One of the questions that’s been bugging me all throughout this memorable championship season has been the one about Conor Counihan. With all that talent at their disposal and their repeated inability to play to their potential, was it a case that the Cork bainisteoir simply couldn’t get the best from his players? And, if this was the case, would this failing mean yet another All-Ireland final letdown for the Rebels? Well, I got my answer today as, after an alarmingly flat opening 35 minutes from his side, Counihan shuffled his deck in the second half to decisive effect and it was these changes that ultimately propelled Cork to their seventh All-Ireland football title and their first, following four final defeats in four appearances, for twenty years.
Today’s 123rd football final won’t be recalled – unlike its hurling equivalent two weeks ago – as one of the better deciders in recent years but it sure was an absorbing contest and Down’s brave quest to maintain their amazing 100% strike rate in finals had much to do with this. History had been on their side when, with a fair degree of joyous abandon, they showed defending champions Kerry the door in the quarters, and for a fair while today it looked as if it would be again.
Although Cork were on top in terms of possession from the off, they failed to register this dominance on the scoreboard and soon enough they found themselves four points in arrears and in bother. Their use of possession was poor, their approach was flat and predictable and it was starting to look like their awful 2009 final performance all over again. Down, in contrast, were a revelation and their economy in front of the posts was impressive, with Paul McComiskey and Danny Hughes bagging particularly eye-catching scores.
Cork did, however, manage to get to the break only three points in arrears so they could console themselves with the notion that, although they had played the 35 minutes as if they’d all taken Xanax with their hot chocolate last night, they were still in the hunt. But they were also looking alarmingly like the Cork that had flopped so badly against Kerry in 2007 and again last year and it was obvious that a significant improvement would be required if they were to have any hope of escaping their own House of Pain.
And that’s where Counihan’s clever card-shuffling came in. First to go was Alan O’Connor, with Nicholas Murphy coming in to provide more direction in the middle but the real game-changing move came when captain Graham Canty – who’d failed to line out although he’d been named in the starting fifteen – came on for the strangely ineffective Paudie Kissane. The Clyda Rovers man has been one of Cork’s real star performers all year but while he never had the same impact today, it still seemed an enormous gamble to pitch a half-fit Canty into an All-Ireland final that was starting to come to the boil.
In the event, it turned out to be a masterstroke. Where before the Rebels had been ponderous, now they were incisive and with Donncha O’Connor and Daniel Goulding running the show in the forwards, what had been a three-point deficit turned into a lead of the same proportions. For a time, it seemed like the Rebels might canter to victory but, to their credit, the Mourne lads weren’t prepared to let their 100% final record go without a battle. Two late points from Coulter and Hughes meant that the first final draw in a decade was a strong possibility as the game went into stoppage time but Cork weren’t going to be denied now and they held out to claim the prize that’s been eluding them for so long.
I wouldn’t be Cork’s greatest fan or anything but I think their win today was a fitting enough outcome to what has been one of the best championships in a long while. You’d need to be fairly hard-hearted to say that long-serving warriors such as Nicholas Murphy, Derek Kavanagh or the talismanic Graham Canty don’t deserve All-Ireland medals and we of all people can appreciate seeing a county that has repeatedly failed to do the business on All-Ireland final day finally landing the big prize. And, as someone said to me last weekend, a win by Down would almost have been too easy, even in a season where the unexpected happened with quite thrilling regularity. Down are a talented side and I’d expect them to have other big days at Croker in the near future but today undoubtedly was Cork’s day and they have every right tonight to savour their hard-fought win. After all, if their past record is of any relevance, it could be a good while before they find themselves in this position again.