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Trophy-laden Cork still a secret in own county

Conor Counihan takes the air of the evening into his lungs and smiles an ambivalent smile. Where else in the world are cup winners asked to explain the lack of love in their lives?

Cork's third consecutive National Football League title has passed into history with, it seems, a commotion that would have been drowned out by a cough in a church pew.

The footballers pass as a secret in their own county. Someone needs to arrange an introduction.

"Sure look, we've a small group of people, they're important people to us," sighs Counihan, too wise and practical a soul to pretend it doesn't hurt. Then he shines a light on the calibre of friends they have, mentioning the remarkable Millstreet teenager who recently addressed a UN gathering in New York.

"Like there's some people who inspire us. Joanne O'Riordan sent us a text before the game today. When you get them from people like that, you know, it doesn't matter whether it's five or 50. We're doing it for that group of people and for the players themselves.


"You know, that's always been the way. That's life maybe. I'd hate to see it if we were unsuccessful!"

Not since Kerry in '73 had a team won three leagues in a row, but Cork's difficulty may be that they exist in what feels like an endless winter for Gaelic football. The game spends its time on a coroner's slab. The new president of the Association barely had his coat on the rack when he antagonised coaches by concluding that it was "boring".

Yesterday didn't prove much of a counter-argument, but then the weather God clearly fumbled his diary and re-opened it on a January page. Croke Park was cold as a giant freezer unit and, halfway through, a spiteful wind dragged rain in off the Irish sea. We were miserable on the seventh floor.

Our marking on artistic impression probably reflected that.

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Neither game ever quite shook off that woolly damp, though the second did -- at least -- carry a scent of goals. Kildare-Tyrone didn't. It was a virtual seminar on where football is going and there were segments throughout when we found ourselves, as our Taoiseach might put it, "reflecting deeply" on the presentation.

The new game is a market stall of fine physiques and militaristic discipline. Everything is predicated on a mastery of space. You flood bodies around the ball carrier, you check support runs, you do whatever it takes to put up that road block. Then, once in possession, nobody flies solo. You move forward in a phalanx.

Kildare and Tyrone are so good at it that, for an hour yesterday, they were like conjoined twins riled by one another's company.

Then Kildare bolted out through an open door and, for the next 10 minutes, all but played to music. "They really overwhelmed us," said Mickey Harte with that lovely, easy grace that always comes to him so intuitively. He could, you had to believe, respect what Kildare did because he could recognise in it much of his own science.

Harte and Kieran McGeeney were two of those coaches who seemed to take Liam O'Neill's view of Gaelic football a little personally. They have aligned themselves with a view of the game that seems to offend a traditional taste for catch and kick.

When like meets like, there's certainly a tactical stalemate that leaves both goalkeepers all but redundant. Then again, a stray spark sometimes changes everything. For 35 minutes last summer, Kildare and Donegal played an All-Ireland quarter-final game that was an affront to paying customers. But then the tempo began to build and from an ugly duckling grew a swan.

Was there a more epic game in the entire championship?

Trouble was, the stray spark never materialised here. Systems stayed sacrosanct all through and what we got was an exhibition of compelling power, athleticism and obduracy.

Harte admitted that it always looked destined to be a goal-less encounter.

"It was that kind of game," he said. "You could see from early on they weren't going to give goals very handy. They set themselves up very well to make that very difficult.

"So the job they set out to do, they achieved it pretty well. You know, that's life. You have to respect them for what they did."

And the lessons to be learned?

"I suppose the lesson is that, what goes on in the past ... you know teams will watch what you do and they'll be able to counteract your style of play."

For McGeeney, now in his fifth season with Kildare, the arrival of silverware -- albeit Division 2 silverware -- was embraced with calm sobriety. He looks to have a team that could play deep into autumn and, in Padraig Fogarty, seems to have found a young forward with moxy.

But there were no drums being beat, no promises peddled. He mentioned how Armagh beat Down in a Division 2 final a couple of years back only to make an early championships exit while Down played all the way to September. There'd be no bonfires lit.

He talked instead of Tyrone having "a great system". The technician in his head was shouting down the dreamer. He suspects we depict his regime as a life in the salt mines for put-upon young men. He'd like to disabuse us of the notion.

"There's good spirits in there, the craic's good," he said of the dressing-room he'd just stepped from. "But, in fairness, it has been all year. Again, despite what people might think, training's been very enjoyable."

Not much fun for Mayo, though, back in their house of pain after surrendering a good position to Cork. Four points to the good at half-time, they were a goal behind 11 minutes after the resumption. The impression that they'd maybe lacked a little muscle didn't escape James Horan.

Had his team, maybe, been pushed around? "Ya I think so," he agreed with welcome candour. "We've made progress, but we're a long way off some of the big teams."

That was the tone of it really, coaches being placed before us in an atmosphere that didn't cry out so much for match assessments as alibis.

For Counihan, especially, the dialogue had to feel a little skewed. "There are 31 other counties out there and I'd say they wouldn't mind being called National League champions 2012," he protested gently.

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