As expected Dublin comfortably strolled past Cork to set up a dream All Ireland semi-final against arch rivals Kerry. For Cork, Saturday was the end of a long and arduous road, but given the rough and tumble season maybe they can be satisfied to have reached the last eight of the Championship
Nobody expected Cork to win in Croke Park last weekend, thrown in at the lion's den at an inappropriate match starting time much to the annoyance of genuine Rebel fans unable to travel in tough times. However, those Dublin supporters expecting a goal-fest were left disappointed, their side looking as if the handbrake was applied for much of the contest, maybe rusty given a long lay-off since a provincial campaign and frustrated by the Cork defensive set up.
A pre-match alignment that saw Paul Ring replace Dan Ó Duinnín as an additional defender, Cork's intentions were confirmed in setting up as a structured defensive unit with Seán Powter in a sweeper role. Cork had adopted a similar approach against Kerry in the Munster semi-final, and were well in the hunt for 50 minutes before the cream surfaced and the Kingdom pulled away for a decisive win.
It was much the same approach on a visit to Croke Park, as Cork sought a first victory since 2013, and a decent first half effort saw Cork remain in the hunt up to half time. And with a breeze behind them, Cork may well have been closer than a three-point deficit after passing up chances from both play and frees.
That summarised partly the difference between the sides, and the disparity became evident. Cork were under pressure to earn scores whereas Dublin took their opportunities with ease. Realistically, the last eight was a target for most counties at the start of season, the likes of Cork and Clare happy to reach the destination, and though both sides toiled with honesty last weekend, they could never find the fluency to match the crowned provincial champions in the opposing corner.
Clare leaked a glut of goals to Derry, but there were no such discomforts for Cork, setting up in a containment mode that Dublin found difficulty to break down with no clear goal opportunities emerging. Perhaps the Dubs expected the scenario, benefiting from Cork failing to put any degree of pressure on the Dublin restarts, Cork happy to retreat in numbers.
That played into Dublin’s hands, building from deep, definitely more calculated and polished in their execution of point taking opportunities. As the contest aged a difference in class surfaced, the open expanses of Croke Park taking its toll on Cork, prone to committing fouls saw Dean Rock unerring from frees in a third quarter. Cork conceded 0-6 without reply as the contest meandered to a sedate conclusion.
Cork's season ended on the last Saturday in June, and on paper there is plenty in the pot to give players and management sustenance going forward in terms of planning for improvement. Interim manager John Cleary correctly ranked Cork ranked as “a mid to a lower Division 2 team” yet there are grounds for optimism on the influx of young players that may take time for the buds to ripen in two to three years.
Whatever about this championship, the most crucial win all season surfaced in the concluding League tie against Offaly. Far from a classic, and hard earned as the close scoreline suggested, Cork survived the test to retain Division 2 status and avoid competing in the Tailteann Cup.
Given Cork's size as a county and number of clubs, they need to be operating within the elite group at national level. Minor and Under-20 glory from recent years augurs well on paper yet it is going to be a long and winding road to gain a tangible reward from underage triumphs.
Cork reached the last eight courtesy of wins over promoted teams from Division 3 in Louth and Limerick, thankfully avoiding some formidable Ulster teams and Mayo. Third time in, they drew the short straw in the quarter-final against the Leinster champions, against whom Cork’s inferiority surfaced.
If Cork are to prosper from Division 2 in 2023, they will need to earn productive returns from meetings against Dublin, Ulster champions Derry and Kildare. In many ways, Cork need to look at the upward spiral of Derry. A few short years ago they were domiciled in Division 4, but their upward spiral since and especially this has, contributed by power and pace, saw them knock seasoned sides out of Ulster and they continued their progress with a demolition of Clare on Saturday.
On the credit side, Cork can look ahead to competing against formidable opposition such as Derry early next year than be drawn into a series of lowly rated Division 3 encounters, which looked a possibility back in March. From a seemingly dire situation of poor results early in 2022, a run of injuries and the enforced loss of their manager, Cork did turn the corner in late spring. A lot has been achieved but a considerable more is needed if they are to become genuine Sam Maguire Cup contenders.