THE Cork players trudged off Croke Park yesterday and their supporters streamed out of the ground to the sounds of Limerick band The Cranberries ‘Linger’.
It added insult to injury as the Treaty celebrated lustily but they deserved to. In a summer of incredible comebacks they pulled off the best of them all given the stakes. Limerick’s mental strength and hurling instincts powered them into an All-Ireland final for the first time in 11 seasons and they’ll have nothing to fear next month.
The best of luck to them because the county has endured too many dark days since last annexing Liam McCarthy in 1973. Whether they succeeding in climbing the steps of the Hogan on this occasion won’t be any consolation for Rebels though.
This loss will linger for Corkonians. Of that, there’s no doubt.
While Limerick did waste a few goal chances in the opening 65 minutes, Cork were the better team up to that stage. That they were still beaten given their six-point advantage and after adjusting in the second half to create space and force Limerick into repeated fouls will absolutely gall them.
Conor Lehane was Cork’s go-to attacker after being overshadowed by Seamus Harnedy and Patrick Horgan all season. Daniel Kearney and Darragh Fitzgibbon switched in and out from the wing and midfield and shared 0-7 from play between them.
Yet when the final whistle end they were on the losing team. Hurling. This weekend just reinforced what makes it so magnificent but it’s also cruel.
Cork were left with so many regrets that they’ll struggle to sleep all week.
They were one behind at the break due to Cian Lynch’s sizzling goal which should have been a free out initially for a push on Daniel Kearney. Cork also struck 10 of their wides in the first half which proved very costly.
Isolating Horgan at full-forward worked a treat initially and he got three possessions in the opening stages without scoring from play. It was most unlike such a lethal finisher and while Cork did engineer that six-point lead they were left to rue those first-half misses.
Injuries to Cork’s key men and Limerick’s strength in depth were even more telling.
Limerick’s bench had been far more effective than Cork’s all summer, with the Rebels getting just 0-2 in five Munster championship matches from their subs, and it was the key factor here. Shane Dowling was shortlisted for the RTE Man of the Match after his impact coming on in the last quarter but Pat Ryan also chipped in with a goal while David Reidy and Barry Nash clipped over a point a piece for a total haul of 2-6.
The lively Jack O’Connor did split the posts in extra time for Cork, while Robbie O’Flynn set up Harnedy for a goal chance in the 73rd minute that would have sealed a Rebel win. However, 0-1 from the subs told its own tale.
In that context taking off Shane Kingston who had pilfered a couple of first-half points and was dangerous in the second half too was a mistake. John Meyler and his selectors weren’t to know they’d lose Daniel Kearney, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Seamus Harnedy through injury in the latter stages, but it would have been easier to switch Kingston outfield than try and make running repairs.
Mark Ellis ended up coming in at midfield but he’s never been at his best there. When Horgan clipped the post with a point attempt at the death, Ellis didn’t have the instincts so far up the field to pounce on it and goal. Harnedy was foiled by Nicky Quaid for the killer goal with 90 seconds left.
Those are all the ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ that come with the territory.
The simple fact is Cork have lost the All-Ireland semi-final for the second successive summer. And it’s their fifth defeat since 2008 when a place in the big one on the line.
Cork have actually only been beaten 10 times in the semis overall. While it’s often been said Croker is a house of pain for Mayo football, it’s becoming a wasteland for Cork now too. Since winning the All-Ireland in 2005, they’ve only three victories on the hallowed turf and one was over Antrim.
The one major positive is that Cork are in better shape than they’ve been in some time. The U21s can still become All-Ireland champions in that grade, with a semi-final against Wexford this Saturday, and back-to-back Munster crowns shouldn’t be overlooked.
Everything in the winter will be gearing to getting back to Croke Park and ripping it up when it really matters. But that feels a long way off right now.