Saturday 18 November 2017

Back firing on all cylinders

With some key men back from injury, Cork are hungry to find some atonement, writes Damian Lawlor

AT the best of times the Cork footballers are a secret in their own county so it was no surprise that Páirc Uí Rinn lay almost bare for their McGrath Cup clash with Clare in January.

For the few spectators that did show up, however, their day was made when Colm O'Neill glided through the Clare defence and thumped the ball to the net with nine minutes left.

The result didn't matter a hoot but the paltry crowd nonetheless roared their approval. Almost a year after limping off against Galway at Pearse Stadium with a torn cruciate ligament for the second time in his career, the Ballyclough man was back. And as he trooped off the field, Conor Counihan knew that 2012 was about to get a whole lot more interesting.

O'Neill never received a football trial for the county until he reached the minor ranks and hadn't even been an automatic starter in the senior ranks after his breakthrough in 2008. But eye-catching cameos -- the thunderbolt goal against Kerry in the 2009 All-Ireland final and a dramatic '45 in the drawn Munster semi-final earlier that summer -- were definite reminders of what Cork football lacked in 2011.

The 24-year-old has put the injuries behind him this year. The league was excellent for him -- 3-13 in just three games against Laois, Dublin and Down and he was the Player of the Month in May. His form is one of the reasons Cork are favourites to beat Kerry today.

Still, while he already boasts a fine CV -- an All Ireland senior, two under 21 All Irelands and a Sigerson Cup, he's fast approaching a crossroads in his career, just like many of the Cork team. Win the All-Ireland this year and that's two championships in the past three seasons, along with three consecutive Division 1 league titles -- and a Division 2 title in 2008. Lose out in the race for Sam, however, and they edge even closer to having an underachiever tag slapped on them.

Though their championship record under Counihan is bettered only by Kerry, they could still end up like the Armagh team of the noughties that for all its talent only won Sam once.

"No-one will say it publicly," says one insider, "but we'd rather take the route Tyrone did and add a few more All-Ireland titles. If this group ends their careers with only one All-Ireland title, it will be a massive disappointment."

They'll be banking on O'Neill's hunger to fire them on this afternoon. They also have other aces ready to return to the pack. It won't be long before Ciarán Sheehan, who also tore his cruciate, and Daniel Goulding, who has missed out on almost eight months of action with an ankle injury, are demanding first team selection. More ammunition for Counihan.

Sheehan, 26, has been playing well at centre back for his club éire óg who are top-heavy with quality forwards like Goulding, John Dineen, Daniel O'Connor and Kevin Hallissey and so use him to knit their defence together. After being unlucky enough to rupture both the medial and cruciate ligaments, he had to wait until September for the medial ligament to heal before having an operation.

Sheehan took the injury lay-off badly. Having played in the 2010 decider, he set down to watch the 2011 All-Ireland final and couldn't take the fact that he was laid up and a million miles removed from the action. So he switched channels and turned over to watch Manchester United play instead.

Team-mates will testify that he is absolutely itching to get back to where he was. His manager, though, is handling his return economically, no doubt looking at the bigger picture in the context of the overall season.

Goulding is another desperate to be set free on Kerry. He injured his ankle last July, put off an operation to play for his club in the Cork intermediate championship, but a scan revealed in December that the tendon was coming away from bone and he eventually went under the knife. For a guy who never had injury worries it was a frustrating time. But after coming on in the league semi-final against Down, he has a renewed scent for the fight again.

"You just don't realise the whole mental battle in terms of coming back from injuries," says Conor Counihan. "And Colm has done his cruciate twice. But you sometimes find that players become better for it. They appreciate it more after what they've gone through."

Another reason Cork look best equipped to challenge Dublin is the reinvigoration of Graham Canty, who enjoyed full fitness for the entire league campaign, the first time he managed to do so under Counihan.

Having these quality players energised only adds credence to the theory that Counihan once more holds the most talented group of footballers. It's important, therefore, to push on and add more championship silverware. The squad doesn't seem to mind that they are not widely supported in their own county -- only an estimated 250 Cork fans made journey for the league semi-final with Down while there were around 500 to witness the win over Mayo.

The current team hasn't always found favour with the pundits either. Not one of the present-day lot was considered for the elite Cork selection of the last 50 years in a recent Irish Independent feature. Instead, many of the boys of the 1980s and 1990s were favoured.

It's not something they've got bogged down with. They are more concerned with fulfilling their potential and this is another area they are excelling in. Their development of young players is perhaps only rivalled by Tyrone. It seems the county has a conveyor belt of talent. Such fostering of youthful talent is ensuring steadiness at senior level as we have seen in their league and championship displays.

"There is massive competition for places and a good league can set you up for the year so lads are going full tilt to make an impression, not holding something back for the summer; you want to do your best, you don't want to lose your place because you might not get it back," says Paudie Kissane.

"I think also the fact that Kilkenny have consistently sought to win the league in the hurling has made other teams across both codes stand up and take notice. It also shows how motivated this Cork team is in that we want to win every game, be it McGrath Cup, league or championship."

Counihan knows his players are highly motivated. "It's a great tribute to the players in their consistency in winning three Division 1 titles and a Division 2 before that," admitted the manager.

This year's league stats back up the manager's point about their reliability -- they only conceded an average of 11 points per game, the best record in the top three divisions. In addition, they scored 11 goals, more than any other top-flight team, in the spring.

It helps immensely that Counihan -- now in his fifth year -- has kept the set-up fresh. He has delegated well during his term. Selector Peadar Healy is highly rated by the players; Aidan O'Connell, the strength and conditioning coach at Munster Rugby, has also had a big impact as has his colleague PJ Wilson. Terry O'Neill, Jim Nolan, and former Munster interprovincial manager Ger O'Sullivan have other vital roles to play in the backroom. Different voices keep things varied for the players.

And the players appear to be responding to this. Aidan Walsh had a nice break over the winter and looks fresh. Fintan Goold has a point to prove. He really stepped it up in the league and has been rewarded with championship selection. Paul Kerrigan is demonstrating serious leadership now and perhaps it's no coincidence that he wasn't embedded in a rigorous club campaign with Nemo Rangers last winter.

In fact, it was the first time in five years that he had no county, provincial or All-Ireland club championship football with Nemo or Sigerson Cup action with CIT for that matter. Pa Kelly is now one of the top ten footballers in the country and his breaks, pace, balance and style will give Kerry plenty to think about today.

The hurt of last year must be a massive factor ahead of this latest derby. They haven't played a minute of championship football since the last day of July, 2011.

"Fellas went through the disappointment of last year so that obviously led to hunger as they started out this season," says Counihan. "The break probably didn't do any harm. But they're a very dedicated bunch, they set high standards and defeat doesn't sit well with them."

Losing today wouldn't be the end of the world but while the force is with them it would be best to take the most direct route. With three key forwards now back in tow, the same could be said about their game-plan today.

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