Lack of Kerry baggage can see Cork home
I can scarcely remember an All-Ireland final for which there has been so little hype as tomorrow's Cork-Down showdown -- except, of course, in Down and Cork.
But then there is nothing very unusual about the senior game -- apart from the surprise arrival of Down at this stage after a gap of 16 years. Almost everybody expected Cork to be in the final this year and they have delivered -- so far.
This has been a very good year for Gaelic football, unusually in recent times, much better than the hurling championship. We have had many games of very good football -- like the two All-Ireland semi-finals -- and then we have also had many exciting and dramatic games.
On that basis we can be optimistic about tomorrow's game as we appear to have two exciting football teams, who base their game on the more traditional footballing aspects, but who, inevitably, add plenty of handpassing and a touch of the massed defences as well.
Cork probably have the best selection of 25 players in their history now and that is borne out by their third All-Ireland final appearance in four years.
But that very statistic is the greatest millstone around the necks of Conor Counihan and his players, because losing two finals in a short time can present serious psychological problems for the beaten players, which only a victory tomorrow can resolve.
But when we remember that it was Kerry who destroyed Cork on those two occasions, suddenly things appear in a different light. If any person told the Cork players last January that they would be playing in the All-Ireland final with Kerry and Tyrone not involved, then they would have been very happy bunnies indeed.
After all, those two won the last seven finals between them and for most of that period many GAA fans regarded Cork as the next best team in the country. Of course, the same used to be said during the glory days of Kerry from 1975 to 1986 -- when they collected Sam Maguire eight times --when it only rubbed salt in the Cork wounds every time Mick O'Dwyer, as was his wont, would say after yet another Kerry victory that Cork were the second best team in Ireland.
Down's recent history has been completely different as they have had a catastrophic period since their last two All-Irelands in 1991 and 1994. Lots of off-the-field bickering occurred and managerial decisions, or lack of them, often proved controversial. But Down have always had the capacity to come from nowhere to the top in a much shorter time than most other counties.
When one considers the torturous routes that teams like Dublin, Meath and Galway have had since their last All-Ireland wins, losing at the play-off stages year after year, the way Down swooped through the various rounds this year is astonishing.
Down have been one of the glamour teams in the GAA since they took Sam Maguire over the border in 1960 and that aura has never left them. People tend to gloss over Down's poorer performances more than they will forgive other teams.
For example, they were well beaten by Tyrone in Ulster this year, struggled to beat Longford and scraped home against the poorest Offaly team of modern times by only two points. And even though they have won five out of five All-Ireland finals, they have lost seven and drawn one of eight other semi-finals.
Of all the comparisons between Cork and Down, the most significant factor is undoubtedly the mental attitudes. Down, as always in a final, will be totally confident in their own ability to finish the job.
Indeed, I have even detected a hint of cockiness since their dramatic defeat of Kildare, but manager James McCartan and Paddy Tally will surely be able to prevent that potentially fatal error.
Cork on the other hand must be in a more brittle mental state as they look to another final. The stakes are very high for the Rebels -- if they win they could reasonably expect to quickly add another All-Ireland or two as Kerry seek to regroup, but if they lose, then the future looks bleak.
In 1968 Down came from nowhere, with a handful of players from their 1960 and '61 winners, but mainly with a bunch of young lads. However, that year they had also won a competitive national league.
Marty Clarke is the pivotal player now, but, brilliant as he is, he lacks All-Ireland experience and faces a stiff challenge tomorrow.
Cork have not been impressive, but with no Kerry baggage in this final -- they might just end their 20-year barren spell, provided they make more sensible use of their premium players than has been the case all season.