Sunday 19 January 2020

Rebels with point to prove

T o the GAA player, being seen as windy -- or lacking bottle -- is probably the ultimate degradation. The acclaimed converse is the heroic braveheart, the kind to whom we all aspire, who defies all kinds of prohibitive challenges and hostile environments, and emerges triumphant. The GAA has stories of players seeing out matches with broken bones and various other ailments they only learned of later, even if some of those accounts were either apocryphal or greatly embellished. The point being: the hero never winced.

It follows that a player or team landed with the reputation of being a choker is also served a marvellous challenge to prove the detractors wrong. Written off as being no good is one thing but to be dismissed for being timid is an unacceptable affront to the Gael. Time, then, for the afflicted party to roll up the sleeves, draw the sword and defend his name, family's honour, and that of his club or county. Which brings us to Cork.

Over the course of last year's National Football League, operating in Division Two, Cork footballers left a few promising indentations. The opposition they face in today's opening round, Monaghan, is generally acknowledged as sturdy and tailor-made for the spring months of hardy endeavour. Having waded their way through a promising 2009 campaign, Cork milled Monaghan in the league final at Croke Park. Already it was becoming clear that they were a serious championship contender. Conor Counihan looked an eminently safe pair of hands (granted Jack O'Shea may recall otherwise).

They began playing entertaining football but the primary element in the mix was their outstanding athleticism, notably a stampeding half-back line, founded on scary fitness levels and robust physiques. A good big footballer is better than a good medium-sized one, to paraphrase Kevin Heffernan, and Cork had quality and the power to go with it. In the provincial semi-final, they brushed aside Kerry in a replay. Kerry made the right noises, feigned some shock and awe, and shut the door of their forensics lab to the outside world. Cork ain't fools. They'd have realised that the job wasn't done and Kerry were far from dead, but there was a natural surge in Rebel optimism.

Come the September finale, after Cork's virtual demolition of Tyrone, there were plenty backing them to win their first All-Ireland since 1990. It was tempting. And when they made that dream start, exploding past Kerry, that trust seemed well placed. Which is what made Cork's surrender all the more galling. They had the start. Kerry's wins over Mayo, twice, and Cork in previous finals involved them establishing strong leads. They toasted Dublin last year in much the same way.

I felt Kerry would win, despite strong Cork claims, because of their finishing power, but I was far from certain. Ten minutes into the match when Colm O'Neill blasted home Cork's goal I have to admit feeling that I'd backed the wrong horse. It was early doors of course but Cork were steaming through Kerry, they looked to have the legs on them, and they had just scored a cracking goal. So to lose after that, the way they did, meant they'll have revisited all those old questions over the winter about their readiness for the throne. They will ask themselves: what happened. Why did we lose that All-Ireland?

This was different to previous Croke Park setbacks against Kerry where they had fallen to pieces -- instead it became a slow and painful process, the inevitability of their impending doom growing increasingly persuasive. After O'Neill's goal, instead of kicking on, they fell back and waited on Kerry. Their midfield went limp, an engine-room that functioned unfailingly all year, and by half-time even the most optimistic believer in Counihan's Cork was having grave concerns. There was a rally in the second half before Kerry found another breath for the final straight.

Cork will know this much: they can beat every other team in the country, including Tyrone, the benchmark for much of the last decade. They know they can beat Kerry. But they aren't sure they can beat Kerry when it really matters. They still have Kerry issues. The Kingdom still haunts them. Kerry were there for the taking last September and Cork blew it. But the issue isn't Kerry so much as it is Cork. They died on the field last September, they surrendered, and that is an issue that Kerry can't take sole credit for. If they look at Kerry they will see that their goalkeeper has retired, Tadhg Kennelly has drifted back to the sun and Tommy Walsh, their chief nemesis in the All-Ireland final, has gone there too. But they are still Kerry hoors and they will still give you nothing handy

in an All-Ireland final. You have to go and win it. Kennelly, whose hit on Nicholas Murphy gained much prominence after the final, told a story about how much Cork came to be despised when he and his contemporaries were minors. No man was more passionate in that regard than their manager Charlie Nelligan. This from a county reared in a tradition of supremacy over their rivals. This will always be the way. Kerry will not change. Cork have to. Before the final Niall Cahalane, a hardy bit of machinery, posited the view that Cork would win if they had the balls. Evidently, they did not. Kerry bullied them last September and they know it.

While Cork still made the better and more assured start, they didn't have the meanness required, or the temper. Or the madness. Yes, there were factors that can't be disregarded. The weight of expectation. Kerry's motivation after the Munster defeat. The late change in the Cork full-back line. Cork's tactical limitations. The chance that they peaked against Tyrone. The fact that Kerry simply had better footballers in the key positions, notably up front. The fact that, certainly up front, Cork have room to improve and could conceivably this year. But still. They had 1-3 on the board after ten minutes and one of the most dynamic attacking forces of 2009 went the next hour subsisting on six points. How can they be explained other than to say the team choked?

They are not done yet. They need a more inventive and ruthless forward line, and the full-back line requires surgery. All those seasoned players are a year older, admittedly, but they are producing at the other end. And they have Colm O'Neill. He has overcome injury to make his mark on the football championship and looks capable of being one of the leading attackers over the next decade if he remains fit and Cork maintain their faith.

They lost an All-Ireland but they found a new forward who could become a great one. Kerry may have felt that all of the Cork forwards were "markable" but O'Neill, like the highly admirable Michael Murphy in Donegal, is not easily tamed. Ciaran Sheehan and Aidan Walsh are other young tyros waiting in the wings. They can start from there.

Eamonn Sweeney is on vacation

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