The names change, the debates live on

IT WAS county final weather in Pairc Ui Chaoimh yesterday, and county final conditions.

Patrons will be familiar with the constituent elements: two parts
October sunshine to one part yielding ground, with a breeze cutting down the Marina to spite the clear skies. The cocktail is familiar to anyone who ever attended the Little All-Ireland.

We have a reason for starting with the meteorology, not to mention the geology, one that doesn’t augur well for the entertainment value of the county final itself. Sarsfields and
Newtownshandrum headlined
yesterday and served up an even first half but the game began to die as a contest once Ben O’Connor flicked home his side’s opening goal.

When Newtown added goals from Jamie Coughlan and PJ Copse there were 15 points between the sides with a quarter of the game left. Sarsfields required snookers, if not actually
stuffing the pockets of the table with socks.

It was a surprising demolition given Sars were viewed as slight favourites, and did nothing for the spectators’
enjoyment of the closing stages.

During those final 15 minutes the tension was bearable, frankly.

Newtown won’t be bothered by the fact that the game wasn’t destined to be remembered as one of the great contests; for them it was one of the best displays. And one of the best
results, a historic trimming, 3-22 to 1-12.

History was a constant yesterday in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. After all, one of the men who helped to build the
reputation of the Cork county senior final as a perpetual highlight of the hurling calendar, Din Joe Buckley of Glen Rovers, died last week.

It was good that he was
remembered before the throw-in yesterday with a minute’s silence because he, his team-mates and their
opponents were the men who fought it out in the old Athletic Grounds for the county title and established the competition’s credibility.

Given yesterday’s drubbing it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always a case of diamond on diamond back then, even — Buckley picked up one of his county championship medals 71 years ago, and that game had echoes of yesterday’s. Back then the Glen were more promising start-up than the corporate superpower they became, much like Newtown; their opponents were Midleton, a traditional east Cork superpower, much like Sarsfields.

Even the scoreline that day has a familiar ring — 5-6 to 1-3, a point less than yesterday’s winning margin.

Other days which recalled the long shadows of autumn were remembered at half-time in the senior game, when the victorious senior captains of the last 25 years were introduced. As ever when you range across a random selection of men from quarter of a century of Irish life, there was a full spectrum of fashion sensibilities on offer — from distressed jeans among the recent winners to muted earth tones for the older men, aligned with classic conservative winter jackets.

They had something in common, though — a shining hour in the old stadium by the river and the memory of having to recall some primary school Irish before wiping their hands and receiving the Sean Óg Murphy Cup. The warmth of the applause was genuine, and if it was a little louder for Kevin Hennessy and Christy Coughlan junior, then that was understandable.

As for Cork observers in the market for optimism next year, they saw Ben O’Connor and his brother play as well as ever.

In terms of fresh blood for the red jersey, Michael Cussen showed neatness in possession and good accuracy for Sarsfields; in the first half he pulled down a couple of high deliveries but couldn’t work a goal opportunity, and as his team fell away he was starved of possession and forced to move outfield. By then Sars were taking water everywhere, however.

Early arrivals saw Eoin Cadogan cruise through the curtain-raiser, the Premier intermediate final between his Douglas side and Ballymartle. Cadogan’s long, smooth stride devoured the ground in Páirc Ui Chaoimh and showed why he’s wanted by Conor Counihan and Denis Walsh alike.

A little optimism for 2010, then, but in football or hurling? The county final has always been more than a game and a result; it’s always functioned as a thesis for debate. And there was plenty of that as the knots of people moved up the Monahan Road, drawing their coats around them as they strolled in the shadows beneath the trees.

The names may change, but those discussions never end.

YOU last saw him play
intercounty in Croke Park, back in September 1993. Derry were approaching their coronation as All-Ireland champions. Cork were throwing out every card they had.

“I came on for the last five minutes of the game at corner-forward,” says Conor Counihan, better known as a centre-back.

“Took a free on the 21 and just grazed the post.”

Which side of the post?

“Ah, I think we’ll leave it at that.”

LIGHT relief has been in short supply for the last three months in Cork GAA circles, a period which redefined the term winter of discontent. Given the lengthy strike which preceded his appointment, did Counihan pause before accepting the job of Cork football manager?

“It’s something you’d have to think about, but the strike wasn’t something I was involved in either way. You’d be thinking about it for all the people
involved, the fact that there was so much pain involved — for everyone — and I had sympathy for everyone involved.

“Certainly I’m glad it’s over, as I’m sure everyone is. Hopefully we can all move on.”

