Cuthbert: I'm over the moon O'Neill is back
Cork 1-17 Dublin 0-18
MARK this one down as 'The Return of Colm O'Neill' and file it away in the memory bank, because, down the line, that may, indeed, be relevant as to how loud the Rebels will yell this summer.
It's probably no exaggeration to say the sight of the strapping Ballyclough man, still only 25, coming on after 50 minutes a year after suffering an unthinkable third cruciate injury, gladdened the hearts of the 19,626 who popped along to the Big House on Saturday night for this fascinating top-of-the-table clash.
The sides were level, for the fifth time when O'Neill scored a fantastic point with his first touch and Dublin's goodwill towards him possibly dissipated a little when he also bagged Cork's insurance point in injury-time.
Yet even Dublin manager Jim Gavin, whose side suffered only their second defeat under his watch, couldn't begrudge him.
While discussing the return of fellow-ACL victim Tomas Brady to the Dublin bench Gavin, unprompted, also generously referenced O'Neill and said it was great to see him back.
Cork manager Brian Cuthbert, whose new-look side passed their first road-test with flying colours and impressive composure, spoke from the heart about O'Neill's hard-fought recovery and 7.0am rehab sessions.
"He's a special player, we need him and, outside of anything that happened out there, I'm just over the moon that Colm O'Neill is back playing because the game is better for it," Cuthbert said. "He has been knocked back three times now and we have only seen glimpses of the player he could be if he could just sustain a length of time playing.
"All he wants, like every other boy in the country, is to play football. I spoke to his mom and dad afterwards and they're on tenterhooks every time he goes out now. But, at the same time, today should give him huge confidence because he won the game for us really."
Cork, collectively, can take similar confidence from this win, whose scoreline surely endorsed the 'black-card effect' (none were shown, though two apiece were booked) and their Division 1 status for next season.
Six of their players – starters Noel Galvin and Conor Dorman and four subs including Donal Hodnett who, like O'Neill, scored 0-2 off the bench – were making their Croker debuts.
Yet they handed the Dubs their first defeat at HQ since last year's league reverse to Tyrone on March 16– impressive stuff for a young team 'in transition' under new management.
They were in serious oxygen debt after just eight minutes as Dublin had already racked up a four-point lead with seven points from play, but grabbed a second wind thanks to Daniel Goulding's marvellous free-taking.
Cork's first league goal finally came in the 25th minute when John O'Rourke and Mark Collins put through John Hayes, back after a three-year absence, who amassed 1-3 by half-time.
Dublin were unlucky not to get one straight back when the impressive Cormac Costello floated a ball into the square for Bryan Cullen to flick in, but Ken O'Halloran deflected it and the Rebels went in two points clear (1-11 to 0-12) at the break.
Davy Byrne was a late replacement for Paul Flynn, Cian O'Sullivan started at centre-back and James McCarthy in midfield and when Cork's direct, pacey approach mirrored their own and moved them four points clear, Gavin made another adjustment.
He had earlier replaced Sean George with Jack McCaffrey, switched Jonny Cooper to the full-back line and Eoghan O'Gara's arrival also improved them.
Suddenly, Dublin lorded midfield, winning seven Cork kick-outs in-a-row, but their shooting completely deserted them into the Railway End and a spread of players amassed eight second-half wides.
Cork were a contrast in efficiency. Scoreless for almost 20 minutes and level with 10 minutes left, they then created three scoring chances and made all, with O'Neill's both from long range.
Dublin have no need to panic. They had only eight of their All-Ireland-winning team and showed great pace and endeavour throughout, but just didn't have the finishing.
That, in fairness, was down to the sort of pressure that James Loughrey and Eoin Cadogan applied and Paul Kerrigan was immense throughout in a deep-roving, play-making role.
Gavin was unperturbed at losing their year-long winning streak.
"Many of those National League games last year could have gone either way," he said.
"You always want to win and it's good for the camp, but the big thing for us is that we learn from today. We need to be more efficient and economical in front of goal, that's one thing we've carried on from last year."
Cuthbert, a senior selector last year, wasn't getting carried away either, pointing out the calendar date and their kick-out lapses, but he was delighted they "had the gumption to go down and kick those two winning points."
As he noted, the seven players that Cork lost this year, were all big men whose previous game-plan suited that physicality, but the 2014 Rebels certainly look set to play a very different and exciting brand of football.
Scorers – Cork: D Goulding 0-7fs, J Hayes 1-3, D Hodnett, C O'Neill 0-2 each, F Goold, P Kerrigan, B Hurley 0-1 each. Dublin: C Costello 0-4 (1f), K McManamon, C Kilkenny (1f), S Cluxton (2fs, 1'45) 0-3 each, C Reddin 0-2, J McCarthy, S Carthy, P Hudson 0-1 each.
Cork – K O'Halloran 6; C Dorman 5, E Cadogan 7, N Galvin 6; K Loughrey 8, A Cronin 6, T Clancy 7; A Walsh 6, F Goold 7; J O'Rourke 7, P Kerrigan 8, M Collins 7; D Goulding 8, B Hurley 6, J Hayes 8. Subs:- K Crowley 5 for Dorman (26), D Hodnett 7 for Galvin (h-t), C O'Neill 7 for Hayes (51), R Deane 6 for Walsh (54), A O'Sullivan 5 for Goold (58), K O'Driscoll for Loughrey (inj, 71).
Dublin – S Cluxton 7; S George 5, P McMahon 7, M Fitzsimons 6; E Lowndes 5, C O'Sullivan 8, J Cooper 7; J McCarthy 8, MD Macauley 8; D Byrne 6, C Kilkenny 8, B Cullen 7; K McManamon 6, C Reddin 7, C Costello 8. Subs: J McCaffrey 8 for George (25), D Nelson 6 for Lowdnes (h-t) E O'Gara 7 for Byrne (46), P Hudson 7 for Costello (52), S Carthy 7 for Reddin (63).
REF – P Hughes (Armagh).