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Coming of age

IT'S a pre-season tournament game between two understrength squads, but there's still considerable interest in tonight's Kerry-Cork McGrath Cup tie in Tralee for one very good reason.

When it comes to this particular rivalry, it's never too early in the year and never too obscure a competition for either side to dismiss it as irrelevant. A McGrath Cup result in deepest January won't have any impact on the early-season share price of either county, but there's no knowing what little clue Conor Counihan or Jack O'Connor might spot which could be of use later on.

It's the first time since 1990 that Cork head into a new season as All-Ireland champions, a status which, back then, helped to hoist them even higher as they retained the title.

Not only that, but their advance to the final included a 15-point win over Kerry in the Munster final. Those were pre All-Ireland qualifier days, so Kerry's season ended on a dismal low, while Cork powered on to the All-Ireland double, beating their great nemesis, Meath, in the final.

Counihan was a central figure in that glorious Cork era and is now back centre stage in their bid to revisit peaks never reached by the county's footballers until 1990. His role will be pivotal in how Cork approach and conduct themselves, but he will be looking to players, some of whom have no memory of 1990, to lead what should be an intriguing campaign.

Among them is Aidan Walsh, who was just eight months old when Cork won the All-Ireland double in September 1990. The CIT student won't be involved with an experimental Cork side tonight, but as he celebrates his 21st birthday tomorrow, he can reflect on a career which has already brought him to a remarkable high and which promises a whole lot more over the next decade and indeed beyond.

A youngster like Walsh would be forgiven for thinking that the soul searching about why Cork were the nearly-men for so much of the last decade was all quite irrelevant. After all, he knew nothing of the bad days. He took his 6' 3" bundle of athleticism into the team last year, won National League and All-Ireland medals, turning in man-of-the match performances in both finals.

Granted, not all media outlets afforded him the honour in the All-Ireland final, but the Irish Independent team who were covering the game had no doubt that his contribution merited the main individual accolade. We did so with the following citation: "A colossal presence at midfield from pillar to post, his fielding was majestic, his running destructive and his presence typified by a wonderful late block on Peter Fitzpatrick."

Walsh was later chosen on the All Star team and won the Young Footballer of the Year award, climaxing a wonderful debut season for the Kanturk man.

Now, as Cork seek to build on last year's success, they will be looking to Walsh and the other younger elements to solidify a power base which has been put down in recent years. There's a widely held belief that Cork could remain the dominant force over the next few years, based on the make-up of their squad which seems to extend indefinitely down Quality Street.

However, there's a counter view which claims that Cork won a sub-standard championship last year and, even then, were fortunate to do so. As for a prediction of national domination for a few years, sceptics point to the 1973 Cork squad, which looked so good when winning the All-Ireland title.

They were tipped for continued supremacy, but were quickly overtaken by Dublin and Kerry and it would be 16 years later before Sam Maguire next wintered by the Lee.

The lessons of history can never be ignored, although it must be pointed out that there was no second chance back in the 1970s, which greatly impacted on Cork, once the great Kerry team of the Mick O'Dwyer era asserted itself. A pattern emerged whereby Kerry won several successive Munster finals and Cork responded by making sweeping changes every year, only to lose and begin the churning process all over again.

The 'back door' has changed the entire championship dynamic and, as Cork know only too well, beating Kerry in Munster is no guarantee that they have seen them off for the season. Last year, if was, of course, Cork's turn to relaunch their summer, via the All-Ireland qualifiers, a test they eventually passed, but only after fluffing some of their lines.

"We'd feel that we didn't play to our full potential in any game really. Maybe now that the monkey is off our back and we've won an All-Ireland, we can express ourselves a bit more. The big thing about last year was that even on days when we didn't play all that well, we were always strong at the finish. That's where the experience of the older lads shone through.

"We had to dig in real deep against Dublin which, I suppose, was our toughest game. They were all over us for a long time, but we hung on in there. We began to feel that if we were close enough with 10 minutes left in any game, we'd get over the line which was what happened against Dublin," said Walsh.

It left Cork as clear favourites to win the All-Ireland which may have accounted for their edginess for a long time against a Down team that led by five points at one stage in the first half.

"To be honest it was a must-win game for Cork. If we lost, some of the older lads might have slipped away which would have been a great shame. As it is, most of them are mad keen to have another go this year," he said.

Walsh was only nine years old when Nicholas Murphy played for Cork in the 1999 All-Ireland final against Meath which they lost by three points, yet 11 years on, the pair combined superbly as they controlled midfield in the second half of last year's final. Murphy (32) came on at half-time and Walsh recalls one very special moment before play re-started.

"He had a little word with me before Down came back out which I will always remember. Here I was alongside one of the really great Cork players who had been around for so long. He had to go so long without winning an All-Ireland medal, but lads like him never give up. I remembered watching Nicholas in the 1999 All-Ireland final and now I was playing with him in a final. It was a great feeling."

As Cork ease themselves back into the new season after a hectic few months on the celebration trail, there's a feeling in the camp that they can press on and develop as a squad.

Walsh said: "A strong bench made all the difference last year. There wasn't a day when the subs who came on didn't bring something extra, but then the Cork panel is a very competitive place to be. There's huge intensity in the games we have among ourselves and that stands to everybody when we go out in a match situation."

Walsh's progress throughout last season was a major plus point for Cork and there's a whole lot more to come from a youngster whose fielding prowess is heartening for those who believe it to be a dying art.

His aim this season will be to improve his shooting when scoring opportunities present themselves. He got himself into lots of excellent positions last year, but his scoring rate wasn't as high as he would have liked.

"I'll be working on that. Chances are hard enough to come by without wasting them," he said.

Tonight's Cork-Kerry clash will be a gentle return for both squads to a rivalry that has been the busiest in the game since the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2001. The action will be more serious when they meet again in the first round of the National League tomorrow fortnight and it's possible that they could clash again in the Division 1 final, the Munster final and All-Ireland final.

At the very least, they are likely to meet once in the summer in what would be their 22nd championship meeting since 2000. Kerry are always unhappy when they don't start the year as All-Ireland champions, but the disappointment is even more acute when that honour rests with their neighbours.

Kerry are one of many lining up to ambush Cork, but it's a challenge for which the All-Ireland champions are diligently preparing.

"We're really looking forward to this season. The celebrations were nice, but it's all about playing football. We know that we're facing a new scene as All-Ireland champions. We're there to be shot at now, but it's where we want to be," said Walsh.

Tonight's game won't prove who will train the biggest guns on Cork, but it's safe to assume that as the season progresses, few will fire more regularly or accurately than Kerry when confronted by the red jersey. It's a question of DNA, you see, and nothing brings it back to basics in Kerry more than playing Cork. All the more so when Cork are All-Ireland champions.

Irish Independent