Joe Kernan: Cork showing class to keep grip on Sam
If learning how to lose is a pre-requisite for eventually slipping into a winning groove then don’t bet against Cork landing back-to-back All-Ireland titles to complement their National Football League double coup.
Conor Counihan’s team may have become better acquainted with success over the course of the past year but they do not see themselves as enjoying a magic carpet ride.
Instead, the Leesiders have their feet firmly planted on the ground. They are all too conscious that coping with the heartbreak of failure formed part of what is euphemistically termed as a ‘learning process’ that spanned the three years leading up to 2010.
Make no mistake about it, no team suffered more agony at both provincial and All-Ireland levels than Cork. Yet they shipped the psychological blows, rolled up their sleeves again and continued to embroil themselves in a quest for the Sam Maguire Cup that many believed was beyond their capabilities.
But last year everything came right for Counihan’s men, even if injury meant that skipper Graham Canty was a spectator for many of their games.
The National League title was collected last April and then the All-Ireland crown was captured in September after a 20-year famine.
Now, having retained their league prize, Cork are strongly focused on remaining the guardians of ‘Sam’ — and I for one believe that they have the capacity to achieve this.
In overturning an eight-point deficit to win last Sunday’s league final against Dublin, Cork summoned all the industry, passion and pride that proved such vital components of their make-up last year.
Yet nowhere is the desire to see Cork toppled greater than here in Ulster. Last year Cork squeezed past Down in the All-Ireland final (0-16 to 0-15) but that narrow victory obviously proved the catalyst for their march through the National League this year.
Down, though, can still pose a threat to Cork’s ambition to stay on the football throne.
So too can a full-strength Tyrone side and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Donegal.
Down manager James McCartan believes his side have unfinished business to get through this year and certainly his team’s form in the National League suggests that they will be a championship force.
Tyrone boss Mickey Harte is still awaiting confirmation that Philip Jordan will be part of his championship squad while the injuries sustained recently by Joe McMahon and Enda McGinley continue to be a source of concern to the triple All-Ireland winning boss. Justin McMahon is still an absentee and this all means that Harte can only play a waiting game in the build-up to the game against Monaghan.
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness will have gained significant personal confidence following his successful debut league campaign and the same can be said of his players with Colm McFadden, Michael Hegarty, Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher in particular having reinvented themselves under inspirational skipper Michael Murphy.
This being the case, Donegal will fear no one in the championship — and that includes Cork.
But Armagh, who showed tremendous spirit for 60 minutes before going under to Cork earlier this month in the league, are still some way off having a settled side. They have the players — problem is, what is their best formation?
With the clock ticking down to the confrontation with Down on May 28, Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke will find himself with some big decisions to make.
The loss of Paddy Bradley because of a cruciate ligament injury will not help Derry’s cause while Antrim have regressed and will do well to get past Donegal in the opening round of the Ulster Championship.
Monaghan were distinctly unfortunate to suffer relegation in the league during which they ran Cork close, but the anticipated loss of Tommy Freeman through emigration will be a big blow.
Both Cavan and Fermanagh do not appear to have any realistic chances of success although the arrival of the Breffni county’s Under-21 team in Sunday’s All-Ireland final, in which they will meet Galway, and the fact that the Ernesiders have been showing an appetite for battle under popular skipper Barry Owens could prove plus points.
Yet although different teams will boast diverse credentials, few if any sides can match Cork’s physical power, athleticism, marksmanship and sheer industry.