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O'Leary: 'The critics questioning our character haven't got a clue'

THIRD time lucky for Cork? Noel O'Leary certainly hopes so. Having played in two All-Ireland finals and lost both times, O'Leary might be forgiven for viewing Sunday's looming football showpiece with a sense of angst.

They say, wrongly, that you have to lose one to win one but what about losing three?

Most players couldn't countenance that grisly, depressing prospect. And with a record of zero from two in All-Ireland final appearances in his career, O'Leary might be inclined to banish the memories in the build-up to Sunday. Positive mental attitude and all that.

Quite the contrary, though, O'Leary is embracing the pain and using it to fuel his energies for Sunday.

"It knocks you out of kilter," he says of the empty feeling which follows the moping and self-pity which haunts the losing Croke Park dressing room on All-Ireland final afternoon. "You're talking about months rather than weeks -- you think about things you might have tried differently -- but after four or five weeks last year, we gathered ourselves together and got the attitude that we'd get back there again and that we had to atone."

Atonement has been instant, if a little less than straight-forward for Cork. Munster failure preceded a less than spectacular if ultimately successful jaunt through the qualifiers. But as Kerry proved last year and O'Leary testifies now, back door matches are about results rather than points for artistic merit.

"Playing teams in their own backyard in the qualifiers, it was a boost to come out with wins," says O'Leary. "At the same time our football doesn't seem to have come on a whole pile through the championship, and we're aware of that. But we're still winning and that's the bottom line. Thankfully we are back there but we'd a few close shaves on the way."

The Dublin game, in particular, shaved them so close as to have almost cut them terminally. Yet having squeezed through in the face of much adversity, O'Leary reckons Cork are better for the experience.

"There was huge pressure coming into the home straight," he reflects. "There were times you'd feel, 'will we, won't we get out of this?' But if you had it in your head that you weren't going to do it, you wouldn't pull it out. I think it probably ran through the team, we all felt we could do it. The experience did tell, and while Dublin did put up a great fight, they couldn't sustain it to the end. That was the big thing. We came stronger towards the end."

That result and specifically, the manner of it, drew as much criticism as it did praise for Cork. It's been a recurring theme emanating from the inner sanctum of the Rebel camp that they are now impervious to criticism from outside but O'Leary reckons a portion of the naysayers were silenced by Cork's display of fortitude against Dublin.

"It was satisfying," he admits. "A lot has been thrown at this team in terms of character, but people don't see what happens at training. You have lads making comments who don't have a clue what they're talking about. But there's great character in this team and it was great to pull it out of the fire, but we knew we had that character."

Still, questions will hang ominously over Cork until they complete the ultimate leg of their journey. A win on Sunday and redemption is complete. Conversely, should Down prevail, Cork's nearly men legacy will grow.

"There's no denying that," confesses O'Leary. "An All-Ireland is eluding us and it's fair for the media to be down on us because of that. Until we win one that won't change."