After the famine, I had been looking forward to the feast!
Cork versus Tyrone, the champions against the pretenders to their throne and a match that just about everyone was finding extremely difficult to call. How would the big, physical and athletic Cork side deal with the immense quality and experience of this Tyrone team that has seen and done it all?
For me, it was a question of which Cork team would turn up. Would it be the inept side that narrowly beat Limerick, the outfit that was hammered by Kerry in previous travels to Croker or would it be the team that humbled the Kingdom and Donegal already?
And these questions were balanced by others, too. Up until yesterday, Tyrone had only been impressive in spasms, seldom putting 70 minutes of conviction together and rarely having 15 men playing well at the same time. Would Tyrone recapture last year’s convincing form against a team against which we all felt this would be an absolute pre-requisite for success?
With just 10 minutes gone all questions had been effectively answered — and how!
The powerhouse Cork not only turned up but turned up in style, their iconic players Graham Canty, Pearse O’Neill and Nicholas Murphy dominant in the middle third, their impressive forward line revealing fluent movement and accuracy in assembling a substantial lead and a supremely well-organised defence yielding little from play.
Given their early demeanour and the Tyrone-like intensity they brought to the table on this occasion, it was no great surprise when the Leesiders shrugged off the harsh loss of midfielder Alan O’Connor shortly before half-time to become an even more vibrant and forceful unit after the break.
Indeed, had it not been for the uncharacteristically poor free-taking of the normally accurate Donncha O’Connor Cork would undoubtedly have been well out of sight at half time.
Tyrone, for their part, never gave up at any stage but the absence of the usually influential Sean Cavanagh for the first two-thirds of the contest really had an immense affect as they missed his strong penetrating runs as well as the very real threat of goals that he offers.
They just did not carve out enough possession in key areas of the park. If Stephen O’Neill in particular had enjoyed a better service he would surely have inflicted damage on Cork’s morale. But the Tyrone half-back line of Davy Harte, Justin McMahon and Philip Jordan, normally so adventurous, was rarely seen as an attacking force and their entire half-forward line was substituted — enough said!
Cork’s hunger and unity of purpose were as obvious as Tyrone’s discomfort and disarray. The Munster champions revealed a work rate that surpassed that of their opponents by some distance — no mean achievement — and their tackling, particularly when down to 14 men, was nothing short of sublime.
They worked intelligently in packs, too, chasing everything and all the while revealing great discipline when putting the ball-carrier under pressure, rarely conceding close-in frees that could have been dangerous.
Cork’s sheer pace, athleticism and power, married to a game plan that embraced a varied approach — long and short kick-outs, patient approach play, unrelenting support and no shortage of finesse — meant that Tyrone could never get a foothold in the game after making such a poor start.
Mickey Harte’s side may have overcome a similar tepid start against Kildare but Cork proved an altogether different animal with experienced players who now believe it is their time to plant their flag on the All-Ireland summit.
And while Cork will now seek to further embellish their skills and their fitness in advance of the All-Ireland final, Tyrone will go back to the drawing board, a chastened side served with another forcible reminder that good teams win All-Ireland titles — but only great sides retain ‘Sam’.