Macauley on fire as Blue wave sinks Cork
Dublin 2-20 Cork 2-13 (Allianz NFL Semi-Final)
It's only mid-April but Dublin are already leading contenders for the comeback of the year award.
There will, no doubt, be some other stirring recoveries over the next five months but they will need to be pretty remarkable to surpass Dublin's achievement in Croke Park yesterday.
Jim Gavin's marauding adventurers appeared to be about to surrender the league title with uncharacteristic tameness early in the second half when Cork stretched their lead to 10 points (2-11 to 0-7) but they mined deep into their spirit reserves and were rewarded with a response which overwhelmed the Rebels.
There was an element of luck about the goal which launched the revival in the 40th minute – Michael Darragh Macauley reacted quickest when Philly McMahon's shot for a point cannoned back off the upright – but it was pure gold from there on as Dublin unleashed their awesome range of skills, organisation and endeavour.
They outscored Cork by 1-13 to 0-1 over the final half-hour, playing with a coherence and conviction that bore no relation whatsoever to a first quarter where they looked like a Division 4 side who had somehow found themselves in with the elite.
The contrast between that period and the second half could not have been greater and will no doubt figure in Gavin's debrief this week. For while Dublin's expansive flourishes in the second half were very easy on the eye, they will also have to deal with the reality of an opening 15 minutes where they were run ragged.
Goals by Colm O'Neill in the fifth minute and Mark Collins two minutes later gave Cork the perfect opening, which they embellished with some excellent points. Their direct approach caused chaos in a Dublin defence where Rory O'Carroll was being tormented by Brian Hurley. The Cork full-forward kicked five points from play in the first half but, in common with so many of his colleagues, it was altogether different in the second half when Dublin's pressure game dominated possession.
Cork's first goal was brilliantly finished by O'Neill, whose powerful drive whizzed past Stephen Cluxton, who won't be happy with his role in the second goal shortly afterwards. A shot for a point by Hurley dropped in front of the Dublin goal where Collins got in a flick ahead of Cluxton.
Nicky Devereux, one of three changes made by Dublin from the team announced on Friday night, couldn't prevent the ball from squirming over the line, leaving Dublin facing a mountainous challenge which would certainly have been beyond the range of most other teams.
But then, others can't bring Eoghan O'Gara and Bernard Brogan off the bench. O'Gara was sent in for Jason Whelan after 26 minutes and helped himself to two points before half-time to leave Dublin trailing by 2-9 to 0-7.
O'Gara continued to stretch the Cork defence in the second half and when he was joined by Brogan in the 44th minute, the balance of power shifted ever further in a blue direction.
Brogan kicked five points (two from play) and also won a penalty which Diarmuid Connolly drove to the net in the 66th minute. Dublin were two points ahead at that stage, having kicked a string of points as follow-ups to Macauley's goal.
Cork were left utterly bewildered, lost in a blue sea which tossed them all over the place. They had scored the first two points of the second half but managed just one more when centre-back Paddy Kelly soloed forward and fired over. Kelly had a torrid time at No 6, first trying to deal with Connolly and later with Alan Brogan.
In the light of yesterday's experience, it will be interesting to see if Brian Cuthbert persists with Kelly as a half-back rather than deploy him in a more forward position where he spent most of the time during Conor Counihan's managerial regime. Kelly has a lot of attributes but close marking is not among them, as Dublin repeatedly highlighted.
In fairness to the Cork defence, the pressure coming through from midfield was so intense in the second half that it was always going to be very difficult to survive.
Still, Cork had a 10-point cushion after 39 minutes and should have been able to protect it a whole lot better.
Instead, they allowed Dublin to take control of the middle third, where Macauley was especially effective, and found themselves pushed ever deeper into defence.
Dublin's ball-winning capacity was backed up by a wide range of slick movements where the ball-carrier invariably had a range of options.
They generally took the right option and once the points began to flow, it was obvious that Dublin were headed for their third league final in four seasons.
No fewer than 11 Dublin players got on the scoresheet, including a defender, a midfielder, five of the starting forwards and four subs.
The final yield of 2-20 was their best of the season to date – indeed it could have been even higher if their shooting had been more accurate.
They kicked 13 wides and also dropped a few efforts short but got away with it on a day when they were creating so many chances in the second half that they were always going to rack up a big score.
The big concern for Cork is the impact the second-half demolition will have on them. They looked the real deal for 40 minutes, building solidly on the progress made in the group matches, where they secured a semi-final spot in six games.
It was all going so well but everything changed once Macauley's goal offered Dublin a hint that a rescue package could be put together. The confidence gained over recent seasons stood to Dublin as they set about reining in the runaway Rebels with some wonderfully creative play.
For all that, Gavin will be concerned by the poor first-half performance, especially the concession of two goals so early on. The defence was easily dismantled at times and if Cork had taken more of their chances, their interval lead would have been much greater than eight points.
Still, Cork headed for the dressing-room in a contented mindset and were even happier in the first few minutes of the second half before being hit by a Dublin avalanche which buried their league ambitions with crushing power.
Retaining the All-Ireland is obviously Dublin's priority this year but on yesterday's evidence they are prepared to expend whatever energy it takes to hold on to the league crown too.
Scorers – Dublin: B Brogan 0-5 (3fs), D Connolly 1-2 (1-0 pen, 0-1f), MD Macauley 1-1, P Andrews, E O'Gara 0-3 each, K McManamon, P Flynn, D Byrne, J Cooper, A Brogan, C Reddin 0-1 each. Cork: B Hurley 0-5, C O'Neill, M Collins 1-1 each, D Goulding 0-2 (1f), P Kelly, J O'Sullivan, F Goold, D O'Connor 0-1 each.
Dublin – S Cluxton 5; J Cooper 8, R O'Carroll 5, P McMahon 7; N Devereux 6, K Nolan 6 , J McCarthy 6; MD MacAuley 8, D O'Mahony 5; P Flynn 6, D Connolly 7, J Whelan 4; K McManamon 6, P Andrews 7, A Brogan 8 . Subs: E O'Gara 8 for Whelan (26), D Byrne 7 for O'Mahony (h-t), B Brogan 8 for McManamon (44), D Nelson 7for Nolan (56), C Reddin for Andrews (66), T Brady for O'Gara (71).
Cork – K O' Halloran 6; M Shields 7, J O'Sullivan 6, Tom Clancy 6; J Loughrey 7, P Kelly 5, D Cahalane 6; F Goold 6, A O'Sullivan 5; M Collins 7, D O'Connor 5, P Kerrigan 6; D Goulding 6, B Hurley 8, C O'Neill 6. Subs: J O' Rourke 6 for O'Connor (44), A Walsh 5 for Goulding (49), J Hayes 5 for O'Neill (56), N Galvin 5 for Tom Clancy (60), Tomas Clancy for A O'Sullivan (64), K O'Driscoll for Kerrigan (71).
Ref – C Branagan (Down)