Even before the strike, the task was sizeable, given Cork’s demolition in last year’s All-Ireland final. The new manager has been through a similar process before, winning two
All-Ireland medals in 1989-90.

“I’ve been there. We went through it ourselves in the 80s, losing two All-Ireland finals, three if you want to count the 1988 replay.

“Those guys know they didn’t do themselves justice. That’s the good thing about sport, there’s always
another day, another chance to rectify that — and if you’re big enough and strong enough, you’ll find that within you.”

Counihan is upbeat for 2008. The way he explains it, there’s no
alternative.

“You have to be optimistic, there’s no point in getting involved otherwise.

“If you play football, you play to win and the lads did that quite
successfully last year. A lot of them have U21 All-Ireland medals already, so they know what it’s like to win. Why not turn it around now?

“The players have seen the hurt that losing brings, and that has to drive you on. If it doesn’t then you’ll find that out quickly. You’ll see the fellas who want to fight that, and the fellas who won’t.

“We can all make excuses for this and that, and there were certainly
disappointments on that particular
day, but now there are no excuses.
It’s back down to hard work and to
correcting the wrongs.”

He sees other bright omens in Nemo Rangers’ march to St Patrick’s Day: “It’s funny, you’d hear some
people saying the standard of club
senior football in Cork is low, yet we have one club an hour away from the All-Ireland club title. That must be a good sign.”

Optimism has its limits, however. Counihan accepts that a lack of
preparation may hamstring Cork,
particularly early on this season.

“The fact that everyone else is
doing it the opposite way suggests that we’ll maybe suffer some bit because
of it.

“But again, that’s something that’s here now and we have to deal with it. The players realise that that’s the
situation, and that might make them more determined. We have a bit of time to work on it, and they know there’s a push needed.

“The challenge is to get the whole 15 fully focused. Now you’re never going to get them all at the same level on the same day, but you have to try for that. It’s a
seven-day-a-week, 24-hour
commitment. Fellas have to realise that, and if they don’t realise that then they’ll be found out soon enough.

“We’re operating with the existing panel at present, but we’ll be looking at other players in different games over the next few weeks. We’ll review the panel then.”

Counihan is clear on the kind of players he wants, even if he’s less forthcoming on Cork’s tactical
approach.

“There’s no secret plan in the back pocket,” he says. “In terms of tactics we’re still very much feeling our way, and looking at the players we have available to us in terms of the system we try to play. Whatever system your team plays, though, you have to be adaptable, depending on the
opposition.

“You have to have a plan B. You have to be able to vary it as well.
Empowering players is critical — at the end of the day as a manager you’re there to facilitate the situation, and you have to try to get players to take responsibility from a very early stage in your dealings with them.

“Once they cross that white line — and we’ve all done it — they’re the ones making the
decisions. You can be on the sideline switching fellas here and there, but unless the player in the position is making the right decision, you might as well be at home.”

His on-field lieutenant will be Graham Canty, but the manager hopes he’ll have
plenty of support.

“I’ve no doubt that Graham will be excellent as captain, but I’d be looking for a lot more leadership across the board from the entire team. Graham can only do so much, and first and foremost he has his own job to do. Other guys need to dig in and give leadership, and in fairness, a lot of them are around a while and need to deliver.”

Cork have one traditional obstacle, of course. The team which dished
out last September’s beating are in
line for three in a row. Counihan
acknowledges their quality.

“Look at the bookies, the odds are well stacked in Kerry’s favour.

“They’re a very good team, there’s no doubt about that, and the team that beats them will probably win the All-Ireland — if a team beats them.

“What I notice generally, though, is the levelling-off, the fact that
everyone is on the same page,
particularly with preparation. You have a lot of counties operating from a very small base of players, maybe, but they’re getting great value out of those players.

“It just goes to show that if your preparations are good and you have 25 or 30 committed players, then you can get up there with the best of them.”

The early signs are bright, says Counihan. His first meeting with the players, at a training session in Páirc Ui Rinn, was “possibly more positive than it would have been normally”.

“You had a bunch of people who were going to be back doing what they love to do. In that sense it was extremely positive.”

So is the feedback. The men who soldiered with Counihan 20 years ago have been quick to offer their support.

“Most of the lads I played with have been on to say good luck, and that’s very encouraging.

“There are a lot of people out there who have a huge interest in Cork football, and so long as the county is successful, that’s the main thing.”

NFL: Roscommon v Cork, Kiltoom, 2.30pm tomorrow.