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Focus on last year's form no use to Cork

FALLACY number one in the countdown to Sunday's All-Ireland football final: you've got to pay your All-Ireland dues before earning ownership of Sam Maguire. Fallacy number two: Cork have been the best team in the country over the past three years and ergo, this weekend, they will prove it.

Fallacy number two: Cork have been the best team in the country over the past three years and ergo, this weekend, they will prove it.

The above two paragraphs should not be viewed as a definitive statement that Down will maintain their 100pc record in All-Ireland finals -- Cork are favourites and for plenty of reasons that are fundamentally sound, if not entirely compelling.

Our aim is to underline that this year's final will be won on the pitch, not in the past. To an extent, it will also have been won on the training ground over the past few weeks. And in the tactical approaches of the respective managers. And, as so often pertains in All-Ireland finals, it will be partly won in the mind too.

But it won't be won last year.

Which brings us to the above two fallacies. At the Down press afternoon last week, James McCartan made an interesting point about the perception that Cork have qualified for the final without playing remotely as well as last season.



Overcome

"It's a great way to come into an All-Ireland final," the Down boss reasoned. "To be criticised and knowing that, if you play to your full potential, everybody thinks you're the best team in Ireland for the last three years, except they haven't been able to overcome Kerry."

Elsewhere yesterday, we read Cork being described as "arguably" the best team in the country over the past six years.

Now, in fairness to McCartan, he qualified his remarks by reference to their historical failure to overcome Kerry when and where it mattered -- in Croke Park. Yet we cannot buy into this notion that Cork have been somehow the best team in Ireland for the past three years, let alone six.

Yes, they have been ultra-consistent -- reaching six consecutive semi-finals since 2005. They have also been ultra-consistent nearly-men.

In the above period, Kerry have won three of the six All-Irelands on offer, Tyrone two. The sixth is still all to play for.

Until this year's watershed defeat by Down, Kerry had reached 10 consecutive semi-finals -- and the previous six finals, four of which they had won. In the same period, Cork have reached two finals and lost both, in different but equally depressing circumstances, to their green-and-gold nemesis. They have lost three semi-finals, all to Kerry, one after a replay.

None of this suggests that Cork have been the best team of the past half-decade. Now, you could argue that they've been the best team after Kerry although, personally, this column would take Tyrone's eight-year record of mixing All-Ireland peaks ('03, '05 and '08) with performance troughs (crashing out in three quarter-finals, one semi-final and one qualifier) every time.

What can be said is that Cork have been getting closer and closer to that elusive holy grail. They qualified for the '07 decider but, for whatever reason, defended like rabbits caught in headlights against Kerry that day.

One year later, they came a lot closer to working out their 'Kingdom in Croker' conundrum. And yet, on closer inspection, that semi-final draw and four-point replay defeat suggested a considerable chasm still separated Cork from the promised land.

After 66 minutes of the original '08 stalemate, Kerry were eight points up and cruising -- Cork's late 2-2 salvo was heroic, for sure, but also freakish. A week later, Kerry again appeared in cruise mode, leading by nine points after 50 minutes. Fifteen minutes later, Cork were level after a stirring 1-6 comeback, which was only halted by Colm Cooper's killer goal.

Last summer was different, or at least appeared that way. All summer, with the exception of their near-calamity against Limerick, Cork stood out as the most impressive team -- an exalted status copperfastened by their comprehensive five-point defeat of Tyrone. After 10 minutes of the final, they led Kerry by the exact same margin ... what happened over the next hour must have sparked endless soul-searching by the Lee over the dark winter months.

Has Cork's confidence suffered as a result of last September's slow-burning implosion? You wouldn't think so by watching their serene march to a National League title -- but in most of their seven subsequent SFC outings, they have been surviving via sporadic bursts.

At times the build-up has been painfully laboured. They haven't played like a team brimming with confidence. The selection policy of management has been called into serious question at times.

More positively, you've got to admire their resilience, especially against Dublin. Maybe they are a team on a mission, one that won't countenance any detour from their All-Ireland 'destiny'.

Except? Well, the theory that you must pay your All-Ireland dues before winning one is counterbalanced by several examples prior to the recent Kerry/Tyrone hegemony. We're thinking Galway '98 and a clutch of Ulster examples from the early nineties: Derry '93, Donegal '92 ... oh, and did we mention Down in '91?

In essence, Cork have limped into the final but they can't use last year's form as a crutch, not if they're to finally walk the walk this weekend.


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