Top of the League

Louth, it’s fair to say, are not among the aristocrats of Gaelic football. They do have three All-Ireland titles, which is very respectable for the smallest county on the island and their haul of Leinster senior and minor titles are also respectable, however, there is a notable fall off in both after the 1950’s. Bar a couple of Leinster junior championships, there’s nothing of note to add.

Inevitably, however, in times past, they’ve helped Cork find her place among the nations of the football world. In 1957 Cork did something that they are remarkably good at. They got back to the All-Ireland Final after losing the previous year’s final. It’s one of the many idiosyncrasies of Cork football that despite everything, there actually is a remarkable resilience to be found in their endeavours.

Six times they’ve responded to the pain of losing a final by qualifying for the next one, though they’ve only experienced the catharsis of victory twice; 1989 and 2010. It could also be argued that the real catharsis of 1988 wasn’t felt until 1990 but I digress.

1957 was probably the worst of them all. The 1956 final was lost to Galway – no shame in that – and that wrong was then righted the following year when Galway were defeated by the narrowest of margins in the semi-final. And then, after putting in the heavy lifting, Cork lost the final. To Louth.

It’s things like this that make the Cork football fan eternally sceptical. I remember travelling to Portlaoise in 2007 to watch Cork play Louth in a qualifier. On the back of two semi-finals and genuine progress under Billy Morgan, there should only have been one winner. And there was, but it was closer than it should have been.

Sunday was closer than it should have been too. Cork should always be beating Louth handily. They should be, but they generally don’t.

The game was much like the day, up and down as snow was followed sun and the unpredictable was mixed with the strange. Cork were on top for the most part in the first half and when Seán White knocked in a goal after an excellent move you got the sense that that should really, be that.

Everything wasn’t necessarily working like clockwork, but they worked some good scores and looked much the better team, as you’d expect. And yet.

And yet they seemed remarkably open at times during the opening period, leaving themselves very exposed to quick counter-attacks. Three times Ryan Price was called upon and three times he came up trumps, thus keeping Cork’s lead in tact.

It was incredible how easily all three chances were created, as Louth just sauntered through the middle of Cork’s undermanned defence. Cork were constantly pushed up on the Louth kick-out, leaving two or three defenders on two or three attackers in front of their own goal.

One clean possession with quick support from a kick-out and you were in big trouble, as they were, three times. The thought of Kerry, or anyone just a bit better than Louth with that much space…..

Still, they got away with it and with a 1-9 to 0-4 lead at half-time, and the goal chances for Louth out of the way, we waited for them to pull away. And we waited. And we waited. Cork tried to make themselves less open by playing Tomás Clancy back in front of the defence but for some reason it just led to Cork being penned in and bit by bit, Louth unconvincingly reduced the gap.

As is always the case, not much went right for Cork during this period. Simple passes went astray, hard-won turnovers were given straight back, two men were sent-off and soft frees were conceded. They also looked jaded, like they’d a lot of miles still in their legs from training. But still, the gap was down to four and five minutes of injury time were announced.

So they decided to finish strong! Cian Kiely, who along with Ruairí Deane was one of Cork’s best performers, scored a great goal to make it all look a bit easier than it was, but not quite as easy as it should have been. Two points in the bag, two wins in-a-row and top of the league.

The good news in the overall scheme of things is that all the rivals have dropped points so far. Roscommon’s loss to Down and draw with Meath, Tipp’s slip-ups after Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Cavan’s draw with Clare have given Cork’s chances of promotion a significant boost. But all the real tests are still to come. Next up there’s Cavan at home but you’d think, or at least hope, that the biggest tests will come in Meath and Roscommon.

Then we’ll get a better idea of where Cork are at before the biggest game of the year comes in the form of the re-match with Tipperary in Thurles. And no matter how it all pans out, try not to think of what should happen, too much.

John Coleman


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