McBrearty hits highest Donegal note
Donegal 0-21 Cork 1-15
Paddy McBrearty turns 23 next Friday but it feels like he's been around forever.
His timing has been quite perfect though, coinciding with Jim McGuinness' revolution that has taken Donegal right to the forefront of the game in this decade.
McGuinness saw enough of him to warrant inclusion in all five championship games in 2011 while he was still eligible for minor grade.
Since then he has brought his championship appearance count to 34. Most of the time he has been good, sometimes he's been a notch above that but never to the level he reached against Cork in the first game of this double-header in Croke Park.
This was McBrearty cashing in on the outrageous talent that saw McGuinness pluck him from a minor match that acted as curtain-raiser to their opening game against Antrim five years ago and land him in the thick of things. This was the performance that so often threatened but never quite got there.
Eleven points in all, seven from play, a nightmare for so many Cork defenders tasked with tracking him.
"He was exceptionally good. We tried three or four fellas marking him," reported Cork manager Peadar Healy, noting the loss of James Loughrey and Noel Galvin in midweek.
But who could really have stopped him in this irrepressible form? Cork's obsession with tracking Michael Murphy opened doors for him.
Some of the points he nailed over his shoulder running away from goals were spectacular.
"It was probably a relief to get out of Ulster to express himself," said his manager Rory Gallagher.
"I know him extremely well with club and county this last number of years, he is capable of those things.
"He wouldn't have gone to that level, that was exceptional. His ball-winning, his decision-making, his finishing was top class."
Naturally McBrearty was a little more reticent about the groove he hit. "The boys had their heads up more than other days. I haven't changed from my own game."
He had to be that good against a resurgent Cork who led for most of the first 62 minutes until Donegal kicked for home with five unanswered points.
Not surprisingly McBrearty's Kilcar club-mates Ryan and Eoin McHugh were at the core of that effort, just as they had been all day.
That part of south-west Donegal may have just 900 inhabitants but their contribution to the scoreboard was completely disproportionate to their population with Ryan (three) and Eoin (two) chipping in to bring the parish total to 16 points from 21.
Collectively that's some input into the highest number of scores a Donegal team has amassed in those 34 championship games since McGuinness' arrival.
Eoin's pace and Ryan's guile and agility in possession complemented their in-form colleague inside to eventually bring Cork to their knees.
Healy suggested they had been "ground" down but there was a little more to it than that. A change in approach after the break saw Donegal sit back much deeper and defend in numbers, something they do so well and which ultimately made a difference that Cork struggled to adapt to.
"In the first half they were getting the short (kick-out) away and were opening us up easily. We weren't able to recover, they came at us with a lot of pace and would have seen how Tyrone, to a certain extent, would have got a lot of joy with it. The second half, we tightened up a lot," Gallagher said.
Such a healthy score will please him but the gaps were sometimes too easily found by Cork's strike runners in the opening period.
From deep positions the likes of Tomas and Tom Clancy, Colm and Kevin O'Driscoll all picked holes for points. Sean Powter skipped past Odran MacNiallais at one stage for their third point as if he wasn't there. When kick-outs went long generally Alan O'Connor and Ian Maguire gave Cork the edge.
The goal exposed Donegal most. The decision to penalise Paddy McGrath in the first place was questionable but the response from Cork was swift, Tomas Clancy putting in Paul Kerrigan behind the cover for a smart finish and a 1-6 to 0-4 lead in the 17th minute.
But by the 30th minute they were level, 1-7 to 0-10, as McBrearty really got to work.
They needed a decent block by Neil McGee on Maguire after another fine Cork build up as half-time approached to avoid further slippage.
Cork got Aidan Walsh on to the pitch and he fired over a great point to restore a lead that Donegal had twice pulled back in the early stages of the second half but the Rebels were beginning to run out of road.
It took patience on Donegal's part though. Leo McLoone, overlooked for involvement in the Ulster final defeat to Tyrone, came in and made an impact with a couple of crucial tackles.
It's the third time in six years that they recovered from an Ulster final defeat to make an All-Ireland quarter-final, the sixth time in succession that they've made it to the 'last eight.'
"I don't think we'll realise it until we're all retired and have the feet up and realise what we're achieving at the minute but we take every game as it comes," reflected McBrearty, who credited their first training session after the Tyrone match with setting the right tone for the response.
"We have some great leaders in the team. We trained in Letterkenny the Tuesday after the game and a lot of the older boys really pushed it on. It was either let the ship sink or keep going."
Looking ahead to Dublin, Gallagher paid little heed to the two league meetings between them that Donegal lost this year.
"Look at the first one, we were leading the game 0-6- to 0-5 with 40 odd minutes gone we felt that was the important one. We lost Michael (Murphy) then, I think it was a point down. We were 0-9 0-7 then with 65 or 66 minutes played. The second one, obviously Dublin ran away with it. But we won't lose any sleep over it."
For Cork there is redemption of sorts after a poor season.
"The Cork supporters, they're tough boys to please. We've taken a lot of criticism, Peadar Healy would be very critical of Peadar Healy, that's for sure," said the manager.
"It isn't all doom and gloom either, it was a good experience for them. We just needed more consistent performances like this. If we had more of that throughout the year, we'd have had a better year."
SCORERS - Donegal: P McBrearty 0-11 (4f), R McHugh 0-3, E McHugh, M Murphy (1f) 0-2 each, K Lacey, F McGlynn, O MacNiallais 0-1 each. Cork: P Kerrigan 1-1, D O'Connor, K O'Driscoll, C O'Driscoll, Tom Clancy, C O'Neill (1f) 0-2 each, S Powter, Tomás Clancy, A Walsh, M Collins 0-1 each.
DONEGAL: M McGinley 6; P McGrath 7, E McGee 6, N McGee 7; K Lacey 7, M O'Reilly 5, F McGlynn 6; O MacNiallais 5, M Murphy 6; E McHugh 8, R McHugh 9, A Thompson 6; E McHugh 8, R Kavanagh 6, P McBrearty 9. Subs: C Gillespie 7 for E McGee (43), L McLoone 7 for Kavanagh (45), C Toye 6 for Thompson (55), M McHugh 6 for McGlynn (61), E Doherty for McGee (68), H McFadden for McElhinney (71).
CORK: R Price 7; Tom Clancy 7, E Cadogan 5, S Cronin 6; C O'Driscoll 6, S Powter 6,Tomás Clancy 7; A O'Connor 6, I Maguire 8; K O'Driscoll 7, M Collins 6, M Hurley 6; D O'Connor 7, P Kelleher 5, P Kerrigan 7. Subs: A Walsh 7 for O'Connor (36), P Kelly 6 for Kelleher (42), C O'Neill 6 for O'Connor (47), B O'Driscoll 5 for Tom Clancy (48), J O'Rourke for K O'Driscoll (62), A Cadogan for Powter (68).
REF: P Neilan (Roscommon)