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Time for Rebel reward

SO it comes down to the final 70 minutes of a remarkable, riotously unpredictable All-Ireland football championship.

Cork, the team most of us had flagged as champions-in-waiting before a ball was kicked, have made it to the final. Down, a team that scarcely entered the September mindset last May, will join them at the top table.

Back then, Cork were 9/4 favourites to finally cease their unconsummated flirting and take Sam home. Down, even after achieving their second consecutive league promotion, were a distant 40/1 shot. Suffice to say, the odds are a whole lot closer now.

Not alone is this among the strangest All-Ireland pairings of recent times, it also qualifies as more inscrutable than the September norm. You favour form and momentum? Then it must be Down. You believe big-match experience will swing the deal? Then Cork tick all the boxes.

But surely the team with the classier set of forwards will make all the difference? Then take a bow, Messrs Clarke, Coulter and Hughes!

On second thoughts, how many champions have cited all-consuming hunger as the root of their success? Eh, on that score, Graham Canty and ravenous company must be positively skeletal by now. They want it. They need it. The consequences of losing -- again -- are too much to even contemplate.

On the flip side, is it better to approach a final with confidence soaring or weighed down by pressure? Down's latent swagger has been reborn this summer; their performances against Kerry and Kildare suggest a team that is at one with Croke Park and the big occasion.

Then again, if quarter- and semi-final form was the ultimate barometer, Cork would be defending All-Ireland champions instead of Kerry. Maybe, just maybe, Conor Counihan has his players exactly in the right place this evening -- knowing exactly where and by how much they must improve.

We could carry on this way until 3.30 tomorrow afternoon and still be none the wiser. Darragh ó Sé -- a man who knows something about these matters -- put it succinctly in his newspaper column this week. "Cork should win. Down can win. Knowing they should win could cripple Cork. Knowing they can win will inspire Down," the erstwhile Kerry talisman mused.

And still, when push came to shove, ó Sé backed Cork to find the form "that they know is within them." His qualified prediction will resonate with many of us -- this observer included -- who voted confidently for the National League champions last May; we duly spent much of the summer wondering when that form would return and wavering in our conviction that it ever would.

Hang-ups

Our own belief is that Cork will dig it out, partly because they have been here twice before and cannot countenance another defeat that could send this squad (and their manager) toppling over the edge.

Partly, too, we're taking them on trust to up their game when it matters most -- that management will learn from the selection gambles and tactical gaffes that played into Dublin hands in the semi-final, and that the players themselves will grasp this glorious opportunity, free from the psychological hang-ups associated from facing Kerry in the final.

Cork's bench is another big plus. All summer, the debate has raged over whether Counihan actually knew his strongest 15 ... perhaps we should now reappraise the criticism implied in that question and commend the manager for getting his best team on the field when it matters most. He has used his reserves shrewdly, never more so than against Dublin when Colm O'Neill (in spectacular fashion), Eoin Cadogan, Nicholas Murphy and Derek Kavanagh all made an impact.

Still, there are question marks over his latest starting 15. The "will he, won't he?" debate over Canty's involvement is predicated on the valid concern that a player who has done little serious training over the past seven weeks will be vulnerable against the sprightly, intelligent movement of Down.

Yes, Canty may be sharper than he was when wrongly risked against Dublin. Yes, his leadership qualities are important. But it still represents a real gamble if he starts, and our hunch is that he will.

Starting the ultra-competitive and feisty Cadogan looks a shrewd call, albeit the county's hurling full-back will be making his first SFC start on the biggest day of all. On the presumption that Cadogan takes up Benny Coulter, this could release Michael Shields to track Marty Clarke all over the field.

Stifling Clarke will be central to Cork's final prospects. The Down orchestrator has that priceless 'calm in a storm' quality but he was still afforded too much latitude by Kildare, whereas Shields looks the best-equipped Cork defender for this onerous task: he is actually happier out the field and has the footballing skills to make a positive impact too.

Overall, we believe Cork's defence is a slight step ahead of Down's but they'll need to be, given the myriad threats posed by Clarke, the mercurial Coulter and the wonderfully dynamic Danny Hughes. This holy trinity have been ably assisted by Paul McComiskey, Mark Poland and some lively forward replacements en route to the final.

As for the midfield diamond, it's now a cliché to talk of Cork's man mountains but size alone is no guarantor of dominating the possession stakes. An intriguing feature of the Down/Kildare semi-final was the number of clean kickouts claimed by Peter Fitzpatrick (deputising for injured skipper Ambrose Rogers) and Kalum King. Dermot Earley's absence was obviously a factor, but Down have been well served at centrefield.

For all his errant shooting, though, Cork's Aidan Walsh has been a productive outlet in his rookie campaign; Alan O'Connor will relish the donkey work; Pearse O'Neill offers another towering kickout option and then, of course, you have Nicholas Murphy likely to join the fray for those vital last 20 minutes.

For Cork to prevail, though, they will need more than a midfield platform. Their propensity for laborious build-up is hurting the team and they must go more direct or else.

Up front, while Paddy Kelly's engine and intelligent link-play are a consistent source of comfort, Pearse O'Neill must release the shackles while the predatory enigma that is Daniel Goulding must up his game after a below-par semi-final. The team also needs to get the electric Paul Kerrigan onto more ball where he can hurt a Down rearguard that, for all their embracing of Tyrone's blanket defence ethos, still looks potentially suspect.

Our theory? It will all come down to the last 10 minutes when Cork's bench and greater need will take them across the Rubicon and into paradise.

ODDS: Cork 8/13, Draw 15/2, Down 7/4

VERDICT: Cork

CORK: A Quirke; E Cadogan, M Shields, R Carey; N O'Leary, G Canty (capt), P Kissane; A O'Connor, A Walsh; C Sheehan, P O'Neill, P Kelly; D Goulding, D O'Connor, P Kerrigan.

DOWN: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan, C Garvey; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes, M Poland, B Coulter; P McComiskey, J Clarke, M Clarke.


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