Wednesday 17 January 2018

End of an era

Noel Horgan

FOR the first time since Conor Counihan took the helm in 2008, the Cork footballers failed to garner any silverware in 2013.

So, it has to go down as a disappointing year for the Rebels, all the more so in view of their chastening defeat at the hands of Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Under Counihan's stewardship, Cork lifted the top prize in 2010, and they completed a hat-trick of Division 1 league titles last year.

They were unable to halt the irresistible Donegal juggernaut in the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final, but it was always going to be difficult for Jim McGuinness' men to bring the same level of intensity to the table this year, and Cork would have been viewed as one of the main pretenders to the Northerners' throne.

That they failed to retain the league title did nothing to diminish their aspirations heading into the championship, and, indeed, it was regarded as a blessing in disguise to a certain extent. The fact is that Cork had been branded as major under-achievers after failing to go all the way in the championship following their league triumphs in 2011 and 2012.

It was a harsh assessment, given that there was no shortage of teams equally equipped to mount a strong bid for the Sam Maguire, and that Cork hadn't been so far ahead of the chasing pack in 2010 when they lost to Kerry in Munster and finished with just a point to spare over Dublin and Down in the All-Ireland semi-final and final respectively.

Their elimination from the league this season served to ease the pressure, as it at least meant their critics could no longer use success in the league as a stick to beat them with should their bid to reclaim Sam falter once again.

Whatever its impact in terms of reducing expectation levels, it certainly wouldn't have been a major concern for the management that Cork failed to make the league play-offs. They probably got as much as they wanted from the campaign in that they used the vast majority of the squad over the course of the seven games in Division 1.

Cork's bid to book a place in the last four was only foiled in the final game in the group when, needing just a draw to qualify, they went under by a point to Mayo at Pairc Uí Chaoimh. All in all, there were a lot of positives to be taken from the league, with a compelling display on the road against Tyrone the highlight, and, in essence, Cork performed to the same level as in the previous three seasons.

The difference was that a few results went against them in games that could have gone either way, most notably against Kildare at Pairc Uí Rinn in Round 2 when the dismissal of a player shortly before half-time had a vital bearing on the outcome.

Much more than their dethronement as kingpins, the most regrettable and detrimental aspect of the league was the season-ending injury sustained by Colm O'Neill during the home win over Donegal.

As expected, Cork made light work of dispatching Limerick, 3-17 to 0-8, in the opening round in the Munster championship, with Daniel Goulding, Pearse O'Neill and Brian Hurley grabbing the goals on a day when Hurley, Antrim import James Loughrey, 'keeper Ken O'Halloran, Tomas Clancy of Fermoy, Damien Cahalane and John O'Rourke were all handed a championship debut.

With Goulding again finding the net, Cork were comfortable winners, 1-20 to 1-11, over Clare in the semi final, but the first big test came when they put their Munster title on the line at Fitzgerald Stadium.

For the best part of fifty minutes, Cork were totally outplayed by a Kerry side that looked quite capable of extending an unflattering seven-point interval advantage to double figures before the contest reached its conclusion.

As it was, Kerry led by nine inside the last quarter, and it seemed as if Cork, seeking a first win in Killarney since 1995, were heading for a defeat of such humiliating and demoralising proportions as to leave their All-Ireland ambitions needing life-support.

With Ciaráan Sheehan, who was unable to start due to injury, igniting the attack following his introduction for the last 20 minutes, Cork staged a remarkable comeback, and it took a brilliant save by Kerry 'keeper Brendan Kealy to prevent Brian Hurley from grabbing an equalising goal in stoppage time.

It meant that Cork, beaten by 1-16 to 0-17, emerged from the fray with their pride intact, but they didn't deserve any more than that, as Kerry were by far the better team until their almost inevitable late fade-out – a recurring problem in big games since the Kingdom last lifted Sam in 2009 – arrived.

Again Cork's resilience was put to the test in an All-Ireland qualifier that they were expected to win against a Galway side that had shipped a 4-16 to 0-11 thrashing from Mayo in Connacht. After squandering a string of goal chances, Cork trailed by five points with 25 minutes remaining, but, with Pearse O'Neill and Mark Collins to the fore, they dominated the closing stages.

A fisted goal from Aidan Walsh eventually brought them level, giving them the impetus to finish with a flourish, as they tacked on four points in the last few minutes before Galway grabbed a consolation goal at the death.

Pitted against the high-flying Dubs, who under new boss Jim Gavin had followed up on a league success with a compelling march to a Leinster title, it was generally felt that Cork would need to improve significantly to have any chance of delivering the goods in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Arguably, Cork produced their best performance of the summer in terms of a sustained effort, but it wasn't nearly enough to prevent Dublin from advancing in a manner that was much more emphatic than their five-point winning margin, 1-16 to 0-14, suggests.

The outcome looked inevitable from a long way off, and it was seldom in any real doubt after wing back Jack McCaffrey fired in the game's only goal to give the Dubs a five-point lead three minutes into the second half.

Simply put, Cork had no answer to Dublin's breathe-taking display of non-stop attacking football, and had not the Rebels rearguard led something of a charmed existence on the day, the gap between the sides at the finish would have been far greater.

Dublin's speed of movement showed that several of Cork's seasoned stalwarts no longer had the legs to measure up at the highest level, and, inevitably, there was much speculation regarding retirements afterwards.

Conor Counihan immediately announced he was stepping down as team boss, and since then Graham Canty, Alan O'Connor, Pearse O'Neill and Alan Quirke – who had reclaimed the No 1. shirt from Ken O'Halloran after the Munster final - from the team that started against the Dubs have opted to call it a day.

So too have Paudie Kissane, who came on as a sub in the quarter final, and Noel O'Leary, who wasn't used in that game, while Ciaran Sheehan has decided to join Aussie Rules side Carlton Blues.

Sheehan, who was Cork's best player in the All-Ireland quarter final when James Loughrey, Brian Hurley, Damien Cahalane, Thomas Clancy of Clonakilty, Daniel Goulding and Michael Shields were other to emerge reasonably unscathed from the proceedings, is obviously going to be a huge loss.

But the mass exodus provides an opportunity for other players to step up to the plate, and it makes it easier for new manager Brian Cuthbert, who has retained the services of Ronan McCarthy and recruited Ciaran O'Sullivan, Don Davis and Eoin Sexton to the backroom team, to put his own stamp on things from the outset.

Needless to say, Cuthbert will be hoping that Colm O'Neill can make a complete recovery, and that Pa Kelly can shrug off the injury, which severely curtailed his involvement in the championship this year, as he attempts to oversee a smooth transition in Cork football.

Only time will tell what the immediate future holds, but it would be fair to say that, for the first time in a while, Cork won't be short-listed as likely All-Ireland champions in the year ahead.


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