THEY completed a hat-trick of Division 1 league titles and they went all the way in Munster for the first time since 2009, but defeat by Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final made it another unfulfilled year for the Cork senior footballers.
Since lifting the Sam Maguire two years ago, nothing less than the top prize is enough to satisfy Leeside supporters now, and Cork's elimination by unheralded Mayo at the quarter-final stage in 2011 was particularly disappointing. There were mitigating reasons for it in that the team was handicapped by the absence of key forwards Daniel Goulding, Ciaran Sheehan and Colm O'Neill, but they had coped well without Sheehan and O'Neill when romping to victory over Down in the fourth round of the qualifiers last year.
And even after Goulding was added to the casualty list when sustaining an injury in the clash with the Mourne County men, the expectation was that Cork would still be equipped to keep their two-in-a-row ambitions on track against Mayo. After scorching into a six-point lead during the first fifteen minutes, however, Cork inexplicably lost their way, and it was unquestionably their worst championship performance since Conor Counihan took the helm in 2008.
Retaining the All-Ireland was always going to be difficult of course, given that Cork hadn't been too far ahead of the chasing peak the previous season when they lost to Kerry in Munster and finished with the bare minimum to spare over Dublin and Down in the semi-final and final respectively. But that their bid for back-to-back titles was derailed by Mayo wouldn't have been anticipated, and the consensus afterwards was that their form was simply too bad to be true on the day.
Only once since Cork registered consecutive All-Ireland wins in 1990 has the feat been replicated, by Kerry in 2007, underlining how hard it is in the modern game to reach the summit in successive seasons. And, despite all the predictable hype in the national media suggesting that Dublin were set to become a dominant force following their triumph last year, it was always on the cards that Pat Gilroy's men would falter somewhere along the line in 2012.
After all, the Dubs had needed a sizeable rub of the green to complete a late match-winning surge in the 2011 All Ireland final against Kerry, something that Cork certainly didn't get when they staged a gutsy comeback, which only just fell short in last year's Munster final encounter with the Kingdom. So, there were solid grounds for optimism regarding Cork's prospects heading into this year's championship, especially after they completed the treble in the league.
They hadn't been particularly consistent in the preliminary rounds, as they produced only two really compelling displays against Laois and Down. They drew with Armagh, they lost to Kerry and Donegal, they came from behind to pip Mayo at the post up with Paul Kerrigan starring up in Castlebar, and, having built up a healthy lead, they had to withstand a second half rally by Dublin at Pairc Ui Chaoimh to secure a place in the last four. But they confirmed their superiority over Down in the league semi final, running out comfortable winners, 2-17 to 112 on a day when Colm O'Neill and Donncha O'Connor shared the goals
It earned them a crack at their 2011 championship conquerors Mayo in the final, and they delivered the goods in fairly convincing style, although they trailed by four points after playing into a strong wind in the first half.. It didn't take Cork very long to erase the deficit on the resumption, and they always looked likely to prevail after a Colm O'Neill goal pushed them 1-9 to 0-9 ahead.
With Aidan Walsh bagging a second goal, Cork had five points to spare, 210 to 0-11 at the finish, but, not surprisingly, there was a muted reaction in the camp to their historic achievement in becoming the first team from Leeside to string three league titles together.
Even if Cork's season was always going to be measured by how they fared out in the championship, winning the league was no load in terms of boosting confidence prior to the showdown with Kerry in the Munster semi-final. The game went very much according to plan for the Rebels, although Kerry were left to bemoan the fact that they squandered about four clear-cut goal chances on the day.
Kerry wasted a couple of '45s as well, highlighting how much they missed the dead-ball proficiency of the injured Bryan Sheehan. But the truth was that Cork performed with greater purpose and conviction over the 70 minutes, and, after shooting four points in a row to go in at half time leading by 0-7 to 0-4, they showed a facility to respond anytime their advantage was seriously threatened in the second half. There was only one team in the game for the last ten minutes, as Cork cruised to an 0-17 to 0-12 win.
Donncha O'Connor turned in a man-of -thematch display at full forward, and wing back Paudie Kissane and 'keeper Alan Quirke also excelled in defence where Eoin Cadogan kept Kieran Donaghy firmly under wraps, and Michael Shields, Graham Canty and Noel O'Leary limited the influence of Kerry's other marquee forwards Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan and Paul Galvin respectively.
It was Cork's first win in five championship games against Kerry, and it was sufficiently convincing to suggest they would be capable of coming through again were the teams to renew rivalry in the All-Ireland series In any event, Cork were installed as favourites to go all the way in the wake of it, although that was largely because they were virtually guaranteed to advance to the last eight at the expense of Clare in the Munster final.
