Thursday 22 February 2018

All for one, one for all

Subtle changes in preparation paved the way for Cork's All-Ireland triumph, writes John O'Brien

I T was Saturday night when they finally took note. Daniel Goulding sat in his room in the Killiney Castle Hotel and chatted to Ray Carey.

They spoke about the journey to Dublin, the banter that had shortened the road. Noel O'Leary singing the team anthem, the entire bus joining in for the chorus. They laughed at the sheer effrontery of it. A team enjoying an old-fashioned sing-song on the way to a game. Were they really in an All-Ireland final at all?

None of it felt strange or ill-fitting. "I don't really know why but we didn't feel any pressure," says Goulding. "The atmosphere around the camp was brilliant. I couldn't believe how relaxed it was. I remember saying to Ray it didn't feel like we were preparing for an All-Ireland. It was like it was just another game. It sounds funny but that's how it felt."

For the players, Killiney was the perfect base: close enough to the city to be practical, far enough away to be liberated from the hype of the capital on All-Ireland weekend. A year earlier they'd stayed in Enfield but it had felt too remote and isolated. In Killiney, they found a blessed medium. "The hotel was full but it was mostly Yanks," says Cork masseur Frank Cogan. "Nobody bothered them. They didn't know who they were."

When they'd stayed there first before the league final in April, Derek Kavanagh had gone roaming, like a lion stalking a new prairie. He wandered through Dalkey and came upon the splendour of the Forty Foot. Perfect, he thought. A swim in the cool sea water to freshen the mind and ease the pain in his aching hip. Others joined him and the Saturday evening excursions to Sandycove became an established ritual.

Such subtle changes became a defining part of their year. A new base in Dublin. Taking the bus instead of the train. Small details but they all added up. All year Conor Counihan had been determined that they would learn from past mistakes and worked hard to maintain a sense of freshness and innovation. So eight days before last week's final he hit upon the notion of bringing in a friend, Philip Egan, to address the squad after training.

Egan wouldn't have been a recognisable figure to the players. He was a dab hand at oratory, though, and Counihan sensed he would lighten the mood and offer the players the novelty of a different voice. He spoke about togetherness and the one-for-all spirit they would need to carry them through. Then he introduced the words of an unfamiliar song and what had seemed a harmless diversion took an unexpectedly solemn turn.

It's in our island, the land of our fathers

No matter where we go, it's in our souls

We'll fight for glory and tell the story

How we won freedom for our native land

For the players the words struck an instant chord. Their own situation wasn't life or death, of course, but it reminded them of the hard road they'd travelled and the sniping they'd had to endure along the way. They adopted it as their anthem and sung it at every fitting moment: on the bus to Dublin, in the dressing-room after the game, at the Burlington later that evening, on Patrick Street in Cork the following night.

And now, as the light faded over Killiney, a blessed serenity enveloped them. At 10, one player went back to his room to find Ciarán Sheehan already fast asleep. "Ah, the fearlessness of youth," he laughed. Paddy O'Shea, the sub 'keeper, was gone by 11.30. Most of them were. Their dreams were untroubled by the fierce criticisms that had rained down upon them all year. They slept the sleep of champions-in-waiting.

An hour before the bus left for Croke Park the following day, Ger Lane, Cork's PRO, ran through a few items with Michael Shields. Because Graham Canty was being held in reserve, the responsibility would fall to the young full-back to lead the team out. Shields was unruffled by the burden. "He was so relaxed it was unbelievable," says Lane.

It was their default mode. "I always believed we would win," says Nicholas Murphy. "I felt the same before all our games this year. Even against Dublin I never believed we would lose for some strange reason. Just had that belief we'd pull through. It wasn't arrogance. Don't know what you'd call it. Just a panel of players pulling each other through to the end."

* * * * *

THE Burlington Hotel, September 21, 2009. They drag themselves from the lobby and troop disconsolately for the bus to Heuston. A day has passed since the worst day of their football lives. Five points ahead of Kerry they had let their early dominance slip and another All-Ireland had passed them by. Murphy and Anthony Lynch had lost their third final. Others had lost their second. How, Counihan wondered, did he pick up the pieces from there?

