Walsh clinches Rebel treble
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COLLECTING league titles has become something of an April custom for Cork, while Mayo's fraught relationship with finals -- whether in spring or autumn -- continues to leave them frustrated to the point of distraction.
Cork left Croke Park with a league trophy for a fourth successive year, having completed a Division 1 treble to add to the Division 2 crown they won in 2009, while Mayo once again headed west empty-handed after being overpowered in the second half.
Mayo latest defeat means that they have won only one national final (2001 NFL) from 13 attempts over the past 41 years, a dismal return which remains one of the great unexplained phenomena of Irish sport.
It was their second league final defeat in three seasons but, unlike 2010, when they were beaten even more comprehensively than the eight-point margin suggested, they remained competitive all the way yesterday and, with a little more luck, would have been a whole lot closer.
Indeed, an incident in the 56th minute will have occupied much of the post-match discussion among Mayo supporters as it handed Cork a sizeable advantage which they exploited clinically before living off the interest of their investment all the way to the finish line.
Mayo were trailing by two points when wing-back Lee Keegan drove hard the centre of the Cork defence, but just as he was about to get into a shooting position, he was tackled by Cork midfielder Pearse O'Neill.
Keegan stumbled and the ball squirted forward, allowing Cork to begin a counter-attack which presented Fintan Goold with a point opportunity. His shot clattered off an upright and fell invitingly into the hands of Aidan Walsh, who beat David Clarke from close range.
In less than a minute, Mayo had not only lost a possible goal-scoring opportunity but also conceded a goal at the other end, leaving them five points adrift. It was a defining moment as Cork, backed by an icy cold wind, were never going to be caught from there on.
Were Mayo hard done by in the Keegan incident? Probably. Keegan appeared to be clipped by O'Neill but it was difficult for referee Maurice Deegan to tell whether it had caused him to stumble or whether that was already happening before O'Neill made contact. Deegan gave the benefit of the doubt to Cork and they hit the jackpot again almost immediately with their second goal.
The sides scored a point each over the final 14 minutes as Cork sat back and invited Mayo onto them. Mayo pressed on, but found it very difficult to make progress against a secure Cork defence where Graham Canty, Eoin Cadogan and Ray Carey were especially efficient.
By the end, Mayo had replaced three of their starting forwards, plus both midfielders, an indication of how difficult they found it make progress beyond the half-way line.
Pearse O'Neill and Alan O'Connor won most of the primary possession around midfield; Goold, Patrick Kelly and Paul Kerrigan ran at the Mayo defence at every opportunity and, further in, Colm O'Neill was always a threat.
However, he was let down by his shooting, kicking four wides, three before his well-finished goal strike and one after.
Cillian O'Connor, Andy Moran and Kevin McLoughlin did their best to energise Mayo's attacking game and achieved it quite well in the first half, but once the Connacht side faced into the wind for the second period the impetus quickly swung Cork's way.
Mayo led by 0-9 to 0-5 at half-time, with five points coming from frees by O'Connor. He also scored one from play, as did Andy Moran, while two others came from defenders Keith Higgins and Donal Vaughan. It meant that Mayo's starting forward line managed just two points from open play in that period, which was ominous for the second half when they would be living off much less possession against the wind.
Mayo managed just one point from open play (McLoughlin) in the second half and finished off their scoring with a pointed free by Conor Mortimer, who made no impression either close to goal or when he ranged further out in search of possession.
Mayo needed to lock the defensive bolts for the inevitable Cork onslaught early in the second half, but came up short and saw their four-point lead wiped out inside 10 minutes. And when O'Neill took a pass from Goold and powered a thundering drive to the Mayo net in the 46th minute to put Cork three points clear, it looked as if Mayo might be heading for a shattering defeat which would carry a nasty hangover into the championship.
To Mayo's credit, they didn't allow that to happen. McLoughlin pared a point off the lead in the 50th minute and they were still pressing on bravely when the Keegan incident and Walsh's goal settled things in Cork's favour.
Overall, it was a highly satisfactory performance by Cork, where the only issue which will be of some concern to Conor Counihan was the number of scoreable frees they conceded in the first half. Their defensive discipline improved in the second half, but then they weren't under anything like as much pressure as the Mayo attack were living off scraps.
There was a significant moment late on when Daniel Goulding, who replaced O'Neill in the 68th minute, kicked a great point before turning away in a triumphant whirl.
Goulding's return to fitness is a major plus as his absence from last year's All-Ireland quarter-final almost certainly a crucial factor in Cork's defeat by Mayo.
His return will add to Counihan's options as he looks ahead to the Munster championship as three-time league champions. It's the first time the treble has been achieved since Kerry completed the third leg in 1973 of what became a four-timer a year later.
As for Mayo, it was yet another frustrating day. Their inability to break Cork's grip around midfield left them with a range of problems which ultimately brought them down. Still, they left Croke Park wondering what might have happened if Keegan had got through for a goal (or even a point) in that fateful incident.
That's a big improvement on the 2010 league final, where an insipid performance left them easy prey in the championship.
Scorers -- Cork: C O'Neill, A Walsh 1-0 each, P O'Neill, D O'Connor (2f), F Goold, 0-2 each, G Canty, A O'Connor, P Kelly, D Goulding 0-1 each. Mayo: C O'Connor 0-6 (5f), K Higgins, D Vaughan, A Moran, K McLoughlin, C Mortimer (f) 0-1 each.
Cork -- A Quirke 7; R Carey 8, M Shields 7, E Cadogan 8; N O'Leary 7, G Canty 9, P Kissane 8; P O'Neill 8, A O'Connor 7; F Goold 7, P Kelly 7, P Kerrigan 7; C O'Neill 7, A Walsh 6, D Connor 6. Subs: N Murphy for A O'Connor (64), D Goulding for C O'Neill (64), B O'Driscoll for P O'Neill (68)
Mayo -- D Clarke 7; K Keane 6, G Cafferkey 6, K Higgins 8; L Keegan 7, C Boyle 6, D Vaughan 7; B Moran 5, J Gibbons 5; K McLoughlin 6, A Moran 6, A Dillon 5; C Mortimer 5, C O'Connor 7, M Conroy 5. Subs: P Harte 5 for Gibbons (40), E Varley 5 for Conroy (47), D Geraghty 5 for B Moran (56), J Doherty for O'Connor (61), R Feeney for Dillon (68).
REF -- M Deegan (Laois).