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Paul Kerrigan is followed by Leo McLoone, Mark McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Paddy McGrath in the 2012 loss to Donegal. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Paul Kerrigan is followed by Leo McLoone, Mark McHugh, Frank McGlynn and Paddy McGrath in the 2012 loss to Donegal. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
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Cork football rewatch: Was 2012 side better than All-Ireland winning version?

CORK 2012 was better than Cork 2009-10... discuss.

There is evidence that this is fact. They won the league again. They dominated Kerry in Munster in what seemed like an end-of-era kind of statement, Galvin and Donaghy sitting on the bench.

They demolished a fine Kildare side in Croke Park. They had physically peaked and were now more able to control games completely. Jim McGuinness was worried by them, more so than any other team.

So Cork-Donegal felt like a massive game even then, two awesome teams at different periods of their development and the two best teams that year by far; it’d go on to be even more seismic for both counties. From memory, the first half felt like a classic, both sides going at each other with contrasting ways of playing, score for score kind of thing.

Donncha O'Connor is clogged up. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Donncha O'Connor is clogged up. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Looking back now, slightly less so perhaps. It was certainly incredibly intense, fast and furious, the tempo of the game and the impact of the collisions between two really powerful teams was seriously high — that Cork central spine had Alan O’Connor, Aidan Walsh, Canty, Sheehan; Donegal had the McGees and Neil Gallagher. All of Cork’s side looked so athletic. But even looking back only eight years, it seems slightly chaotic now, lacking patterns and both sides gave away an awful lot of ball in that first period.

Cork worked really hard to move the ball intelligently, but still couldn’t avoid losing ball by getting caught in possession mostly, Gould and Kerrigan and O’Connor were all surrounded by Donegal bodies for turnovers and O’Neill and Sheehan snatched at chances.

Donegal, a side that’s remembered mainly for its running game, were surprisingly direct with ball, constantly peppering Cork’s full-back line with long high ball — inside was box-office in fairness, Michael Murphy against Cadogan and McFadden on Shields.

Cork did pretty well on that, Cadogan used his body cleverly and battled ball away, Shields mopped up well on breaks. It’d work better for Donegal in the All-Ireland final of course.

But Cork did do a lot right in that first half, working so hard to avoid carrying ball into Donegal’s traps. They changed the angles of attack almost in a paranoid way, moved the ball manically at times out of that contact zone of bodies around the D.

Pa Kelly, Cork, in action against Mark McHugh, Donegal. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE
Pa Kelly, Cork, in action against Mark McHugh, Donegal. Picture: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

A few times it worked in textbook ways. Paul Kerrigan looping a run to take a ball and pop a kick-pass into Colm O’Neill’s movement across goal set up an O’Neill score, then another Kerrigan run to set-up O’Neill off his right foot, again cleverly working the ball around the area in front of Donegal’s defensive zone and into Cork’s scoring zone.

Again, as in 2010, note Kerrigan’s role in most of the good stuff from Cork. Coming up to half-time, Cork were a point ahead and if there was no control over the game, well they were certainly as in control of it as Donegal. After 32 minutes the stats flashed up that told a story: Cork hand-passes 100, Cork kick-passes 16.

Cork, a team that normally thrived by overpowering opposition, wanted to avoid the battle zones and were trying to find spaces without contact.

Warzone. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE
Warzone. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE

Then, something shifted.

Donegal had had only a couple of decent counterattacks by then, but their lead score coming up to half-time was peak Jim McGuinness’ Donegal. Donncha ran straight into the Donegal defensive block and suddenly they broke with two or three carriers, Karl Lacey eventually finding Mark McHugh, who’d ran from that turnover all the way down the centre of Cork’s defence to punch a point.

McHugh was one of Donegal’s key players of that game of course, with the legs and intelligence to get up and down the pitch at the right moments and influence the game. Several Cork players have spoken about what happened then, how the panic set in as it felt like the game was slipping away, how suddenly the rhythm of the match was on Donegal’s terms.

It’s striking for sure how quickly that seemed to happen. Within 10 minutes of half-time, Canty had a wild shot, Kerrigan took a shot off balance and Cork were rattled. This was Donegal of course, where part of the terrorisation was mental and Cork became so obsessed with not getting caught up in the whirlwind, that they forgot the basics.

The decision-making process became too difficult, like they were so drained from the constant pressure and couldn’t maintain performance at that level of concentration. The Donegal crowd responded to every turnover like a score and there was a wildness to what they were doing here, that chaos of bodies running counterattacks.

Colm McFadden kicked a point on the loop. Frank McGlynn kicked a score from a silly Cork loss of possession in the middle third. By the time Karl Lacey sneaked in to put them four points up, Cork were visibly shattered, mentally especially, to the point where they couldn’t track a runner.

Mark McHugh fists a point. Picture: Tomas Greally/SPORTSFILE
Mark McHugh fists a point. Picture: Tomas Greally/SPORTSFILE

Noel O’Leary gave away a ball under no pressure. Ciaran Sheehan got caught in possession and slipped under the stand. We’ve heard players talk about that sense on the pitch that the match was gone even though they were still in it and it’s remarkable to look at the scoreboard and realise Cork were reasonably still in the game but then look at the game and it felt over.

That was Donegal’s power that year, they would do the same to the Dubs in 2014.

Colm O'Neill hits the crossbar at a key stage. Picture: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE
Colm O'Neill hits the crossbar at a key stage. Picture: Dáire Brennan/SPORTSFILE

Still, Cork almost found a way and that way was Colm O’Neill, who continued to perform miracles. One what-if moment at 0-12 to 0-8 — O’Neill fetched a high ball and somehow worked a shot at goal despite being one-v-five inside Donegal’s penalty area, it pinged off the bar and out.

He ended with 1-3, including that late goal from that glorious Sheehan kick-pass assist and, of all the Cork players, didn’t deserve to lose this game. The fallout was immense even if we didn’t know it at the time.

We all cribbed a little at the time about this Cork side not quite achieving what they might, about some persistent tactical weaknesses. The game moved on. Cork haven’t beaten Kerry or reached an All-Ireland semi-final since.

A dejected Ciaran Sheehan. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE
A dejected Ciaran Sheehan. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/SPORTSFILE