Joe Kernan: My advice to Down? Go out and enjoy it
Nothing succeeds like success. But don’t ask Cork about that.
They may be preparing to do battle in their third All Ireland final in four years on Sunday but Conor Counihan’s side will not only be playing for what is regarded as the most prestigious trophy in Irish sport — they will be playing for their very futures.
Been there, Dan it: Dan Gordon will bring vital experience to the Down team at Croke Park on Sunday
Defeat against Down will almost certainly see the break-up of this Cork side and could well mean that the county’s football stock will ship a hammer blow from which it will take some time to recover.
Contrast this to the backdrop against which Down are preparing for what would be a sixth All Ireland crown.
A matter of months ago — indeed up until a few weeks ago — James McCartan’s side were perceived by many to be merely making up the numbers in the race to ‘Sam’.
His amalgamation of experienced hands and more youthful combatants had been expected to provide a hint that they would be a force perhaps next year or the year after — but no more than that.
Yet here they are on the cusp of an unlikely triumph having already lent considerable substance to the theory that nothing beats a winning habit.
While Cork will enter Sunday’s showdown still bearing the heavy wounds sustained in those final defeats to Kerry in 2007 and last year, Down will bounce onto the immaculate Croke Park playing surface with everything to gain and nothing to lose.
They have exceeded all expectations to date, restored pride within a county that has played second fiddle in a provincial and All Ireland context for far too long and, perhaps more importantly, offered evidence that they could remain a potent force for some time to come.
Maybe players like Benny Coulter, Danny Hughes, Dan Gordon and Ronan Murtagh have been round the block a few times without anything decent to show for their efforts but it’s worth remembering that none of these players have yet touched the 30 mark in terms of birthdays.
And I would suggest that some of the best players in the country right now are among those who have already celebrated three decades on this planet which means that this Down quartet will still have much to contribute in future.
Down teams are renowned for rolling their sleeves up and applying themselves to the task particularly when the sun is glinting on the Sam Maguire Cup in the Hogan Stand.
They will not shirk this challenge, no more than Cork will be intimidated by their opponents’ surge from nowhere onto a national pedestal. After all, Cork are regarded as the most physically imposing side in the country and are fuelled with pace and industry if they perhaps are a little short on artistry and guile.
They may have played against teams like Kerry and Dublin in the Championship this year but they will not have encountered a side as well organised and with such rich resources on their bench as this Down unit.
Cork will bring considerable muscle to the table but James McCartan’s players are not without their own physical attributes. As I see it Down will require to fulfil three major functions if they are to win. It is essential that they take control of the middle third of the park and their endeavours in this respect will be helped if Cork repeat their by now familiar flaw of holding onto the ball for too long in this sector.
The Mournemen must also launch their counter-attacks quickly and effectively — Cork have shown that they can be vulnerable to sharp thrusts down the flanks and are prone to indiscipline on occasions.
And Down must maximise their scoring potential once again — when they beat Kildare at the semi-final stage nine players shared in their total of 1-16.
Any manager would be delighted to see a return like this, particularly in a high-pressure contest.
Down’s penchant for taking scores from all angles and distances saps the morale of their opponents.
Two decades have elapsed since Cork last won the Sam Maguire Cup and for a proud sporting county this is deemed to be a barren eternity.
While Down will be doing their utmost to extend the Leesiders’ famine, I have a haunch that it could take a replay to determine just who will ascend the football throne this year.