AFTER all the talk of not wanting or accepting a performance and a glorious defeat/ moral victory, in the end it felt exactly like that here.
Cork lost and are gone again before the quarter-finals but they found something of themselves on a night the players finally located the performance they’d been hinting at and Cork football got a glimpse of a feeling it could fully buy into at last.
Cork were vibrant and full of the positivity and conviction that’d been lacking this past while, contributing hugely to a classic game where it felt like they could again take part in these kind of occasions against the elite teams.
Those doubts that have trailed the group were swept aside for two hours - there was courage and spirit in everything Cork tried along with an ability to find scores when they were needed. That the breakthrough win this group desperately wanted and Peadar Healy just wasn’t able to find lingered out of reach for another year only made the heartbreak all the worse in the end.
Boy, it was mighty close though.
It wasn’t a game for broad analysis on why one team won and one team lost.
Mayo had pockets of dominance and brilliance from their star names – Aidan O’Shea was immense and made so many right decisions and big plays, Cillian O’Connor was clutch, Andy Moran was unmarkable at times – and always looked capable of creating scores, as 0-27 would suggest.
Cork had long spells where they tore Mayo apart with strong running and pace and real belief that what they were doing would lead to chances and located 2-20 (it could have been more) in themselves when we’d wondered about their scoring rates.
Mayo had times where they looked definite winners – the ten minutes before and after half-time especially - and Cork had times of control and moments of inspiration in that second half and first half of extra-time.
It was only tiny details of composure and getting scores at the right time that decided who was left standing at the end.
Cork had needed individual form to improve and players did step up.
Donncha O’Connor gave an exhibition of exactly what Cork will miss in that first 20 minutes of movement and score-taking – one score from a long Mark Collins kick-pass could have been taken from any time in the last 10 years.
John O’Rourke kicked three lovely scores from play to drag Cork back when they needed them. Michael Hurley came on and jinked and ran right at Mayo like it was nothing special and notched two scores through that basic ability to make room for himself.
Ruairí Deane came on with the obvious intention of influencing the game and just ran hard into the spaces at Mayo to punch holes every time he got the ball. Luke Connolly again showed his class to take that late goal and then huge mental strength to absolutely smash that last kick of the game through the posts.
And then there was Sean Powter, who defied any kind of analysis really by grabbing and changing the game with a whole pile of explosive actions, interceptions, driving runs at the heart of Mayo’s defence, moments of magic.
He set up a point for Paul Kerrigan in the first half by opening up Mayo through sheer speed. He opened up the entire game with the goal, first with that little touch of genius and vision to flick the ball up off the ground first-time when most would have picked it, then the mentality to head straight at Mayo’s defenders with nothing in his head only goal.
Then the ability to pick out the bottom corner past an All-Star goalie from a position most players wouldn’t have been even thinking of shooting.
He made the turnover that led to Connolly’s equaliser and it hardly feels over the top to wonder at the potential at the guy who was Cork’s main influencer at just 19 years of age.
And still, it was probably that collective will to attack the game that stood out. After the horribly unsure openings against Waterford, Tipp and Kerry it was Cork who dictated the rhythm of the match early on, defending aggressively with numbers in the middle third and attacking the spaces well with long kicks to Donncha O’Connor.
When the game looked dead at seven points down in that second half and the expectation was that Cork would just fall away, the response from the group was to keep digging in, to keep working, to keep finding ways to get back.
There were definite plays in that last quarter and periods of extra-time (some turnovers won by hunting Mayo high up the field, some scores worked intelligently) where you could actually sense Cork growing into a team that might find the win at last. Those looking for reasons for defeat might be able to nitpick.
Cork struggled in defence for man-markers to wrap up another quality full-forward duo that grabbed ten points from play (though two of the full-back line gone by half-time can be a valid excuse here) and there were spaces for Mayo to attack on the break where Cork looked vulnerable to runners down the middle of defence.
Midfield never really gave a platform for possession from kick-outs.
Chances were again missed through some bad shot selection and execution (most notably in that spell before and after half-time) and Cork had a few minutes to create one more match-saving point in that manic end to the game but just couldn’t work a proper opening and snatched at those two shots that presented.
Cork did have individuals with quality but do probably lack a true match-winner with the power of Aidan O’Shea or the head and feet of Cillian O’Connor. The bigger picture questions will follow, like how exactly Cork go about replicating this level of performance consistently, why it hasn’t happened more often and who’s the right person to generate it now?
There is a feeling at least of proof for the players and Cork football that it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom all the time. Cork end another summer with questions, but some hope to sustain us through the long winter.