The clash with the Banner proceeded along anticipated lines, and Cork settled the issue in the first half, thanks to goals from Fintan Goold, Aidan Walsh and Nicholas Murphy. Without ever having to move out of second gear, they comfortably held the whip-hand in the second half, and their winning margin of 3-16 to 013 clearly reflected the huge gulf in class between the sides.
In contrast to the situation which obtained prior to last year's All Ireland quarterfinal against Mayo, the Cork management were in the happy position of having a full squad to choose from for the next assignment against Kildare. Graham Canty, Pa Kelly and Pearse O'Neill – all of whom were ruled out by injury for the Munster final – were available again, but O'Neill and, surprisingly, Kelly didn't make the starting fifteen for the All-Ireland quarter final clash with the Lilywhites.
Neither did Daniel Goulding, who hadn't been able to reclaim a place on the team since recovering from an injury that forced him to play a peripheral role over the course of the league. It showed just how intense competition for places in attack had become, and it served to fuel speculation that Cork were perfectly primed to garner All-Ireland glory for the second time in three seasons.
They made an unambiguous statement of intent against Kildare, producing a performance calculated to send a shiver up the spine of the other teams remaining in the title race. True, Cork got the breaks early on, and there was certainly an element of good fortune attached to their two goals in the first half, the first of which was an own goal by Kildare wing-back Eoin Doyle.
Colm O'Neill grabbed the second after a dubiously awarded sideline ball resulted in a Cork raid that saw O'Neill fist home a return pass from Donncha O'Connor to push the Rebels 2-5 to 0-3 ahead inside 20 minutes. After Kildare rallied to cut the gap to three points before half time, however, Cork faced a stiff challenge heading out for the second half against a team that clearly had momentum.
Their response to it was truly awesome as they raised the tempo to a level that Kildare simply couldn't match, stringing ten points together before their bewildered opponents finally broke their second half duck in the 61st. minute. In the end, Kildare were flattered to finish 2-19 to 0-11 in arrears, their heaviest defeat in a championship fixture since Kieran
McGeeney assumed the reins of control five years ago.
Aidan Walsh had a huge game at midfield for Cork, Paudie Kissane and Graham Canty also stood out in the half back line, while substitutes Pa Kelly, Pearse O'Neill and Daniel Goulding all contributed generously to a second half tour-deforce. Kelly and Goulding were restored to favour for the All-Ireland semi final as Cork squared up to a Donegal side that had ousted Kerry at the quarter final stage, and had refined the revolutionary game-plan which had earned them a place in the last four in 2011.
Under Jim McGuinness, Donegal brought mass defending to a totally new level last year, and it hadn't gone down well with the football public, especially after their negative tactics were primarily responsibly for an unedifying semi final clash which they lost by 0-8 to 0-6 to Dublin. But there was nothing distasteful about Donegal's performance against Cork, as they got the job done in an absolutely enthralling contest.
The game's defining period occurred just three minutes into the second half when, after Cork kicked a couple of wides, Colm McFadden pointed at the other end to put Donegal two ahead. It was the first time that the teams had been separated by more than the minimum, and it was a huge psychological boost for Donegal, causing their confidence levels to rise and Cork's to dip in equal measure.
Once the gap was quickly stretched to four points, it was obvious that Cork faced a massive uphill battle against a team that had become notoriously adept at protecting any sort of a decent lead.
Not that Donegal were content to sit back and soak up the pressure in the last quarter. They were prepared to raid from the back at every opportunity, and the manner in which they repeatedly forced turnovers before swarming forward with pace and fluency was a sight to behold.
It was breathe-taking stuff, and Jim McGuinness' achievement in transforming Donegal from perennial also-rans into such a formidable outfit in the space of just two years without overhauling the panel to any significant degree must surely constitute a managerial feat sans parallel.
Colm O'Neill did fire in late goal which enabled Cork to finish just two points behind, 0-16 to 1-11, but it was misleading margin as they were effectively overwhelmed by a Donegal unit that produced a magnificent team performance in the strictest sense.
The Ulster champions looked indestructible at that juncture, and predictably Mayo, having terminated Dublin's reign in the semi final, were unable to put the skids under them in the showpiece. Whether Donegal can bring the same level of intensity to the table in 2013 remains to be seen, but they are there to be shot at now, and it isn't inconceivable that defending the title could prove beyond them.
That Conor Counihan has signed up for another twoyear term as Cork boss obviously means he believes he can steer the team back to the top, and, notwithstanding the chastening experience endured at Donegal's hands this year, the Rebels must still be ranked as one of the main pretenders to the throne in the year ahead.