Oisin McConville: Down and Cork managers must roll dice in Croke Park final
He who dares, wins. But is that always the case? Not in an All Ireland Championship context it isn’t.
And that’s why Down manager James McCartan and his Cork counterpart Conor Counihan have now been provided with extra food for thought as they contemplate their starting line-ups for next Sunday’s Croke Park showdown.
Championship football is invariably about taking risks — near-the-knuckle tackling, ambitious shooting options, expansive attacking strategies and deployment of substitutes are just some of the areas in which players and managers are obliged to make big calls, often in pressurised situations.
But when the wrong option is taken, whether in the selection of personnel or the application of tactics, then the consequences can be disastrous.
And within the past month the risk factor has been further highlighted on the biggest stage of all.
When Cork overcame Dublin in the All Ireland football semi-final last month, their skipper Graham Canty had been a doubt virtually up until the day of the game but in the event he lined out wearing the skipper’s armband as usual. However, the experienced defender did not last for the entire game and was substituted.
Then last Sunday Kilkenny’s famed scoring machine Henry Shefflin started in the All Ireland hurling final against Tipperary but with less than a quarter of an hour gone — and after a couple of uncharacteristic missed frees — one of the greatest players of all time found himself hobbling out of the action with a ligament problem.
Shefflin’s loss was not one of the chief reasons why Kilkenny lost the game but the absence of his imposing presence from the field of play nonetheless dealt a psychological blow to his team’s chances of success.
Today, James McCartan and Conor Counihan will oversee squad training sessions as they face into a hugely demanding week acutely conscious that they cannot afford the slightest margin of error in neither their selection process nor tactical blueprints.
And this means that McCartan must weigh up the benefits of opting for Ambrose Rogers in his midfield while Counihan will need to reflect carefully on the merits of choosing Canty and perhaps long-serving Anthony Lynch knowing that they could possibly be at less than full throttle.
Just as the importance of Shefflin to Kilkenny cannot be over-emphasised so must the value of a fully-fit Canty and a revitalised Lynch to Cork be strongly underlined.
Yet while all fans will assuredly wish to see Rogers, Canty and Lynch in action, it is the respective managers who will carry the can if their team selection is viewed to be wrong or they delay in making what are considered to be appropriate substitutions.
Championship history is littered with instances of players who have been risked at a cost to their team just as it is sprinkled with occasions on which marquee performers were not risked by managers who adopted
caution as their watchword. A few years ago Derry’s Paddy Bradley turned out against Westmeath at Croke Park following a painkilling injection for an ankle problem but last year Sean Cavanagh was surprisingly withheld from starting for Tyrone against Cork in the All Ireland semi-final by his manager Mickey Harte. But such are the levels of intensity, passion and workrate demanded of players in the modern game — and particularly in an All Ireland final — that managers simply cannot afford to take chances.
I admired Kilkenny boss Brian Cody for standing by Henry Shefflin last week — he showed loyalty and perhaps a touch of sentiment in selecting him. Maybe the decision backfired but I believe that Cody was convinced that Shefflin could make a telling contribution.
Now the spotlight will fall on McCartan and Counihan as they prepare to unveil their sides for a match that is liberally garnished with intrigue. Since February this year Cork appear to have been the popular choice to land the All Ireland title — but now that the finishing line is in sight in what has been a roller-coaster Championship ride to date, the destination of the most famous trophy in Irish sport could well hinge on one call.