AN injury to Colm O'Neill took much of the satisfaction from Cork's victory over Donegal in the National Football League encounter at Pairc Uí Rinn last Saturday.
The Ballyclough man was stretchered off with a suspected cruciate ligament injury in the 14th. minute, and his season will be over if the worst is confirmed. Having incurred a similar injury on two occasions in the past, it would be little short of a tragedy for the luckless O'Neill should he be sidelined for another lengthy spell, and a big blow to Cork's prospects of collecting silverware this year.
An All-Star in 2012, O'Neill underlined his value to the team when playing a leading role in Cork's win over Tyrone the previous week-end, and he sparkled again during his brief stint of duty against Donegal, notching a couple of spectacular points prior to his enforced departure. His input was instrumental in enabling Cork to recover from an uncertain start which saw them concede three points inside the first five minutes, and he also had a hand in the lead-up to a splendid point from Barry O'Driscoll which made it 0-4 to 0-3 four minutes later.
O'Neill's absence was sorely felt for the rest of the first half, as Cork failed to add to their tally, although with both sides getting bodies behind the ball in numbers, it was no surprise that scores were at a premium in the second quarter. It was 0-5 to 0-3 at half time, with Derek Molloy stretching Donegal's advantage in the 22nd minute, and it took a vital interception by Cork corner-back Jamie O'Sullivan to prevent the visitors from engineering a goal-chance shortly after that.
Overall, however, the teams were very evenly-matched in the first half when Cork had reason to be encouraged by the manner in which Michael Shields kept a tight rein on Donegal full-forward Colm McFadden. Eoin Cadogan also had the measure of Neil Gallagher and later Michael Murphy, while Jamie O'Sullivan, Tomas Clancy of Fermoy, Noel O'Leary and Paudie Kissane likewise kept their end up well in a Cork rearguard that benefited from the support provided by deep-lying wing forwards Mark Collins and Andrew O'Sullivan.
At midfield, Graham Canty put in a solid shift against Murphy and Gallagher in turn, but Aidan Walsh wasn't especially conspicuous in this sector before the break. The initiative remained up for grabs early in the second half when Cork 'keeper Ken O'Halloran proved his worth with a couple of good saves to deny Donegal wing forward Ross Wherity. With 43 minutes gone, Donegal were still two points to the good, 0-7 to 0-5, but then Cork raised the tempo, knocking over seven scores on the trot to open up a sizeable gap approaching the last five minutes.
Taking a pass from Barry O'Driscoll, Mark Collins began the sequence with a sublime point, and the hard-grafting Castlehaven man was certainly one of Cork's leading lights over the 70 minutes. Paudie Kissane excelled at wing-back in the second half, chipping in with two inspirational scores from distance, while Liam Shorten justified his call-up in place of the stricken Colm O'Neill with another well-taken brace.
Andrew O'Sullivan, who started instead of Donncha O'Connor in attack, capped an industrious display at wing forward when fisting over a point that gave Cork the lead, 0-8 to 0-7, for the first time in the 57th minute. Aidan Walsh, much more involved at midfield in the second half, also got in on the scoring act as Cork threatened to cruise home in the closing stages.
They would have been out of sight had not the upright denied Michael Shields, Paul Kerrigan and Liam Shorten scores over the course of the second half, and, as it was, they looked home and hosed after Mark Collins converted a free, won by the hard-working Paul Kerrigan, to push them 0-12 to 0-7 ahead in the 61st. minute.
The All-Ireland champions refused to give up the ghost, however, and they had got back within striking range before Michael Murphy was tripped by Eoin Cadogan at the edge of the square as he threatened to snatch an equalising goal deep in stoppage time. McFadden pointed the resultant free, and Cork were relieved to hear the final whistle seconds later, but, in view of the superiority they enjoyed for much of the second half, the merit of their victory was beyond dispute
Cork: C O'Neill, P Kissane and L Shorten 0-2 each, M Collins 0-2, 0-1 free, B O'Driscoll, P Kerrigan, A O'Sullivan and A Walsh 0-1 each
Donegal: M Murphy 0-5 frees, C McFadden 0-3 frees, P McBrearty and D Molloy 0-1 each
Cork: K O'Halloran (Bishopstown), J O'Sullivan (do.) M Shields (St Finbarr's), E Cadogan (Douglas), T Clancy (Fermoy), N O'Leary (Kilnamartyra), P Kissane (Clyda Rovers), G Canty (Bantry Blues), A Walsh (Kanturk), A O'Sullivan (Castletownbere), F Goold (Macroom), M Collins (Castlehaven), B O'Driscoll (Nemo Rangers), C O'Neill (Ballyclough), P Kerrigan (Nemo Rangers) Subs: L Shorten (Ballingeary) for O'Neill (injured), D O'Connor (Ballydesmond) for Goold, A O'Connor (St Colms) for J O'Sullivan, E O'Mahony (Macroom) for Canty, D Goulding (Eire Og) for A O'Sullivan
Donegal: P Durcan, P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee, D Walsh, F McGlynn, L McLoone, R Kavanagh, M Murphy, R Bradley, P McBrearty, R Wherity, D Molloy, C McFadden, N Gallagher Subs: M McElhinney for Molloy, R McHugh for Wherity
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath)