Cork is not a county that trades in moral victories and yet Ronan McCarthy’s footballers can take plenty of positives from an ultimately convincing 13-point defeat to the five-in-a-row chasing All-Ireland champions this evening.
The Munster runners-up were a stubborn opponent for over an hour at HQ in this Super 8 tie, taking the game to Dublin with an open and honest effort that suggested yet again that the best way to get at Jim Gavin’s men is to attack them in open combat rather than peg stones at them from behind a reinforced trench.
Cork were superb at times, the sight of Paul Kerrigan scooting around this sward, scoring points and setting up moves taking us back to 2010 while the work being done by those around him added to recent evidence that the future looks much brighter for them than relegation to Division Three in the spring suggested.
And yet that scoreline…
Only Dublin can do that to teams: dilute the worth of so much good so quickly. The main damage was done here with three goals in a handful of minutes, from the 63rd to the 67th, which turned a contest into a shooting gallery. So does this reinforce Dublin’s veneer of invincibility or puncture it?
You can make an argument either way on that.
Cork picked up exactly where they had left last week against a shellshocked Laois by landing the opening four points from their first four attacks inside a half-dozen minutes to lay down the gauntlet to a Dublin side that had been kept on ice for three weeks since their Leinster final defeat of Meath.
Cork didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. They have come good as the summer has gone on by playing a more offensive game that seems to suit the players and the mindset so much better than the defensiveness which brought them nothing but misery back at the start of the league.
There was no great mystery in what they were doing. They harried Dublin as individuals and as a collective when their opponents had possession and they trusted that their men could come out on top. It worked for them in an opening quarter which saw them claim and hold a lead.
There was a smidgen of luck about it too. Referee David Gough had awarded an early penalty to Dublin for a foul on Con O’Callaghan by James Loughrey but decided to overturn it on consultation with an umpire. Such are the things any team needs to fall their way against the Dubs.
The pity of it for Cork, then, was that they paid back in kind for that good fortune five minutes later when they appeared to have halted another rampaging Jack McCaffrey run only for the flying half-back to stop, turn and skim in a low shot to the corner of the net. A cheap score.
Dublin were level by the 13th minute and the game appeared to be sliding in only one direction, no more so than close to the half-hour when Brian Hurley fired a shot straight at Stephen Cluxton’s legs from a tight angle when a square pass to a lurking Luke Connolly appeared the more profitable route.
Add that to a trio of wides from point attempts in that same spell and Cork were beginning to leak a little up front. Even worse was the fact that Dublin were starting to make significant gains at the other end where O’Callaghan was proving to be especially annoying.
The champions were three points up as the half stepped into the red. Not disastrous by any means for the visitors but then O’Callaghan burst through the cover and fed Michael Darragh Macauley for the simplest of fists into the net. In truth, they could have claimed at least another two three-pointers by then.
So then, how to digest all that in the red dressing-room at half-time? Yes, they had been positive and impressive and firmly competitive but they had come close to conceding four goals and trailed by six points. Such are the conundrums Dublin present even the stiffest of opposition these days.
Cork’s response was to simply go again.
A superb opening to the second-half was already rewarded with two points when Kerrigan played in Ian Maguire and Gough again signalled for a penalty when the midfielder was dragged down by a combination of Cian O’Sullivan and Michael Fitzsimons. This time he stuck to his call.
Connolly’s resultant shot from the spot was superbly executed and all of a sudden the gap was back down to two and the Nemo Rangers man was riling the Hill even further by saluting its denizens. This was turning out to be a much better Saturday evening than anyone had anticipated.
Other trends carried over from the first-half too.
Dublin players were still finding themselves in acres of space at times as the game freewheeled from end to end but the Leinster champions continued, in the main, taking their points when goals were within their compass. That changed utterly as the game entered its last stretch and with just four points still their buffer.
Those three goals inside five minutes – from Niall Scully, Ciaran Kilkenny and Brian Fenton – transformed the face of the scoreboard and the mood music in the stadium. For 63 minutes Cork had tugged at their tails only to be swished away in the blink of an eye by goals that were very different but equally emphatic.
The first was a superbly intricate move inside the Cork area, the second a mistake from a kickout by White and the third a rampage into space after a brilliant pass over the cover by the excellent McCaffrey. All were brutal in their execution but Cork have done themselves some service.
And maybe the championship at large, too.
Scorers for Dublin: C Kilkenny (1-2); D Rock (0-5, 0-2 frees, 0-1 ’45’); B Fenton (1-1): C O’Callaghan (0-4); J McCaffrey, N Scully and MD Macauley (all 1-0); P McMahon and P Mannion (both 0-2); J Small and C Costello (both 0-1).
Scorers for Cork: L Connolly 1-3, 1-0 penalty, 0-1 ’45’); P Kerrigan (0-3); B Hurley (0-3, 1 free); M Hurley (0-2); L O’Donovan, M Taylor, K O’Driscoll, S White and R Deane (all 0-1); M Collins (0-1 free).
Dublin: S Cluxton; D Byrne, M Fitzimons, P McMahon; J McCaffrey, C O’Sullivan, J Small; B Fenton, MD Macauley; B Howard, C Kilkenny, N Scully; C O’Callaghan, C Costello, P Mannion. Subs: D Rock for Costello (45); P Small for O’Callaghan (65); J Cooper for O’Sullivan and K McManamon for Mannion (both 68); E Murchan for McCaffrey (69); J McCarthy for Fenton (72).
Cork: M White, Thomas Clancy, K Flahive, J Loughrey; L O’Donovan, Tomas Clancy, M Taylor; I Maguire, K O’Driscoll; L Connolly, S White, R Deane; P Kerrigan, B Hurley, M Collins. Subs: K O’Donovan for Loughrey and M Hurley for Kerrigan (both 57); R O’Toole for White (63); S Sherlock for Connolly (65); C Kiely for O’Donovan (66); J O’Rourke for Maguire (69).
Referee: D Gough (Meath).