From All-Ireland cheers to tier two fears - how Cork and Down dipped over a decade
Ten years ago Cork and Down faced off in an All-Ireland final – on Sunday they meet in the third tier of the National Football League, battling to fend off the potential of a summer spent playing tier two football. Neil Loughran hears from key figures on both sides about what went wrong, and where they stand looking into the next decade…
DANIEL Goulding couldn’t miss. After years of false dawns and painful hammerings at the hands of their neighbours, the 2010 All-Ireland final brought the breakthrough Cork craved – and it was the lethal left boot of the man from Ovens that turned the temperature up on Down all day.
Goulding finished with nine points in a deadly display, kicking four frees and three nerveless 45s as the Rebels recovered from a shaky start, trailing by five at a point in the first half, to end a 20-year wait for Sam.
In 2007 and 2009 the Cork players had walked, devastated, from the same sod on the third Sunday in September, unable to stop Munster rivals Kerry running riot; now it was their time. Players roared into each other’s faces, years of frustrating flying out. Boss Conor Counihan, hardly a man given to emotion, couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.
“Ah, we had waited for that one to be fair,” says Goulding, a study in understatement.
Big, strong and athletic, this should have been the start of a golden period in Cork’s history.
The 15 that started the 2010 All-Ireland final had an average age of 26, with goalkeeper Alan Quirke the oldest at 33 while experienced campaigners Nicholas Murphy (32), captain Graham Canty (30) and Derek Kavanagh (29) supplied the steel from the bench.
All the ingredients were there, or so it seemed. Somehow, though, the path paved for domination led only to disappointment.
Two more League titles followed in 2011 and 2012 but not the big one, the Rebels caught in the slipstream of familiar foes Kerry, an emerging Donegal, a reinvigorated Mayo and a Dublin movement at the beginning of an incredible arc towards unprecedented levels of achievement.
Ten years on, Cork and Down both find themselves in Division Three of the National League. Tomorrow afternoon they meet in the revamped Pairc Ui Chaoimh, determined to steal a march in the most important promotion chase in memory, two proud counties eager to escape the indignity of a summer spent playing tier two Championship football.
How did it come to this?
“Ah look, there’s probably a few reasons,” says Goulding, who exited the inter-county scene in 2016, the same year the Rebels – during Peadar Healy’s year at the helm – slipped out of Division One on a dramatic last day of the League.
“[After 2010] We had another three or four years of playing All-Ireland quarter-finals, semi-finals, but after that the nucleus of the team got a bit older and through retirements, fellas not being on the panel any more - Graham Canty, Noel O’Leary, Paudie Kissane, Pearse O’Neill - a lot of big, big players and personalities weren’t there.
“It was a big change in a relatively short space of time.”
Injuries took their toll too - not least the cruciate horror that dogged the career of the brilliant Colm O’Neill - while Down weren’t the only ones to lose a talismanic figure to pro sport, with Ciaran Sheehan eventually following Marty Clarke to the world of Aussie Rules.
Mayo ended Cork’s All-Ireland defence at the quarter-final stage in 2011 before the Rebels found themselves trapped in Jim McGuinness’s Donegal web the following year. Even now, Counihan finds it hard to pinpoint why they couldn’t find the consistency that has marked out the truly great sides.
“It’s very hard to know,” he sighed.
“Underage-wise, we wouldn’t have had the success to keep backing that up. You had a situation where our minors were going out of the Championship very early because of the situation where Cork and Kerry weren’t kept apart, so you could have Cork minors beaten in May and you didn’t the chance to develop players.
“Unfortunately our tradition suggested we’re kind of a hit and miss crowd in that we win one… that’s not saying we’re prepared to accept it.
“But you have to balance it with the opposition being that much more aware of you; they find that extra bit of hunger that maybe you don’t have. We were there for a few years, we were in a good place but, you know, getting to the top of the mountain is the easy part.
“Staying there is the hard part.”
The signs of decline were already there before Counihan’s 2013 departure. By the time Brian Cuthbert came in, the loss of key personnel had created a vacuum, the high performance culture that had driven Cork to success going with them.
“We had a big turnover after Conor left,” added Goulding.
“Brian came in, there were some retirements, he wanted to put his own stamp on things and some fellas weren’t brought back. When you lose a lot of players who have built up a culture of performing and commitment, it’s very hard to replace that quickly.
“When Billy Morgan left in 2007 and Conor came in, you had a team of Graham Cantys and Nicholas Murphys who hadn’t won an All-Ireland and they were starved to win one. You had a group of U21s who had three Munsters and an All-Ireland coming in, it was a very strong blend of the new and the old.
“That happened over a good few years. Even take myself – I was on the panel three years before I was starting regularly, where in ’13 and ’14 you had a drop-off of lads leaving and fellas who had never played county going straight into the team.
“It went from the guys of 31, 32 being the leaders to 24 or 25-year-olds trying to pick up where they left off and they were big boots to fill, then you had a new team coming along who probably got a couple of big beatings against Kerry and Dublin and that set them back a good bit.”
The downturn in Cork’s fortunes across the course of the decade has been tough for Counihan to see, and last year he was appointed project co-ordinator of the county’s ‘#2024 – a five-year plan for Cork football’.
Spectacular All-Ireland triumphs for the minors and U20s last summer offering fresh hope, while Ronan McCarthy’s seniors showed green shoots of recovery in the Championship after a disastrous Spring campaign.
There is a measure of optimism for the future, but the importance of the here and now cannot be undersold either. Kerry await Cork in the semi-final of the Munster Championship at the end of May so there is no guaranteed provincial final place; indeed the odds are stacked against it.
Getting out of Division Three is not aspirational, therefore, it is essential.
WHERE Cork had been knocking at the door prior to 2010, Down’s run came as a bolt from the blue, the Armagh-Tyrone duopoly squeezing them to the margins through the Noughties as memories of the early ’90s faded further into view.
One-off days, like the 2008 Ulster preliminary round win over eventual All-Ireland champions Tyrone, hinted at something bigger, but the consistency was never there.
James McCartan took over the reins from Ross Carr ahead of the 2010 campaign, but his was not the only change in personnel. The homecoming of playmaker Marty Clarke from a hugely successful stint in the AFL was greeted as a Godsend, the burden of incredible expectation placed on the shoulders of a man who yet to even play a senior game in red and black.
“It wasn’t just Marty, you’d big Kalum [King], Polie [Mark Poland] was flying, Ambrose [Rogers] was in the form of his life. I knew in 2010, when we’d everybody there, this was some team; the best panel I was ever involved with,” said Benny Coulter, the marquee full-forward on that side.
“And then James is such a good manager. In terms of his ability to set up a team and look at other teams, I probably haven’t worked under a man who had such football intelligence.”
Down reached a first All-Ireland final since 1994 but fell short by a point having hit the front early on. With promotion to Division One in the League also secured, though, the pieces appeared to be falling into place.
However, aspects of that defeat took time to shift, according to Danny Hughes. The changes made on the line provided a talking point afterwards, especially the decision to withdraw livewire forward Paul McComiskey heading into the final quarter.
“That game was never fully dissected,” said the Saval man, an instrumental figure in the 2010 run.
“The management never gave reasons for their decisions, and it became the elephant in the room to a degree. Those were questions asked on the street, and it does probably get into players’ heads.
"But then, on the flipside of that, without the management we wouldn’t have been in an All-Ireland final."
Hughes picked up a knee injury that curtailed his involvement the following year, while there was constant speculation surrounding Clarke’s future, with rumours that he was bound for Australia again refusing to go away.
Confirmation of his return to Collingwood eventually came in the months after the 2011 campaign had ended. Plotting without the An Riocht man was a blow but so too was the loss of current Down boss Paddy Tally and Brian McIver from McCartan’s backroom team.
“That bit of continuity was critical at that time,” said Hughes.
“From a players’ perspective, I didn’t see the need for it, but when it did happen I bought into it. Aidan O’Rourke came in and he was a really top class coach… some of the players didn’t buy into him where I think they should have.
“Aidan would be very direct, very honest, but any reservations I had about Aidan coming in, they were quickly put to bed.”
The Mournemen continued to rub shoulders with the top teams in the country, finishing third in Division One in 2012, but were losing key men at an alarming rate. By the time they faced Cork in that year’s League semi-final, the Rebels had 11 of the same starters from the 2010 decider.
Down had seven.
