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Cork fury at final whistle

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Mayo's Aidan O'Shea, centre, scores his side's first goal despite the efforts of Cork goalkeeper Ken O'Halloran. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Mayo v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea, centre, scores his side's first goal despite the efforts of Cork goalkeeper Ken O'Halloran. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Mayo v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea, centre, scores his side's first goal despite the efforts of Cork goalkeeper Ken O'Halloran. GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship, Quarter-Final, Mayo v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

IT was spiky on the pitch, there was Leeside fury at the finish, and even some of the post-match quotes were bordering on the incendiary.

There were signs from the early stages of yesterday's All-Ireland quarter-final that these Mayo and Cork teams don't particularly like each other. However, most of the latter's agitation at the end was reserved for referee Cormac Reilly, who was surrounded by a posse of angry players as he exited the Croke Park stage.

The source of their angst was obvious. The game was in its 73rd minute by the time Colm O'Neill tapped over a slightly angled 13m free, leaving the bare minimum between the sides. Would he have gone for a Michael Meehan-style net-buster - unlikely and all as the odds would have been - if he knew it was going to be the game's final play? One can only presume yes.

Just two minutes of injury-time had been signalled, but the Cork forward confirmed to reporters afterwards that he had enquired how much time remained and - according to O'Neill's version - he had been told there was "a minute or so" left.

By now, in ironic contrast to last year's All-Ireland final which ended in similarly controversial circumstances, Mayo were the ones happy to run down the clock. There was time for final substitution but, as Robert Hennelly's kickout landed, full-time sounded.

"I wasn't talking to Colm," manager Brian Cuthbert said afterwards. "I saw him have a conversation with the referee, same as everyone else. Then he put the ball down and stroked it over the bar. Colm is an intelligent guy so I presume, whatever conversation he had with the referee, he deducted from that he had time."

It wasn't to be, and so Cork exit the Sam Maguire race with a modicum of pride restored after the horror-show of that Munster final while Mayo stutter - rather than march on - to a semi-final date with Kerry on August 24.

FRAUGHT

In truth, it never should have been so fraught for the pre-match favourites from the west. They aren't playing with remotely the same energy or fluency that marked last summer's high point - the last-eight demolition of Donegal - but they had still wrested complete control of the game during a dominant third-quarter.

After a first half scrap which saw Mayo struggle to break down Cork's new-found tactical wheeze - the eight-man defence - the sides were level at 0-8 apiece. After 51 minutes, the scoreboard read Mayo 0-16 Cork 0-9.

Game, set and semi-final bound?

It should have been. Yet, for whatever reason or maybe a multitude of ones, this weird quarter-final suddenly took on a life of its own and Mayo were no longer setting the agenda.

To our eyes in the press box up above, it appeared as if the Connacht champions started to run out of gas. Another significant factor was that Cork abandoned their dual defensive sweeper syster and one of their attack-minded replacements - veteran Donncha O'Connor - had a profound role in the resultant fightback.

In a ten-minute period from the 52nd minute, they hit their opponents for an unanswered 1-4. Fintan Goold started it all with a point but the rest all came from the boot of O'Connor: a fine point from play, two close-range frees and finally a goal, placed with consummate precision, inside Hennelly's near post.

At the genesis of that equalising goal was a Mayo attack ending with the dispossession of Jason Doherty, before James Loughrey released O'Connor at the other end. Even in the preceeding minutes, however, there were hints of Mayo's sudden vulnerability - midfielder Ian Maguire forced a saved off Hennelly, then O'Neill left Ger Cafferkey in his wake only to tumble as he prepared to shoot.

The benign version? An accidental tangle of legs. Still, surely it was a free-in? Reilly deemed otherwise; play on.

Still, after Cork's first goal, the sides were level and Leeside had all the momentum. But Mayo showed calm resolve to edge back in front with a 64th minute free - Cillian O'Connor's last act before departing, with cramp, according to his manager.

Two minutes later the lead was out to four. This time it was Mayo's tenacity at the turnover - Alan Freeman pilfering Paddy Kelly's pockets - that initiated the move that saw Donal Vaughan release Aidan O'Shea.

The Breaffy powerhouse still had plenty to do, but he neatly skipped inside a defender, then rounded Ken O'Halloran to apply the coup de grace ... or maybe not, for inside a minute we had Cork's second goal, Brian Hurley's deflected piledriver.

CONTROVERSY

Mayo steadied again via points from Vaughan (impressing in a more advanced role) and Lee Keegan (on a rare attacking foray). Then it was a case of stopping a Cork goal at all costs - cue two O'Neill tap-overs before time ran out in a welter of controversy.

"It was a horrible game to watch from the sidelines," James Horan admitted. "We found it hard in the first half. It was a dour enough first half with Cork going so defensive.

"We tried to plot our way through it. In the second half I thought we opened up and played quite well at times, got a great flow."

But, even though Seamus and Aidan O'Shea set a bulldozing example around the middle, they are still not flowing like champions-elect. Anything but. "We are not at that level yet, definitely," Horan conceded, harking back to last year's quarter-final. "But we are winning games and getting a little bit better and showed glimpses today of, I suppose, where we can get to."

Last word to the vanquished. "Look, the lesson for us is don't put yourself in a position where you're hanging on for a last-minute free to decide whether you're going to have to go for a goal or wait for more time," said Cuthbert.

"I'm immensely proud of the players; I thought we did very, very well. Hit of a rocky patch - and that cost us the game. That's it. But, character was questioned; their desire was questioned; and I would like to think they answered that today."


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