Monday 22 January 2018

For now, this is Dublin's world – the rest of us just live in it, stuck with a sense of helplessness

Mark Collins, Cork, in action against Nicky Devereux, Dublin
Mark Collins, Cork, in action against Nicky Devereux, Dublin
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Brian Cuthbert came to the spartan media auditorium like a man being initiated into some kind of witness protection programme.

Americans have a saying for what Dublin had just done to his team here. They call it putting a blister on the other guys' brain. For Cuthbert, Cork's impressive league campaign had just been taken away and placed in an air-tight jar. What had any of it signified?

Once Dublin took the air of this day into their lungs, Cork were pack-horses in a tunnel, the freight train coming.

Seventeen-point turnarounds shouldn't really happen at the business-end of the game, but there was an almost tidal dimension to how Dublin got to the league final. They trailed Cuthbert's young cubs for an hour, then dined on them with the relish of Anthony Hopkins spooning down fava beans.

One score caught Cork's helplessness in microcosm.

It came in the 59th minute, their noses still in front but the cold breath of worry now drawing goosebumps on the neck. Alan Brogan came torquing towards the Hill end with a support runner on either side. For sixty yards, Brogan ran. And gradually it began to dawn that the two men matching him stride for stride were Dublin's corner-backs, Jonny Cooper and Philip McMahon.

Eventually, Brogan gave the off-load to Cooper and the Hill duly exulted at his score.

It brought Dublin to within a point but, truth to tell, they were already admiring their fingernails. Over the closing half-hour, Cork would be outscored by 2-13 to 0-2. For Cuthbert, the sense of helplessness was palpable.

Could any other team have done that to them?

"I don't think there's any other team that has the experience that Dublin have there," he sighed afterwards with the refreshing candour that has become his hallmark.

"You could see when the game was in the melting pot, their class, experienced players stood up and were counted. At the same time, Dublin had the facility to bring on Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O'Gara.

"I don't think any of the teams we've played so far in the league, if we were up 10 points, that would have happened.

"The Dublin players, once the momentum got going, you could see them moving up the gear. They know this place like the back of their hand, they know games like the back of their hand. This team has been on the go for the last four or five years. They're in a very different place to us.

"But there's nothing lost today other than a bit of pride in the way we played in the second half. There must be a conviction with us that if we get to play Dublin again, we must meet this head on.

"We can't let what happened in the second half happen again."

The two groups are poles apart in even more ways than the one Cuthbert alluded to. One (Dublin) are endlessly chased by expectation, the other seems forever insulted by ambivalence.

Cork did not bring a conspicuous crowd to Croke Park yesterday, but then their footballers rarely do. Under Conor Counihan, they won three successive leagues without raising a discernible din. Cuthbert is building a new team now and, if the signs have been encouraging, yesterday – he knows – will have drawn familiar grumbles.

Yet, they were wonderful at times and, if Stephen Cluxton was culpable for their second goal, Colm O'Neill's thunderous finish for the first was a reminder of how special he can be when released from injury.

Brian Hurley too was validating all the compliments that fell his way in Tralee a week earlier and, with a 2-11 to 0-7 lead just one minute into the second period, the back page headlines were theirs.

Yet, as Cuthbert implied, Dublin's bench was packed with gelignite.

O'Gara, particularly, changed the rhythm of their play, offering a willing target for high-distance kicks as well as the quick hands to get quicker men inside. And in Bernard Brogan, they had the marquee man now hungry for involvement.

As the game turned, the terms of engagement shifted.

Michael Darragh Macauley's 40th-minute goal was, maybe, the score that set Cork unravelling at the seams. But the points then came in such a sudden waterfall, it was difficult to discern whether Cuthbert's men had died instantly or simply fallen into a compliant trance.

For Macauley, the whetstone for so much of what they do, the looming challenge of Derry was – it seemed – something to be savoured.

"It was a special second half, but there's not a chance that we'd win an All-Ireland playing like we did in the first half," he reflected. "So there's a lot of talking points that we can go back and work on. But look, we're going to take the positives out of it as well.

"Derry are playing super football this year. We're well aware of that. We went up to Derry and we found out all about it, so it's going to be a big game in two weeks."

Manager Jim Gavin lamented the inconsistencies that have compromised Dublin's spring but, if anything, he sounded like an oil baron fretting over bread prices.

When they needed to, Dublin hit such a nirvana of movement and authority here, you had to think they may be even stronger today than they were a year ago when stockpiling everything that counts in the game.

And Cork?

Cuthbert comes across as a savvy type who understands precisely where he needs to take this group to make thoughts of the Sam Maguire anything more than fanciful.

"It might be a setback in some people's eyes," he said, "but where I am looking at it from... this is a new group, a new team. The last time I met ye here, six or seven players had only played here once before and certainly today the over-riding emotion is absolute disappointment, we went from a position of complete control and handed momentum back to Dublin and fair play to them, they took it.

"We didn't react but, at the same time, if you looked at the league as a whole, I would be fairly happy with how we progressed. If we can play more like we did in the first half, learn the lesson of controlling games and not allowing the opportunity to teams chasing games, then it will be a lesson learned."

For now, it's Dublin's world . The rest of us just live in it.

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