And so, the inter-county GAA season comes to its conclusion on Sunday with the final of the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship clash between Cork and Down at Croke Park.
Famously, the Mourne men have never lost an All-Ireland decider and they take that record into battle against a Cork side that has lost their last four, including two in the last three years.
Down, under James McCartan, are seeking to bring ‘Sam’ home to the Mourne County for the first time since 1994, while it has been 20 years since the famous cup rested on Leeside.
GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final 2010
Croke Park: Cork v Down, 3.30pm
Before the crystal ball gazing begins, it might be appropriate to have a look at the facts that have been doing the rounds in the build-up to Sunday’s GAA Football All-Ireland final.
Firstly, a new name will be inscribed on Sam Maguire on Sunday for the first time since 2002, with Tyrone and Kerry’s involvement in this year’s competition retired to faded memory after shock quarter-final defeats. It would be premature to say that the football landscape has completely changed, but the interior decor has certainly been updated this year.
Cork have hardly emerged from the wilderness, but Down’s renaissance has been a massive boon to the game after 16 years dining away from the top table.
It has, after all, been 16 years since the Mourne Men last brought ‘Sam’ home. Down are wont to performing guerilla raids on the All-Ireland Championship and then drifting into the background again as evidenced by their remarkable record in All-Ireland finals. Since their breakthrough year in 1960, they have contested five finals and won all five.
Contrast that record with Cork’s, which shows six wins from 22 finals contested. The Rebels have lost their last four, against Kerry in 2009 and ’07 and to Meath in 1999 and Derry in ‘93. Sam Maguire last paid a visit to Leeside in 1990.
For two high-profile counties, it is remarkable that they have met just the once in the Championship – back in 1994, when Down won a semi-final by five points before going on to win their last All-Ireland title.
Some Cork supporters may already have stopped reading such is the overbearing sense that history is weighing massively against them. Conor Counihan is not a man to blow his own trumpet, but he could easily produce one statistic to counter all of the above: Cork have not lost a single Championship game to a team other than Kerry since they were beaten by Fermanagh in 2004.
They’ve been to six consecutive semi-finals and statistically are the most consistent team over the last 10 years when you take Kerry and Tyrone out of the equation.
Cork may be consistent, but the evolving nature of the game has taught us that slow and steady does not win the Championship race any more. Kerry have proved that, and so did Tipperary in the All-Ireland hurling final two weeks ago. As Cork have painfully learned in recent years, brilliant performances in the early rounds count for nothing if you can’t produce the goods on the third Sunday in September.
So, has Counihan learned his lesson and fine tuned the Rebels to peak on Sunday? There is no doubt that Cork have struggled to reproduce the form they showed in dismantling Donegal (quarter-final) and Tyrone (semi-final) last year, but whether there has been a premeditated change in approach this year is open to debate. Cork have done just about enough to make the final, stumbling towards the line with scruffy wins over Roscommon and Dublin in the knock-out stages having needed extra-time to beat Limerick in Round 4 of the GAA Football All-Ireland Qualifiers. The hope on Leeside is that they will find top gear on Sunday and empty themselves completely for the first time this year.
The counter argument is that teams have simply learned how to play against Cork having watched them at this stage for he last three years. The swashbuckling attacking football and brilliant running lines have gone, replaced by a more doughty, pragmatic approach. The lustre appears to have gone, but there is evidence of a greater resolve and even a strength of character that may have been lacking in the recent past. We saw it for the first time in the final 16 minutes against Dublin.
Counihan has changed his team this year, but a core of 11 players have been a constant presence. It has been said that he does not know his best team -Eoin Cadogan, for example, makes his first start in a Championship match on Sunday – but he certainly now feels that he has a group of more than 20 players that he can rely on to perform at this level. James McCartan, the Down boss, may not have the same luxury.
If Cork have reverted to the power of the collective this year, Down’s renaissance has often been attributed to one man – playmaker Martin Clarke. Clarke is probably the kind of player Cork are lacking and he has the ability to do immense damage on a field the size of Croke Park. It will be interesting to see how Cork decide to tackle him, with Graham Canty unlikely to be given a man-marking job given the hamstring problems he has been tormented by this year.
Clarke’s return from the AFL at the end of the year and the appointment of James McCartan – whose name is synonymous with all of Down’s All-Ireland successes – has been painted as the serendipitous spark that has reignited Down football this year. McCartan has gotten the most out of his star man, but he has also addressed many of the problems that have bedeviled the Mourne men in the past. Sure, Down play attractive football, with Clarke and Benny Coulter pulling the strings in attack, but he has also completely overhauled their defence, including the adroit placing of Dan Gordon at full-back.
Clarke and Coulter, almost inevitably, get the glory, but McCartan will view the likes of Danny Hughes and Kalum King – “Mr Ronseal”, as his team-mates call him – as his true heroes in the front line of battle.
Down will be bristling with confidence after beating Kerry and Kildare to get to Croke Park, where Mourne County folk will have you believe is their home from home. This Down team won’t want to be remebered as the one that failed to continue their remarkable record in All-Ireland finals. They have an entire county behind them as Down has been gripped by All-Ireland fever for the last few weeks.
Things are a little more sedate on Leeside. Cork have been here before and have been hurt too often before to build their hopes up too high. With Kerry out of the picture, however, that hurt could be just the thing they need to take them to the Promised Land on Sunday.
One man they will need to do just that is Graham Canty. The Rebels’ captain will face a late fitness test on Sunday morning, with doubts persisting over his participation due to the hamstring injury he suffered against Roscommon. Elsewhere, Cadogan comes in for John Miskella in the only change from the Dublin game. Ciarán Sheehan wins the race with Colm O’Neill for the only attacking spot up for decision.
Down, meanwhile, will name their team on Friday night, with Peter Fitzpatrick once again expected to deputise for injured skipper Ambrose Rogers.