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o'neill: heat is on dublin too

IF Dublin are, as Pat Gilroy so understatedly implied 'now in bonus territory' then where exactly are Cork? Gilroy's definition of his team's presence in the semi-final intimates that Dublin have exceeded all expectation and that regardless of the result on Sunday, 2010 will be chalked down as a progressive season.

Bullish? Probably. But who among us (besides maybe Gilroy) thought that Dublin would still be alive and kicking in mid-August after Meath shredded his new-look defence back in June?

Cork, meanwhile, are exactly where they were expected to be. Making an All-Ireland semi-final is below minimum requirement for the Rebels. They've done it in every season since 2004 and the only things they haven't managed to do in that time are a) beat Kerry in Croke Park and b) win an All-Ireland.

The Kingdom's defeat to Down deprives Cork of the chance to exorcise one ghost this season but by association, adds significant pressure on them to banish the second.

Bar Kerry, no team has beaten Cork in championship football since Fermanagh in 2004. The burden of expectation on them to finally win Sam Maguire increased exponentially upon Kerry's exit.

"If Kerry and Tyrone are gone, and they are perceived to be two of the best teams in the

country, the teams that beat them have obviously stepped up and are two of the best teams in the country," says Cork's marauding centre-forward, Pearse O'Neill.

"That's the way it is. If we beat Tyrone by five or six points like Dublin did, we'd consider ourselves to be a good team. Down beat Kerry well so there's a very level playing field in football. There's a perception that there's a 'big three' or 'big four' or whatever it is, but it's not like that."


O'Neill's practical words may be designed to take some of the expectation away from his team but it makes sense that Cork pay no heed to their stricken neighbours or indeed Tyrone anymore. Neither are an issue anymore and if firstly Billy Morgan and then Conor Counihan have spent the majority of their spare time devising a way of finally beating the Kingdom when it matters, well, there's a whole different set of problems coming down the track this Sunday.

"There's pressure, but there's just as much pressure on Dublin I'd imagine," he admits. "There's a massive population in Dublin, they love their football so they are going to be under pressure. Of course there's going to be pressure -- it's an All-Ireland semi-final and any time you play a game like that in Croke Park there's pressure."

Doubtless, Cork supporters will feel their superior ranking and more experienced outfit entitles them to beat the Dubs whereas the sense of fear was always palpable when they travelled to Croke Park alongside their green and gold neighbours.

Yet it is Dublin's freshness -- or at least their innate unpredictability -- which makes O'Neill wary.

"They set up very defensively," he notes. "Realistically, Tyrone hit a lot of wides, but a lot of those were under pressure. They weren't kicking wides from 20 yards out in front of goals, they were from out in the corner -- hard scores to get. They set themselves up very defensively, they're hard to break down, they filter bodies back and then when they turn you over they attack at pace. But you don't see many fellas running through the Dublin defence."

Which is where the Aghada man comes in. On a team of giants, O'Neill towers above all. At 6'5, only Nicholas Murphy can claim to look eye-to-eye with his former midfield partner but O'Neill weighs in at 16 stone, two heavier than Murphy.

He also has pace and an eye for goal and if any man can batter the newly populated Dublin defence with straight-line running, it's O'Neill.

His display against Roscommon in the quarter-final was reminiscent of last season's displays but all season, he and the rest of an ever-changing Cork forward unit have come under pressure.

"Playing well is the only way to alleviate that pressure," he notes. "If we're not playing well there are a lot of very good players and Conor (Counihan) has no hesitation in taking off any of us after 20 minutes if we're not performing. That's the way it should be and that's why the panel is so competitive. If you're not tuned in and you're not playing well there is someone else to come in who is just as good as you."

O'Neill didn't play in the league game against the Dubs this year in Páirc Uí Rinn and he doesn't place much faith in the two challenge match victories Cork had over the same opposition, despite running up an enormous victory in the second in Portarlington in May.

"We beat them, but they had a very weakened team out there," he explains. "I'd say they only had three or four players there from the team that played Tyrone."

Nevertheless, O'Neill is aware that Sunday will be a new experience for a Cork side which must have presumed they'd seen everything at this stage. A packed Croke Park in a match prior to the All-Ireland final isn't something they've played in front of and he is readying himself to take on an entire county this Sunday.

"We have had some good days there, but we haven't played in front of such a partisan crowd as we'll get against Dublin," he says. "That's going to be something different but we'll just have to blot that out and drive it on."