Monday 24 July 2017

O'Connor class shines in clinical show of strength

DAMIAN LAWLOR, at Croke Park

ALMOST 10 months ago, Cork and Down played out a tense and thrilling All-Ireland final but sadly, yesterday evening's action held little drama or suspense for spectators. There was a clear winner right from the start and once again it was the men from the south -- only this time the gap had widened from one point last September to a whopping 12.

Cork's athletic, powerful team held the edge in most areas of the park, especially midfield where they ruled the roost and provided a platform for their lethal forwards.

And Donncha O'Connor, above all others, availed of this excellent service. In what was possibly his best game for the county, O'Connor delivered a display that had everything -- playmaking, free-taking, opportunistic point scoring and a fantastic goal in a virtuoso performance which yielded 1-7. Down put three different men on him but they couldn't nullify his impact.

He was ably supported by Fintan Goold, Alan O'Connor and Aidan Walsh, but all over the pitch Cork looked exceptional. Forget Killarney, Conor Counihan's men are right back where they want to be. No one will want them in the quarter-final draw. The only worry is an injury that Daniel Goulding picked up early in the game, but while he hobbled around on crutches afterwards it's not thought to be season-threatening.

As for Down, their manager James McCartan will wonder if he can take them any further. Martin Clarke picked up two yellow cards and was sent off in the 57th minute after a tangle with John Miskella.

He is most likely Australia bound, destined for a second stint at AFL club Collingwood where Caolan Mooney, one of Down's subs, will join him.

Coming into the game, they would have been reasonably confident of their chances, Down having won 12 of 21 qualifiers in the history of the competition. Their credentials were only enhanced by the fact of Benny Coulter having scored 8-33 in this back-door series to date.

The Leesiders are more used to navigating the direct route but had six qualifier wins out of nine racked up. and they started brightly with a series of quick-fire points.

However, their 11th minute goal was a sight to behold. Paul Kerrigan came out to take a quick free, found Goulding who sent a sublime pass curving from the left corner into Donncha O'Connor.

O'Connor outpaced Gerald McCartan and shot a lovely goal home. It was only a pity so few Cork fans were present in the 31,200 crowd to appreciate this golden score.

To their credit, Down got on with it and replied with points from Benny Coulter and Conor Maginn. Martin Clarke was pulling all the strings, making darting runs around the diamond in front of the full-forward line.

They clawed the deficit back to three points and must surely have been heartened when Goulding withdrew from the Cork team through injury after 20 minutes.

Instead, however, it was the Rebels who responded. Fintan Goold smacked home another lovely goal in the 23rd minute, placing the ball deftly past Brendan McVeigh after being set up by the industrious O'Connor who sent a smashing pass to his onrunning team-mate.

Down were losing the midfield exchanges to Alan O'Connor and Aidan Walsh and thus their defence was being ripped apart too easily. McCartan had to act quickly and he substituted Kalum King after 34 minutes, bringing Peter Fitzpatrick into the frey instead.

But at this stage they already had a hill to climb with Cork leading 2-8 to 0-9 at half-time -- those two green flags making all the difference.

Fitzpatrick duly had a goal chance just after the restart but Alan Quirke brilliantly saved his thunderous effort. It would have put Down right back into the game but it proved a sucker-punch.

Once again, McCartan looked to the bench but while he brought on Ambrose Rogers, again at midfield, and Australia bound Mooney, Cork stretched further ahead, leading 2-12 to 0-10 by the 45th minute with O'Connor making all the difference with his points.

Down threw Conor Garvey onto the Ballydesmond man, his third marker of the day; a tribute to his excellence. While they watched him, however, Kerrigan and Goold slipped in for points. With 20 minutes left there were 10 points between the teams. It was a dead rubber, especially when Clarke was sent off.

The last 20 minutes were at practice match pace, but anyone who thinks this Cork team won't have a huge say in retaining their championship title needs to have a long, hard look at themselves.

They're peaking at exactly the right time.

Scorers -- Cork: D O'Connor 1-7 (0-4f), F Goold 1-2, P Kerrigan 0-3, P Kelly 0-2, P Kissane, P O'Neill, D Goulding (f), G Canty, A Walsh, J Miskella 0-1 each. Down: M Clarke 0-3 (2f), B Coulter, P McComiskey 0-2 each, C Garvey, C Maginn, D Hughes, M Poland, K McKernan, A Rogers, C Laverty 0-1 each.

Cork: A Quirke; E Cadogan, E Cotter, M Shields; N O'Leary, J Miskella, P Kissane; A O'Connor, A Walsh; F Goold, P Kelly, P O'Neill; D Goulding, D O'Connor, P Kerrigan. Subs: B O'Driscoll for Goulding (inj 19), F Lynch for O'Driscoll (inj 28), G Canty for O'Leary (50), M Collins for Walsh (60), R Carey for Cadogan (62)

Down: B McVeigh; A Branagan, D Gordon, G McCartan; D Rooney, K McKernan, C Garvey; K King, A McArdle; D Hughes, M Poland, C Maginn; C Laverty, B Coulter, M Clarke. Subs: P Fitzpatrick for King (34), C Mooney for Hughes (41), A Rogers for McArdle (45), D O'Hagan Branagan (49), P McComiskey for Maginn (53)

Referee: M Duffy (Sligo)

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