He saw the dejected faces and the dispirited body language and sensed he had to act. He called them back, found a spare room and sifted through the wreckage. As much to test his own resolve as theirs. He told them they faced two choices. They could lay down and die right there or put it behind them and move on. The question was whether they had the stomach for the brutal road that lay ahead.

The response was exactly what he wanted. They gathered again towards the end of October and, to a man, they had come back for more. "You could see the mood had changed," says Lynch. "Fellas knew they had underperformed on the day. It was like, right, whatever it takes to get back. We'd taken a lot of knocks but we knew we were close. You just hope it makes you stronger. Like that line from The Shawshank Redemption: get busy living or get busy dying."

The infusion of youth was crucial. Counihan's faith in Sheehan and Aidan Walsh was unshakeable. When Sheehan fluffed a couple of early chances against Down, Counihan remained implacable. A lesser guy might have wilted. But Sheehan wasn't a lesser guy. He'd seen Walsh ship heavy criticism during the year and resisted the temptation to intervene, trusting the 20-year-old had the nerve and talent to rise above it.

All year they watched as Walsh and Murphy squared up to each other in training games, no quarter asked or given. It set the template for the squad as a whole. When the team travelled they roomed together and an unlikely friendship blossomed. Murphy hated being left out of the starting 15 but the younger man's verve and his total lack of inhibition startled him. You couldn't have too many complaints.

"That was a huge thing," says Lane. "It's a big panel but there's nobody who doesn't get on with anybody else. You'd see rumours in some of the papers during the year that there was dissension in the camp. That certain players weren't getting on or there were problems with selectors. That never surfaced. There were never any problems."

They think back and see two critical developments. In January, they'd gone to Thailand for their team holiday and the trip had bonded them tighter as a unit. But that was nothing compared to the Easter weekend in April when Counihan had subjected them to a hellishly gruelling boot camp on Bere Island and pushed them to the outer limits of their physical endurance.

He started it with a little trick, telling them to present themselves at Cork Airport on Good Friday and to be sure not to forget their passports. That surely meant only one thing. They'd been abroad to training camps before. Training camps meant hard work, of course, but sun and sandy beaches too. "A million different things ran through our heads," says Paddy O'Shea.

But nothing like what finally transpired. Instead of being handed airline tickets and ushered towards check-in, they boarded a bus and headed for west Cork. They reached Castletownbere and boarded a ferry for the military camp on the island. Counihan handed them over to Niall Twomey, an army man from Bantry, and four other military officers. A weekend of unrelenting torture awaited them.

Counihan knew the risks attached to such a venture. "People thought we were stone mad to be going out to this island," he laughs. Even those close to him winced at the brutality of it. "I tell you now when we came back out of it a lot of fellas were carrying injuries," says Frank Cogan. "Twisted ankles, calf strains, that kind of thing. I remember thinking, 'Jesus Conor, I hope you know what you're doing'."

"Between league games and club commitments it was the only opportunity we had," says Counihan. "And I felt the championship was far enough away at that stage. We'd been to Portugal and La Manga, very well laid out, professional places. This was raw, more basic. It was down and dirty. I thought it would be good for them to get used to not having things put in your lap. Not having a five-star hotel to come back to. Push lads to the limit."

And amidst the savage toil of arduous cross-country hikes and lung-bursting swims in the icy Atlantic water, the purpose of the exercise slowly revealed itself. "There's 200 people living on the island," says Alan Quirke. "And when we got there they'd Cork flags left out for us. We did a 20km run one of the days and on our way back through the village they came out and clapped us. Small things like that. Dr Con's father (Weesh Murphy) was from Bere Island. When he won the All-Ireland in 1945, he would've rowed back to the island the following day. Those kind of things would stay with you."

