A FEW WEEKS ago we wrote here that Jack O’Connor’s last three years as Kerry manager were tainted by missed opportunities that amounted to underachievement. What on earth, then, are we to say of Conor Counihan’s time in charge of the Cork footballers, assuming that it is over?
He has the pick of players that have won seven of the past nine Munster U21 championships; their hat-trick of National League Division One titles suggests that there is not a more talented squad in Ireland. To take one senior All-Ireland in five years amounts to what the success rate of 20 per cent suggests: a failure.
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We might have been underwhelmed by O’Connor’s latter years, but if the Dromid man had been born east of the border he would surely have fancied his chances of guiding such a panel to at least two Sam Maguires.
Yet it is still difficult to know exactly what proportion of the blame for the Donegal defeat to lay on Counihan’s porch.
Faced with a game-in-the-balance-opposition-in-their-faces-crowd-going-wild Croke Park maelstrom, a raft of Cork players did what they have almost always done is such scenarios: they panicked.
It does not make one feel comfortable to criticise players such as Michael Shields, Aidan Walsh, Alan O’Connor or the entire Cork half-back line; they are warriors and have achieved more than this columnist, all of our readers (assuming none of you are double All-Ireland winners) and all of our neighbours and extended families put together.
But if we are looking for the reason all of the above still have just one Celtic cross, the fact that they are not comfortable on the ball under extreme pressure must be top of the list.
It used to be fashionable to suggest between the lines, particularly when discussing their failures against Kerry, that these players were somehow lacking in character. My friends, one thing the likes of Noel O’Leary and Graham Canty do not lack is a strong pulse.
And yet here was O’Leary last Sunday hurriedly bashing a handpass straight to not one but two Donegal players; there was Canty skying kicks high and wild off his left boot; before them came Walsh, taking a ridiculously low-percentage shot from 60 metres at the end of the first half.
Later we saw Shields come out to a loose ball and boot it away as wildly as if it was primed to explode two second later, when he had the time and space to collect it and lay it off, as he surely would have against Clare or Kildare or even in the first half against Donegal.
It was a case of a collective failure of technique under pressure; a breakdown not of desire or heart but of calm and nous.
Those examples are in stark contrast to the behaviour of, say, Paddy Kelly, who, even when his manager had his head in his hands and his teammates had abandoned reason, was still serenely picking out passes.
Kelly, Paul Kerrigan and Colm O’Neill were the exceptions, however.
By and large, Cork were reduced to shooting wildly from distance or launching high balls. You can deduce that these last two are the wrong things to do simply because you would never, ever see Donegal do them.
What is most impressive about the way the men from the hills are playing is not the stunning passion and athleticism they exhibit, but that they hardly ever give the ball away cheaply, commit rash fouls, or rain high balls from the Dublin sky to hopelessly outnumbered forwards. In other words, the complete opposite to the Cork half-back line.
Pat Gilroy’s Dublin, meanwhile, are now faced with two stern tests of how their crisp and clean football stands up to such pressure if they want Sam to extend his stay in the capital.
In assessing whether Dublin can keep their heads in such scenarios, you could take either side of the argument. It is forgotten that prior to Kevin McManamon’s intervention last September, Dublin were exhibiting signs of panic as Kerry amassed that five-point lead; and yet they were level-headed under duress when it counted against both the Kingdom and Donegal.
They face a severe test against a Mayo side that will be as safety-first as Donegal were at this stage last year.
Indeed, the unconvincing nature of Dublin’s displays against Wexford and Meath and Laois would almost tempt you to back Mayo; James Horan’s side might also be largely untested this year, and might be clear underdogs, but was that not the case before their quarter-final with Cork in 2011?
There is one key difference, however: the absence of Andy Moran means that while Mayo are unlikely to concede much, they also seem unlikely to score enough. Dublin to prevail then; a win by a point would suit Gilroy just fine, to leave Dublin in the unusual position of approaching an All-Ireland final with the hype and focus on the opposition to the point that Dublin will be unfancied.
Yet, whether they face the green and red or the sky blue, Donegal will be backed by most for compelling reason, for it seems the old adage of favouritism weighing heavily on final newcomers could not apply to such a mentally strong outfit.
Jim McGuinness, working with no more talent than can be found in perhaps any of a dozen counties, has his players playing to the limits of their abilities; not a charge, sadly, that could ever be levelled at Cork.