Hand of history rests on Mournemen's shoulders
FIFTY years ago, Kevin Mussen raised the Sam Maguire over his head in an evocative and landmark moment from the long and storied history of the GAA.
Only two years before Down had reached their first Ulster final in 16 seasons, but soon a happy confluence of gifted footballers and far-sighted administrators would transform the county's fortunes. Down travel back to Croke Park today with 11 of that first All-Ireland-winning team -- four are sadly deceased -- and while they are underdogs, they carry an almost noble belief in their football that has carried across generations.
It is an absorbingly pitched contest. While Down have the luminous distinction of never losing an All-Ireland final, and a 100 per cent record against Kerry in the championship, Cork have laboured on both fronts.
The last decade contained an unseemly medley of broken dreams and public humiliations for the Rebels, like the devastatingly one-sided All-Ireland final loss to Kerry three years ago. Their resumé included two losing finals and three failed semi-final attempts, all to Kerry. Last year, they reached the final after a wonderful performance against Tyrone, who were then reigning champions, only to find Kerry again in the way.
Cork's form since winning the league this year has been less than compelling and those who have backed them today are trusting that the hard miles accumulated and the vast experience will stand to them. But, as Meath discovered in 1991, Gaelic football, and Down in particular, doesn't always follow convention.
Down have played the more attractive football in the lead-up to today's encounter, only the second ever championship meeting of the counties, and when in the right mood the Mournemen elevate the game to an art form. But there is a great deal of sentimental support for Cork, as another defeat could see the end of a number of long careers.
Nobody, except Down, would be disappointed to see, to offer just three examples, the likes of John Miskella, Nicholas Murphy and Graham Canty win an All-Ireland after what they've soldiered through.
They have been unable to ignite though and there is the nagging doubt that it simply may not happen, that this overdue exhibition of a more refulgent Rebel performance just isn't written in the stars.
Their manager, Conor Counihan, has brought them to an All-Ireland semi-final, and replay, and two finals in his three years in charge and the next obvious step is to win one. He knows it is in the team; it is a matter of getting it out.
With the baleful spectre of Kerry removed from the equation, Cork enter the match with added confidence but that they are also potentially their own worst enemy. If they succeed they will have ended a 20-year drought stretching back to Counihan's own playing days.
This final is being loosely billed as a pairing of power and athleticism versus the immaculate ball-based trickery of the Mournemen. It is also the first final not to feature Kerry or Tyrone since 2001 when Galway defeated Meath in the first year of the back-door experiment. The football year has been refreshed by Down's resurgence, and the fine performances of counties like Kildare and Dublin, and indeed Sligo and Roscommon in the west. There has been a lot of good football to look back on and, thankfully, not an awful lot of malice.
Like the recent hurling final, a major injury dilemma overshadows one of the contestants. Canty, an inspiration captain, was unable to complete the semi-final win over Dublin due to a recurring hamstring injury and may not start, with Miskella the favourite to replace him. According to reports, Canty did not take part in a training ground match on Thursday last.
Down captain Ambrose Rodgers is also hoping to shake off a knee injury to play some role. But both men may have to be content with a spectator's role, something most of us will happily settle for.