Cork find route to liberation
Relieved Rebels in seventh heaven after scoring aces Goulding and O'Connor kickstart decisive second-half surge to reel in Down's brave bid for glory
LIBERATION at last for a group of players who, in their darker moments, must have wondered if they would ever break free from the chains of despair which shackled them so tightly over the last few years.
Cork's seventh All-Ireland football title was a long time coming, which explains why its arrival was greeted with such a deep sense of relief among a squad that really couldn't have survived another final defeat.
As the rain bucketed down on Croke Park during the post-match celebrations, the Cork players savoured the glory of an occasion they fashioned through a combination of hard work, systematic problem-solving and intelligent use of hard-earned experience.
Even then, they had only a point to spare against a Down team that reacted brilliantly to a level of challenge they hadn't encountered before. And while they became the first team from the county to lose an All-Ireland senior final, they proved they were well qualified to bid for the biggest prize of all.
In the end, they came up just short, having been reined in by Cork's relentless drive over the final 40 minutes. They outscored Down by 0-14 to 0-8 in that period and while they were hanging on grimly at the end, they had enough composure to complete a task that looked as if it might well be beyond them when Down powered into a five-point lead after 27 minutes.
It was a fully merited advantage as Down had been by far the better team up to then. Granted, Cork should have had a goal in the second minute, but Ciaran Sheehan failed to avail of two opportunities after large tracts of unmanned space opened up through the centre of the Down defence.
It looked ominous for Down, but once they settled into their routine, they quickly established a rhythm which bewildered Cork. Down's passing was quick and accurate, picking out their front men with impressive regularity. Daniel Hughes and Paul McComiskey were especially prominent early on and while Benny Coulter and Martin Clarke found it hard to make progress against Michael Shields and Noel O'Leary respectively, there was still more than enough going on in the Down attack to suggest they could rack up a good score.
They took it to seven points after 27 minutes, five clear of Cork who failed to score between the 12th and 30th minutes. Aidan Walsh, whose influence would become even more marked in the second half, was winning plenty of ball around midfield but the Cork attack just didn't function in the first half hour.
They regularly took the ball into contact only to be dispossessed, while their passing was too short and flat to create angles of running which might have bothered Down. Cork's first score from open play didn't arrive until the 32nd minute when Daniel Goulding fired a snap shot over the bar.
The Cork crowd responded with a thunderous roar and when Donncha O'Connor kicked an equally good point just before the break, it was clear that Cork were winding up for a powerful second half. Down led by 0-8 to 0-5 at the interval, having kicked six wides.
Conor Counihan played his first ace during half-time by deciding to send Nicholas Murphy in at midfield in place of Alan O'Connor. Counihan followed up six minutes into the second half by introducing captain Graham Canty, a move which would also prove significant. With Murphy and Canty releasing so much experience into the mix, Down faced a ferocious challenge, the likes of which they hadn't encountered up to then.
Still, Down made an encouraging start to the second half when McComiskey pointed in the 40th minute to push them 9-5 ahead, but it was to be the end of their period of dominance. Between then and the 59th minute, Cork outscored them by 0-9 to 0-2 to move three points clear.
Goulding (frees and '45s), Donncha O'Connor, Ciaran Sheehan and Paul Kerrigan scored the nine points between them as Down struggled to survive in a much-changed scene. Walsh and Murphy were the dominant forces around midfield, while Shields, O'Leary and Canty led the defensive security operation with calm authority. The range of problems confronting the Down attack was undermined by the fact that they managed just three points in the first 28 minutes of the second half while they didn't register their first wide of the period until the 60th minute.
Marty Clarke, whose long, accurate kicking proved so important in Down's run to the final, couldn't get on enough ball as O'Leary harried and hassled him with commendable discipline. Coulter, another major performer in earlier games, managed just one point from play, while Hughes found it much more difficult to make progress against a Cork defence that was playing with a solidity which had been absent for long stretches of the first half. At 0-14 to 0-11 on the hour mark, it looked as if Cork would drive on to a reasonably comfortable victory, but, to their credit, Down dug in for a major effort over the closing minutes. However, they were still three points adrift after 68 minutes -- having come mighty close conceding a goal -- but points by Coulter and Hughes left them just one behind a minute into stoppage time.
The first All-Ireland final draw since 2000 was a distinct possibility, but Cork held their nerve and succeeded in playing out the final two minutes in Down's half. Cork's experience was crucial in that period and they exploited it to the full.
So then, Cork are back as All-Ireland champions for the first time in 20 years while becoming the sixth side to win the title, via the 'back door'. They did it the hard way in the semi-final and final, coming from behind against both Dublin and Down, proving that despite the severe disappointments of recent seasons their resolve remained intact.
That's a tribute to the individual qualities of the squad and Conor Counihan, who, despite taking some unwarranted criticism in Cork, always remained convinced that the breakthrough would come. Cork were helped enormously by the departure of Kerry and Tyrone at the quarter-final stage, but they still had a lot to do and weren't found wanting.
The courageous manner in which they worked their way back from a sizeable first-half deficit yesterday was a victory for their self-belief, a quality not always in evidence in previous seasons. It was there in abundance and played a major role in steering them past a Down team whose shortage of big-time experience left them exposed under the intense pressure Cork produced in the second half.
Scorers -- Cork: D Goulding 0-9 (4f, 3 '45s), D O'Connor 0-5 (2f), C Sheehan, P Kerrigan 0-1 each. Down: D Hughes, M Clarke (3f), P McComiskey 0-3 each, J Clarke, M Poland, K McKernan, P Fitzpatrick, R Murtagh, B Coulter 0-1 each.
Cork -- A Quirke; E Cadogan, M Shields, R Carey; N O'Leary, J Miskella, P Kissane; A O'Connor, A Walsh; D Goulding, P O'Neill, P Kelly; P Kerrigan, D O'Connor, C Sheehan. Subs: N Murphy for A O'Connor (ht), G Canty for Kissane (41), C O'Neill for P O'Neill (56), D Kavanagh for Murphy (65), J Hayes for Kerrigan (69).
Down -- B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan, C Garvey; P Fitzpatrick, K King; D Hughes, M Poland , B Coulter; P McComiskey, J Clarke, M Clarke. Subs: C Maginn for J Clarke (45), R Murtagh for McComiskey (56), B McArdle for Rafferty (58), A Brannigan for King (65), C Laverty for Poland (66).
Ref -- D Coldrick (Meath)