“All of a sudden, Marty, Paul McComiskey, Dee Rafferty, Peter Fitzpatrick, John Clarke, Ronan Murtagh, Ronan Sexton, Dan Gordon, guys like that drifted off,” says Hughes, who was hit with a groin problem two weeks before the Ulster final against Donegal - an injury that would ultimately signal the end of his inter-county days.
“A lot of players were allowed to drift away… we can replace you so if you want to leave, go. There was no fight to keep them, and sometimes a player needs to feel wanted.
“I think a lot of the players who drifted away didn’t feel wanted.”
“You look around at boys like big Dan [Gordon],” adds Coulter, “he should’ve been playing for Down for another four or five years, without a doubt. Dan quit too early.
“In terms of the preparation teams put in now, we probably weren’t doing that. The likes of Danny, Murtagh, Sexton, they took it to a level it needed to be at where probably the likes of myself, Dan and boys like that could’ve done a wee bit more. That’s a regret.”
On the back of tremendous success with county champions Kilcoo, Jim McCorry took over from McCartan, but his reign was short-lived.
The Armagh man led Down back to Division One but following an Ulster exit at the hands of Derry came a disastrous qualifier defeat to a Wexford side freshly relegated to Division Four. McCorry left the post after a year, claiming his position became "untenable" when the county’s management committee withdrew their support for him.
Hughes wasn't surprised.
“I know a lot of people gave the county board a lot of crap over that, but they understood they were looking at a squad that really wasn’t happy and where a lot of players weren’t going to commit for the following season.”
“I wouldn’t agree with Danny there,” says Coulter, who dismissed any suggestion of a personal fall-out with McCorry.
“One of the best men I ever worked with was Jim McCorry. He won us our first championship in 80 years [when Mayobridge landed the Down title in 1999]. Myself and Jim get on very well –it was blown out of proportion all that.
“Jim gave me the option to come back in, I thought about it and just didn’t think I could give the commitment. That’s it. It was made out as though Jim didn’t want me back - definitely not.
“In hindsight, I think it was the wrong decision to let him go so soon.”
Eamonn Burns took over a ship that was idling aimlessly, eventually sinking like a stone from Division One without a point. They spared themselves consecutive relegations on the final day of the 2017 campaign and went on to make an unexpected Ulster final appearance that summer.
But the writing was on the wall, with Down dropping to Division Three in Burns’s final year. In the middle of all that, Hughes aired his frustrations publicly, both in print - via his weekly column in these pages - and on radio.
It led to some ill-feeling with some of the top ranking officials in the county, before they eventually took the view that, as former US president Lyndon Johnson famously said of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in”.
Alongside ex-Down star Liam Doyle, 1999 All-Ireland minor winning manager Gerry Dougherty, county secretary Sean Og McAteer and chairman Sean Rooney, Hughes sat on a committee charged with identifying Burns's replacement.
Aidan O’Rourke, Tony McEntee, Mickey Moran and former Dublin boss Pat Gilroy were among those whose interest was tentatively gauged, but Tally was always the number one choice. And having just failed to get Down over the line in Division Three last year - the Galbally man's first in charge - the stakes have now been raised.
So far, so good with three points from two games going into tomorrow’s clash with Cork. Hughes, though, still has reservations about where Down are headed.
“I just feel we’re not producing the players.
“The guys who are there now are a really hard-working bunch, you saw that last weekend against Derry - they’re giving it everything for Paddy. But at minor, at U20s, in the schools, we’re not winning titles.
“It just always seems to be the same people, ex-players, who are involved in restructuring the county and I don’t feel that’s the way any sports organisation should be operating now. It needs to be commercially-minded, the best qualified people need to be sought out and got – it’s not who you know, it’s definitely what you know.
“It feels a bit like we’re probably standing still at the minute.”
Coulter is currently a coaching development officer in the county, last season he was part of Tally’s backroom team while this year he is involved with Conor Deegan’s U20s. And the Mayobridge man is cautiously optimistic about what the coming years will bring.
“At the minute, Down are a bit short, but you look at the youth in that team, look at those boys and say in 2022 or 2023, Owen McCabe’s going to be an outstanding midfielder, Shane Annett’s going to be a brilliant wing-back, Peter Fegan’s going to be an outstanding full-back, Liam Kerr a brilliant centre half-forward…
“If Down can get promoted this year, bring another couple of lads in, they can be a force to be reckoned with in three or four years’ time.”