Saturday 17 March 2018

Are the Rebels football's great under-achievers?

Cork captain Graham Canty lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2010
Cork captain Graham Canty lifts the Sam Maguire Cup in 2010

The Monday Debate with Martin Breheny and Donnchadh Boyle.

Yes says Martin Breheny

IN 2010, Cork won the All-Ireland title through the qualifier route by beating three Division 3 teams (Cavan, Wexford and Roscommon) and one each from Division 1 (Dublin), Division 2 (Down) and Division 4 (Limerick).

Pre-2001, when the back door was opened, Cork's season would have ended in mid-June when they lost the Munster semi-final to Kerry. In the new era, they re-loaded their guns, only to find that the sole Division 1 opposition firing back at them was Dublin. The others had lower-calibre weapons.

In June 2010 Dublin had been hit for five goals by Meath in the Leinster semi-final, less than a year after conceding 1-24 to Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. That suggests that Dublin were less formidable in 2010 than a year later, so Cork's one-point win in the semi-final has to be seen in that context.

The reality is that Cork's first All-Ireland win since 1990 was achieved without beating Kerry, Tyrone, Armagh, Galway or Meath, the five counties who had won the previous 14 titles between them.

Nor did Cork meet Mayo, Kildare, Derry, Donegal or Monaghan. Despite having the easiest run in qualifier history, Cork were fortunate to win the final, beating Down by a point.

There were many who felt that Cork would blossom after winning the 2010 title. Freed from the chains of big-day setbacks, Cork were supposed to flourish.


Instead, they lost the 2011 Munster final to Kerry and were later dethroned as All-Ireland champions by Mayo, who restricted them to a single point in the second half of the quarter-final. It was truly an anaemic attempt by champions to retain their title.

Another indicator of Cork's under-achievement has been their inability to match Kerry in Croke Park. They beat the Kingdom in the Munster championship in 2002, '06, '08 and '09 but subsequently lost All-Ireland re-matches at HQ. If it happened once, it could be put down to the unpredictable nature of Kerry-Cork games, but four times in seven years suggest something more deep-rooted and not all flattering to the Rebels.

And when Kerry beat Cork in the Munster championship in '05 and '07, they duly repeated the wins in Croke Park later on. The only difference was that Kerry won much more easily in the All-Ireland tests.

The argument that Kerry's balance sheet shows a plus against most counties in Croke Park may be true but, nonetheless, they have lost to Donegal, Dublin, Down, Tyrone (three times), Armagh and Meath in Croke Park over the last 12 years.

Cork, in contrast, have lost six and drawn one of seven clashes with Kerry in Croker in 11 years, hinting at an insecurity which is not compatible with the highest achievers.

Also, there's the interesting saga of Cork's triple Division 1 league successes in 2010, '11 and '12. Yes, it shows how impressive they were in the spring campaigns, but on only one occasion did they follow up with an All-Ireland win. It's scarcely the tale of a highly rated squad reaching the peak of its capability range.

No says Donnchadh Boyle

The argument against Cork is as obvious as it is hollow. On the other side of this page, the point that they haven't beaten Kerry in Croke Park will undoubtedly be made, but that's simply the wrong context in which to judge this Cork team – or any side for that matter.

By the same logic, the Kerry team that have failed to beat Tyrone in three titanic tussles in the last decade are also failures. And bear in mind, that's the same Kerry team that contested six All-Ireland finals in a row from 2004-09 and have won four Sam Maguires in 10 years.

In fact, Cork are slightly different from Kerry in that they managed to slay their big rivals on a few occasions in Munster. Kerry had to wait until the qualifiers last year to topple an ageing Tyrone, but no one is dismissing Kerry simply on the basis of their record against the Red Hands, and rightly so.

So judged on their own merits, Cork have achieved quite a lot. Three Division 1 league titles in a row (preceded by the Division 2 title in 2009), a handful of Munster crowns and an All-Ireland title is a decent return for a team who have 'underachieved'.


That 2010 All-Ireland was the prize for their consistency as much as it was for their performances that year. Cork kept putting themselves in the mix, and eventually got their rewards.

This generation of Cork players were unfortunate to be around at the same time as those Tyrone and Kerry sides. It's unlikely even the most ardent Rebel would claim that Cork boasted a panel of similar skill and depth to those two. Those two were out on their own in terms of quality, but Cork are next on the list.

At various stages, arguments could be made that either Kerry or Tyrone were the best team in the country but at no stage were Cork talked of as the No 1 seeds. That they managed to steal in for an All-Ireland title was a considerable achievement in itself.

Their record in championship football tells a story of remarkable consistency. Since 2006, they have been in three All-Ireland finals, and in the same period they only failed to make the last four in 2011.

Even allowing for the lop-sided nature of the Munster Championship, that's some record.

Within the county too, their ability to compete at the top level has been recognised, with some of the better hurlers in the county throwing their lot in with Conor Counihan's footballers. In a county where people march to support their hurlers, that's no mean feat.

Judged on their own merits, and not by comparison to their neighbours who have enjoyed a golden era even by their own lofty standards, Cork have – at the very least – done themselves justice.

Irish Independent

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