Cats bridge 22-year gap and banish final demons
For 22 years Ann Downey has held the tag of being the last Kilkenny woman to lift the O'Duffy Cup but the camogie legend finally got that "monkey off her back" after leading the current crop to a resounding success over three-in-a-row chasing Cork yesterday.
Having lost six finals since, most recently with the bulk of the current squad in 2009, '13 and '14, many questioned Kilkenny's bottle on the game's biggest occasion but they answered their critics in fine style.
Trailing just once over the 60 minutes, they were the better side throughout and neutralised Cork's big-game players like Rena Buckley, Gemma O'Connor and Briege Corkery in a tactical masterclass.
Shelly Farrell's second-half goal gave them a crucial cushion which they would never relinquish and for a teary-eyed Downey, it was an emotional day coming to Croke Park without her father Shem Downey, who won an All-Ireland with Kilkenny in 1947 and died in December 2013.
"My first thought really is about my father because the last time we were here, he was here with us. I know he was spurring us on today, he was such a camogie follower and loved the game. I know he'd be delighted for me," she said.
"And then for the girls, the work that they've put in. They're such lovely girls to work with, regardless of what we asked them to do, no arrogance about them. They took the correction and worked hard and I'm just delighted they've made their own history."
Unlike last Sunday's hurling decider, the Cats were the ones setting the agenda with Davina Tobin and Ann Dalton providing defensive safety and Denise Gaule getting on a lot of possession from deep.
Downey acknowledged that her side had to be adaptable if they wanted to finally get over the line and claim All-Ireland honours in September and praised Tobin for her solidity at full-back while Dalton proved herself wrong by excelling at No 6.
"We played most of the league with Ann Dalton at No 12 and Ann didn't take too kindly to going back centre-back, if we're being quite honest. We had to talk her around it for the Offaly game. She said to me one night, 'I won't win an All-Ireland playing at centre-back'."
But win one she did as the Cats started the brighter with Gaule, who was unerring from placed balls, and Julie Ann Malone providing an early spark in attack and firing over before Orla Cotter, Katrina Mackey and Eimear O'Sullivan were on target for Paudie Murray's Cork.
With the sides level at 0-4 each it looked like a ding-dong battle would ensue but Kilkenny were gradually stamping their mark on the game through Malone and Gaule with Cork skipper Ashling Thompson keeping them in touch.
Cork were struggling for traction up front but Hannah Looney forced Tobin to pull her to the ground when bearing down on goal, which led Aoife Murray to venture up the field for the resulting penalty.
The Cork keeper connected sweetly but magnificent reactions from Dalton sent her pile-driver over the bar and they finished the half the better with Gaule leaving her side two up at the break, 0-8 to 0-6.
It was all Kilkenny on the resumption as they outscored Cork 1-4 to 0-1 in the opening 15 minutes with Gaule and Malone on target. The game was slipping away from the Rebelettes with Looney hitting a solitary point when a goal was badly needed.
But instead of scoring one, they conceded with Katie Power collecting and feeding Shelly Farrell who gave Murray no chance with a beautiful finish to the top corner as Power and Malone tagged on further scores to leave them eight ahead at the end of the third quarter, 1-13 to 0-8.
Amazingly, that was their last score of the game as they battened down the hatches, while O'Connor's 53rd minute dismissal, after picking up two yellow cards in two minutes, signalled that Cork's goose was cooked. Cotter hit an injury-time goal from a free, but it was too little too late.
Downey, a 12-time All-Ireland winner on the pitch, said the joy of victory as a manager "is something that will live with me forever" while she thinks this team can now go on and reach their potential with the weight of expectation lifted.
"It was long overdue. I'm hoping that it will push the bar higher for the girls and I think we'll get better from here. I said that a long time ago that if they had won before this they'd be there for a while and I think this team will be."
For Murray, it was double disappointment at the hands of Kilkenny after his intermediate side lost earlier in the day, and having spent five years in charge, he admitted that "maybe it's time for someone else" while there was no 17th All-Ireland medal for Corkery and Buckley but they return to GAA headquarters in two weeks for the football decider.
SCORERS - Kilkenny - D Gaule 0-7f, JA Malone 0-4, S Farrell 1-0, M Farrell and K Power 0-1 each. Cork - O Cotter 1-2 (1-1f), K Mackey 0-2, E O'Sullivan, A Thompson, L Coppinger, A Murray (pen) and H Looney 0-1 each.
KILKENNY - E Kavanagh; D Tobin, E Keane, J Frisby; C Dormer, A Dalton, C Phelan; A Farrell, M Farrell; S Farrell, D Gaule, JA Malone; M Quilty, K Power, M Walsh. Subs: KA Doyle for A Farrell (59), A Dunphy for K Power (62).
CORK - A Murray; L O'Sullivan, R Buckley, L Treacy; M Cahalane, G O'Connor, P Mackey; O Cotter, A Thompson; E O'Sullivan, H Looney, K Mackey; A O'Connor, O Cronin, B Corkery. Subs: L Coppinger for L O'Sullivan (48), J Hosford for Cronin (57).
REF - E Cassidy (Derry)