Goulding injury blow spoils day for rampant Cork
Cork 2-20, Down 0-14
All-Ireland SFC qualifier
The season's pendulum had barely nudged back into Cork territory after this emphatic win over Down when it started moving away from them again with the news that Daniel Goulding's season could be over.
As the weekend wore on, the satisfaction gleaned from such a win over the All-Ireland finalists was eroding with the realisation that Goulding's ankle injury was much more serious than initially thought.
Goulding's most likely replacement, Barry O'Driscoll, is also out for the Mayo match after it was confirmed that he had sustained a broken jaw in two places after a heavy collision just seconds after replacing Goulding.
Cork manager Conor Counihan initially indicated that both players would be fine, but Cork's medical staff were concerned on the journey home on Saturday evening and their fears have hardened since with the prospect of surgery.
Cork PRO Ger Lane last night admitted that Goulding was a huge doubt and would have a scan later today to assess the damage.
Can they really ship any more serious injuries like this and still hope to successfully defend their title? The pity for Cork is that this was arguably their most emphatic Croke Park championship performance for two years.
A match that had 10 different scorers on each side, a repeat of a most entertaining All-Ireland final from 10 months earlier, should not have ended up this way.
In the end, Down were given a football lesson, just as they were in the league match in Cork earlier this season. The form line through Clare didn't lie. Cork had seen off their Munster opponents by 15, Down squeezed out of Ennis by one.
As much as this was a wretched Down effort, it was a clinical and powerful performance from the All-Ireland champions, arguably their most consistent in Croke Park since the ruthless dismissal of Donegal in an All-Ireland quarter-final two years ago.
To run up 2-20, regardless of how poor this Down defence was and is, has once again shaken the 2011 order of merit, which had pushed Kerry slightly ahead after events in Killarney.
Down manager James McCartan saw another side to the champions.
"They'd be more professional or clinical in stopping the opposition forwards from playing. I realise that is part of the game -- probably an unfortunate part of the game -- and they are better at it than us, whatever means that it took," he said.
"I don't wish to point the finger. We just don't seem to have the same professionalism in that regard. At the same time, I would dearly love to pick some of them Cork men, transplant them into our team, but, on our day, we can certainly be impressive going forward."
The most pilloried All-Ireland champions of recent times may force their army of critics to reassess in the coming days.
If anyone still feels that Cork are predictable, uninspiring and grind teams into the ground with their running game, then they simply have a complex about them.
Here they mixed it up in perfect harmony, opting to deliver long, accurate ball into Donncha O'Connor's path as often as they drove a coach and four through Down's naïve defence.
O'Connor's leadership of Cork was impressive. He already had a goal courtesy of the best example of that naïve defending from Gerard McCartan when Goulding limped off with his ankle injury after 19 minutes.
Remembering how it was Goulding, as much as O'Connor, who dug Cork from the ruins last September and factoring in the injuries that have already befallen two other key Cork attackers this season, that setback could have left the champions feeling more than a little unnerved.
But their response was the exact opposite. Within five minutes of Goulding's departure, Paddy Kelly went slaloming through another gap and picked out Fintan Goold, who gently side-footed into Brendan McVeigh's left corner.
A laughing Counihan wondered afterwards if such a deft touch was deliberate, but for the Cork manager, it was the acceptance of responsibility by so many that provided most satisfaction.
"We'd be pleased (with the leadership shown). It is a bit of a blow to lose Daniel. People stood up to the plate, but that is what we come to expect at this stage," said Counihan.
Once again, Alan O'Connor was like a juggernaut in midfield and had done considerable damage before Down eventually arrived at their best configuration as Ambrose Rodgers was sprung from the bench and Dan Gordon rescued from his troubles at full-back.
Around Alan O'Connor, Kelly was a consistent force of creativity, while John Miskella, Paudie Kissane and Paul Kerrigan found the gaps all too easily.
It was Kissane who made the opening incision when he ran into space and onto Kerrigan's pass in the opening minute to take a point and lay a marker. The rest followed.
This was Cork's fourth successive championship win in Croke Park and Kerry remain the only team to have beaten them in championship football since Fermanagh in 2004. That is some record.
Down had their spell of dominance, too, and at the midway point of the first half the combination play of Benny Coulter, Danny Hughes and Mark Poland had the Cork defence pressurised.
Even after Cork's second goal for a 2-6 to 0-7 lead, there was plenty to suggest that they could survive.
But Martin Clarke's indifferent summer continued here, the application and energy he brought to his and Down's play in 2010 strangely missing.
He lashed out at his marker Noel O'Leary early on and was fortunate to avoid a red card as O'Leary required attention, but a second yellow card eventually came in the 56th minute when Cork were 2-15 to 0-12 clear. It was an ignominious end for him.
As they did in the third quarter of the All-Ireland final, Cork got a grip and didn't let go. They won seven consecutive restarts and scored seven consecutive points after an early Clarke free. O'Connor and Kerrigan picked off two each in this period.
Graham Canty was also on the field at this point, having been withdrawn before the start. Counihan felt his hamstring may not have been up to a full game and it was best to have him on for the finish.
As for Down, the optimism of last summer has evaporated quickly. And they will be looking for a playmaker if Clarke gets an AFL club to hire him.
And McCartan's own future?
"I'm definitely not going to Australia!"
Scorers -- Cork: D O'Connor 1-6 (0-4f), F Goold 1-2, P Kerrigan, P Kelly 0-3 each, D Goulding (f), G Canty, J Miskella, P Kissane, A Walsh, P O'Neill 0-1 each. Down: M Clarke 0-3 (2f), B Coulter, P McComiskey 0-2 each, K McKernan, C Garvey, C Laverty, D Hughes, M Poland, C Maginn, A Rodgers 0-1 each.
Cork -- A Quirke 8; M Shields 7, E Cotter 7, E Cadogan 7; J Miskella 8, N O'Leary 6, P Kissane 6; A O'Connor 8, A Walsh 7; P Kelly 8, F Goold 8, P O'Neill 7; D Goulding 5, D O'Connor 9, P Kerrigan 8. Subs: B O'Driscoll for Goulding (inj 19), F Lynch 6 for O'Driscoll inj (28), G Canty for O'Leary (50), M Collins for Walsh (59), R Carey for Cadogan (63).
Down -- B McVeigh 7; G McCartan 5, D Gordon 6, A Branagan 5; C Garvey 6, D Rooney 5, K McKernan 6; K King 5, A McArdle 5; D Hughes 7, M Poland 7, C Maginn 6; C Laverty 5, B Coulter 7, M Clarke 5. Subs: P Fitzpatrick 5 for King (34), C Mooney for Hughes (inj 41), A Rodgers 7 for McArdle (45), D O'Hagan 5 for Branagan (49), P McComiskey 7 for Maginn (53).
Ref -- Michael Duffy (Sligo).