mistake to go (to Cork). Maybe there was a bit of naivety. But in the dressing-room, we had lads looking to go for a p**s and they (the club team) are in the showers. So we're crammed into this tiny space, listening to their after-match banter and trying to prepare for a league final."
Before a paltry attendance, Cork won by two points, leaving Carr to suspect that something soured Dublin to the National League subsequently. He recalled Cork players looking "bored" during the presentation.
"We always struggled in the league after that," he said. "Looking back, I think our experience in Cork nearly negated any sense of urgency to go and win leagues afterwards. Because I think everybody would have said it was a bad experience.
"I'm not saying you went out the following year and played s***e to make sure you didn't get into a league final, but there wasn't the same urgency to repeat the process. A 'once burnt, twice shy' kind of thing."
Over the next decade, Dublin would win an average of just three games in every league campaign and even suffer relegation under 'Pillar' Caffrey in '07, albeit they bounced back up immediately.
This was anathema to everything Heffernan believed. Dublin, pointedly, appeared in four consecutive league finals between '74 and '78, a period in which they also always reached the All-Ireland decider.
Gavin seems inclined to work now off the old maestro's template, albeit Cork did beat the Dubs on March 1 when they clashed in round three of this league at Croke Park.
Mickey Harte seemed to regard some of Dublin's play in Omagh last Sunday as salted with cynicism, though it is not a reputation they have been carrying under Gavin.
O'Brien believes there to be an innate purity to Dublin-Cork games that bodes well for an entertaining contest tomorrow.
"I don't think there'll ever be a nasty rivalry between Dublin and Cork," says the Nemo Rangers man. "Okay, the Dubs rate themselves and in Cork we believe we can beat anyone, but there's never been any real nastiness there. We love playing the Dubs because it's always a very good game, the nastiness hasn't come into it for years.
"With this black card anyway, the nastiness has gone out of a lot of football. I don't think you'll ever go back to the days where there were free-for-alls all over the pitch. Lads are so fit, they don't want to waste their time punching and all this kind of crap.
"I think you look at these two teams and there's a lot of respect there. Both play a cracking brand of football."
Tomorrow they re-engage then, as a possible precursor to something tumultuous unspooling deeper into the season. Cork's precocity makes them dangerous. But Heffernan, you know, would have relished seeing them at the city gates.