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Rebel raid reaps title

THE footballers of Cork repeated their familiar end-of-April trek to Croke Park yesterday and duly claimed a piece of modern-day history - the first National League hat-trick since Kerry in the early 1970s.

The final whistle sounded to barely a murmur of acclamation - not because the match was so abject, although it was no great shakes and marred by a recurring tetchiness, but primarily because there were so few Corkonians in the 22,827 attendance.

How their Mayo counterparts would relish such a weird existence - to be the subject of virtual indifference from their own public, all the while accumulating national titles without any fuss and even less fanfare.

Instead, the mood of Mayo supporters soars and plummets in harmony with their own team's all-too-frequent ebbs and flows. Having eclipsed Kerry in an extra-time thriller two weeks ago, there were giddy "monkey off the back" proclamations about this fast-improving team.

But yesterday, having established a wind-assisted four-point lead in the first half, they ended up losing by five ... and thus completed their own unwanted hat-trick.

This was Mayo's third Allianz League final defeat since 2007 - throw in the All-Ireland final meltdowns of '04 and '06 and you have a royal flush of frustrating anti-climaxes in the past decade.

In mitigation, the performance was significantly better than their no-show against Cork two years ago - scant consolation to manager James Horan as he reviews a second half that saw his Connacht champions outscored by 2-5 to 0-2.

If Horan was in the market for excuses, he could pinpoint a pivotal chain of events in the 55th minute that started with a potential Mayo goal chance and ended with Aidan Walsh crashing home Cork's second goal at the far end.

Mayo wing-back Lee Keegan was almost through on goal when he tumbled to earth - replays suggested he was nudged by Pearse O'Neill, even though he may have been falling already.

Either way, referee Maurice Deegan waved play on; Cork duly counter-attacked and when Fintan Goold's attempt point rebounded off an upright, Walsh was in the right place to bury the chance via a slight deflection and, with that, Mayo's chances too.

Horan's view on the 'free' that wasn't? "It was an important time in the game, but I think over the course of the game Cork probably deserved it. We did not play at the level we can," he conceded.

"If we got the rub of the green or the free we deserved there, we would have been there or thereabouts so that was disappointing. Overall, the game was disappointing and we did not play at the tempo that we can play at."

The losing manager's summation was on the money. Yes, it could have been a free but that shouldn't paper over the cracks of Mayo's overall performance.

This game underlined a few salient points about the respective finalists and where they stand in the All-Ireland pecking order.

Firstly, few teams can match Cork's imposing physique - especially when it's allied to the extra intensity they brought to the second half here.

"We made a couple of good runs, ran into traffic and we weren't strong enough to get through or to play it back," Horan admitted. "We have made progress from a strength and conditioning point of view, but we're still a long way off some of the real big teams."

The other most obvious difference can be gleaned from the respective scoring stats. Cork tallied all bar one point of their 2-10 tally from open play. Mayo could only muster five points from play - two of those from marauding defenders, Keith Higgins and Donal Vaughan.

Even more significant was the negligible contribution of Mayo's two corner-forwards - Michael Conroy never recovered from an early wide whereas Conor Mortimer, their semi-final hero, lived in the shadow of Eoin Cadogan and didn't fare any better when switching out to the '40'.

Even Cillian O'Connor faded after a bright first half, as a tigerish Cork defence led brilliantly by Cadogan and the revitalised Graham Canty imposed their iron-will on proceedings.

The Rebels had trailed by 0-9 to 0-5 after a scratchy first half but what happened next was key. Within two minutes and 20 seconds of the restart, they had reeled off three points from play before a brilliant Donncha O'Connor effort from distance drew the holders level in the 44th minute.

Three minutes later came their first goal when Colm O'Neill, in the high point of an otherwise misfiring day, hammered emphatically to the roof of the net, having been teed up by Donncha O'Connor. Even though Mayo briefly rallied, they were now chasing a lost cause.

This year's Division One climax, the second half especially, was blighted by several mini-melees although Conor Counihan disputed the notion that there was "exceptional niggle", highlighting how both teams finished with the full 15.

For Counihan, the most pleasing aspect was how his players got "stuck in" straight after half-time.

"We knew they (Mayo) were a formidable team and I still think, come championship, they're going to be very formidable," the Cork boss added.

"I mean, when I came in here last year after beating Dublin, most of you guys were writing off Pat Gilroy and telling him what he was and what he wasn't! But the reality was he came and gave the answers.

"So, from our point of view, the league was great to win it but championship is a whole new ball game."