In time the island would come to represent everything they felt was noble and good about themselves. Jim Nolan, one of Counihan's selectors, had assembled video footage of the camp and, time and again, they would replay it on their way to games. Some players had it downloaded onto their iPods. The picture of the squad being presented with a jersey on the summit of Knockanallig became a cherished image.

The memories stayed with them all summer. Reassuring and empowering. They weren't playing great football and were receiving heavy criticism for it, but they could live with that. In 2009, they'd played champagne football against Tyrone but Kerry had still rolled them over in the final. They were a steelier bunch now. When Wexford and Limerick put it up to them in the qualifiers, they had the composure to pull through. When they stared over the precipice against Dublin, they had the courage to haul themselves clear.

They always sensed the spirit of Bere Island would guide them home. "With about 10 minutes to go in the final I heard the boss shouting 'Bere Island, Bere Island'," says Aidan Walsh. "He always said what you went through there you'd never go through again. We all got through that together. We knew that whatever would come at us it wouldn't be tougher than that."

* * * * *

NO panic. That was their mantra. Not when they had ceded the early initiative and Down had eased five points clear. Certainly not when they reached half-time only trailing by three. "I was thinking that against Kerry and Kildare, Down had been up six or seven points at half-time," says Quirke. "That's a serious lead. Three points was manageable if we stepped it up."

They had a ritual at half-time. While Counihan engaged with his stats men outside, the players talked amongst themselves. Cogan would listen from the corner of the dressing room before intervening. He had been team masseur, on and off, since 1989 but he was more than that too. He had been man of the match in the 1973 All-Ireland final, a young man dreaming of more great days in Croke Park that would never come. He knew the glory of winning and something too of the pain of constant heartbreak.

So he waited a few minutes and then sensed the time was right to take control. "I felt there were too many fellas talking," he says. "Too many opinions being horsed around. We must do this or we must do that. They only needed to do one thing: settle down and play football. They were holding onto the ball too long. Down were turning over possession because of the intensity they were playing with. We needed to move the ball on quicker because the three inside fellas were on their game."

No panic, though. They knew they still had the aces in their pack to play. Murphy was brought on for the start of the second half and Walsh felt himself grow in stature. Six minutes later, Canty charged onto the pitch and the ground erupted. Kavanagh came on with five minutes left, shipped a broken nose and two black eyes for his troubles and lasted three minutes. "The best three minutes of my life," he says.

And victory, when it came, unleashed a torrent of emotions. Walsh thought of his 80-year-old grandmother sitting in the stands and of the old woman from West Cork whose name he couldn't remember but he had seen at most of the games. Quirke thought of all those he knew who had come from Boston, Chicago and other far-flung places and who, finally, could savour the experience of the long journey home with a winning feeling.

Two days later, as the Cup left Cork and headed west, they stopped in Innishannon, Quirke's native village, and he had a picture taken with his grandmother who had turned 100 in May. Down the road in Dunmanway, they gathered at the statue of Sam Maguire and tipped their cap to history. In Bantry, they watched spellbound as Canty brought the trophy home and was hailed by his adoring public.

"You see Canty and the regard people have for him," says Kavanagh. "Fellas like that driving up to Cork two or three times a week for training. Like, Alan O'Connor would be a few miles on again and you'd never once hear him complaining. He told me once that on the way to Dublin he was half-way when he reached Mitchelstown. Jesus, lads like that would keep you humble."

They thought too of Counihan, whose brother, Michael, had passed away two weeks before the final. "He never brought it with him," says Cogan. "The day he buried Michael we'd training. He arrived straight from the funeral. The players had a candle lighting in the dressing room. They said a prayer and then they moved on. A lot of them wouldn't even have known Michael was sick. That's a measure of the man."

To a team that had experienced tough times, Counihan brought perspective. As hard as the game could be, he'd remind them, they all had jobs and good lives. What did they really know about pressure? Whatever was thrown at them, he knew they would be able to cope. Finally, and gloriously, they sensed it would be their time.

Sunday Independent

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