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Monday 20 August 2018

Direct precedent for Cork

Counihan counters 'indirect' criticism as the Rebels face up to final frontier yet again

IF DOWN win an All-Ireland on Sunday, expect a winter filled with talk about just how Down-like and, perhaps more pertinently, how typical of James McCartan it was for the Mourne men to come from a base so low as to be near invisible to win an All-Ireland.

Consider this, though. How Conor Counihan-like it would be if Cork were to finally get over the All-Ireland line on Sunday after a couple of seasons of agonising, gut-wrenching, tear-inducing near misses?

There's certainly precedent anyway.

As a player, he tucked into All-Ireland final defeat twice, sampling its bitter taste on successive Septembers in 1987 and '88 before finally clasping Sam Maguire in 1989 and then again in 1990.

The Cork team Counihan played on in that breakthrough season of '89, much like the one he manages today, were considered to be one ingredient away from the perfect stew but after Meath denied them in successive finals in '88, questions about their ability to make the final quest up the Hogan Stand grew louder and carried more substance.

"I have been through it myself as a player, having lost two and drawn one before I won one," he recently pointed out. "So you take nothing for granted in sport. We can talk about it tonight, tomorrow and next week -- it's what will happen on the pitch in the 70 minutes that will decide.

"I won't dwell on it too much but I would always emphasise that sport is sport, there is a time there, you get an opportunity, you take it, or else it's gone.

"I suppose there is a lesson there, and fellas have to take those lessons onboard. We have emphasised it to a certain extent but you are talking to a different era and a different group of players as well.

If Cork don't win on Sunday though, where Counihan could go next would be a serious talking point along the Lee. Would he have the appetite for another trudge through the unrewarding months of January to July before knuckling down to the mind-bendingly elusive job of engineering September success?

And anyway, would the power brokers and the clubs of Cork maintain enough faith after a summer of relinquishing their Munster crown, losing to Kerry and then stuttering and stumbling to a final only to be usurped by All-Ireland final novices and Nordy upstarts Down?

Already, there has been criticism from within this summer about Cork's use of possession. And it has grown to a clamour.

Traditionalists have collectively baulked at the number of hand-passes and the amount of straight-line running his players do whilst simultaneously possessing what, on paper anyway, looks a formidable inside forward-line bulked with ball-winning ability.

As an example of this, it has been noted that the odd time Cork did go long -- such as the frantic closing moments of their All-Ireland semi-final victory over Dublin -- they put the rookie Blue rearguard under more severe pressure and won the match-winning penalty and subsequent frees.

Previous to that, the big red machine had been hit, slowed, stopped and turned-over by a collective Dublin sting time and again. Cork had, apparently, been playing into Pat Gilroy's hands by not opting to launch quicker balls from further out to test a full-back line bereft of any real experience.

"People are talking about the direct ball," noted Counihan. "If you have five defenders in the full-back line against three full-forwards, it doesn't make sense. That's my perspective, others have a different point of view.

"The criticism is maybe that we're not being direct enough. I'd certainly prefer to be direct but you've got to look at what is ahead of you and make the decision then."

Yet that reluctance to venture down the avenue of route one isn't the only truncheon being used to beat Counihan since the All-Ireland semi-final. True, Cork were stodgy and ill-defined going forward but that's only half of the game. Defending is as important a task to master and in leaving Bernard Brogan with just one man guarding him all game long, Counihan was seen as engaging in a form of tactical hara-kiri.

Brogan had been having the sort of season the great Maurice Fitzgerald enjoyed in 1997 or Peter Canavan in 1995 whilst the remaining members of the Dublin attack had been decidedly score-shy all summer. Surely, Corkonians pondered, it would have been better to leave someone like Niall Corkery or David Henry free further out the field in order to have doubled-up on Dublin's deadliest assassin? Maybe Counihan wrote Brogan off altogether, consigned himself to the fact that Bernard would score big and there was nothing anyone or two could do about it and best to limit the contributions from elsewhere.

It might have been unconventional, but Counihan has never been shy to applaud innovation. When asked prior to that match about Dublin's risky ploy of conceding all of Tyrone's short kick-outs, Counihan accepted its perils but immediately referenced the result at the end of that match as proof that it had worked.

Yet he must surely have taken the negatives out of the Dublin performance, analysed them to within an inch of their lives and learned his own lessons. The fleas on the dogs on the street know that Martin Clarke is Down's most important forward and the man likeliest to unhinge the Cork defence so it could be that Counihan might yet reverse the Brogan decision for the only man who looks capable of stopping the St Oliver Plunkett's/ER man winning Footballer of the Year.

"You'd like to think people wouldn't get that type of room normally," said Counihan of Clarke. "But he seems to read the situation well and makes room for himself very well. But we certainly couldn't afford to give the guy that much room."

In accepting the Cork job after Billy Morgan had failed to break that Kerry hoodoo in Croke Park, Counihan knew his tenure and his legacy in Cork would be judged on a single issue but after failing -- albeit narrowly -- to settle that issue in the past two years, the pressure is squarely on his shoulders.

Then again, the nature of sport is such that if Graham Canty makes the ascent to the podium of the Hogan Stand at roughly 5 o'clock on Sunday evening, Counihan's legacy in Cork sport will be complete.

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