CORK and Dublin served up a marvellous advert for ladies football following a seven-goal thriller in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday night.
Unsurprisingly, both managers did their best to play down the significance of the fixture ahead of throw-in. Yet, a shortened league coupled with an immediate All-Ireland championship start has lessened the margin for error this year.
That, in turn, raised the stakes of the two heavyweights of ladies football’s latest encounter whether Ephie Fitzgerald or Mick Bohan wanted to admit it or not.
Two teams with plenty of mutual respect didn’t hold back on a single tackle during a terrific and hard-hitting match. What an advert it turned out to be for ladies football.
The opening half was telling as a Dublin defence never afraid to foul conceded multiple frees from which Orla Finn converted six. Yet, the Kinsale sharpshooter was Cork’s only scorer during that first 30 minutes as the visiting full-back line of Laura McGinley, Martha Byrne and Leah Caffrey gave little away.
On the few occasions, Cork did manage to slice through the Dublin rearguard, they found Abbey Sheils in inspirational form. The young goalkeeper denied both Melissa Duggan and Sadhbh O’Leary certain goals and looked solid throughout.
An ability to effectively press high up the pitch meant Dublin were able to turn their opponents over and rack up an impressive seven scores from open play to head in 0-8 to 0-6 in front at the interval. Add in five different scorers and Mick Bohan had every reason to be content with his team’s efforts apart from four wides.
Yet, the most disappointing statistics from the first half were Cork’s 15 turnovers and the fact they failed to score from open play. Those numbers won’t suffice when you are playing the All-Ireland champions.
Talk about a turnaround in the second half.
Cork blitzed their opponents for 2-1 inside the opening five minutes of the second period to temporarily turn the game on its head. Credit to Ephie Fitzgerald and his team who continued to press forward in the same manner as the first and were duly rewarded. Hannah Looney and Sadhbh scored fine goals either side of a Ciara O’Sullivan point.
But Dublin are not All-Ireland champions for nothing and ruthlessly set about rectifying the situation.
Hannah Tyrell’s arrival onto the Dublin senior football scene was something of a surprise when announced at the beginning of the season.
Tyrell scored 2-4 and Lyndsey Davey netted another goal as Dublin turned an early second-half deficit into an eight-point lead to leave Cork reeling. Ruthless and efficient in equal measure, the All-Ireland champions carved Cork apart and looked set for a straightforward win.
Only Ciara O’Sullivan’s accurate shooting kept Cork in touch until the award of a penalty and subsequent Emma Cleary conversion dragged Cork back into contention following a gutsy fightback.
There was four points in it with less than five minutes to go of an absorbing contest when Cork’s best player Ciara O’Sullivan netted a sublime effort. The closing stages saw both sides give everything they had before Emma Cleary hit a post and Dublin edged an epic 4-11 to 3-15.
The likelihood is that Cork and Dublin will meet again, if not twice, before the end of 2021. So what did Saturday night tell us about the two favourites for this year’s Brendan Martin Cup?
From Dublin’s point of view, and considering the number of experienced players absent, this was an impressive showing. Hannah Tyrell (who finished with 2-7) was superb and ably assisted by Lynsey Davey and the excellent Jennifer Dunne. Add in Abbey Shiels (five top-class saves), Martha Byrne, Lucy Collins and Caoimhe O'Connor’s combined efforts and the reigning champions are in good shape.
The Dubs’ tackling and ability to turn over possession looked as sharp as ever and remember, it is still early in the campaign. In short, Dublin reminded everyone why they will be the team to beat in the senior grade once again this year on Leeside last Saturday night.
Mourneabbey’s Ciara O’Sullivan was outstanding and Cork’s substitutes made telling contributions for the second weekend in a row. Emma Cleary’s coolly converted penalty allied with excellent showings from the likes of Hannah Looney, Orla Finn, Ashling Hutchings, Erika O’Shea, Sadhbh O’Leary, Melissa Duggan and Máire O’Callaghan means Cork can reflect on a gutsy showing that just came up short in the end.
Despite the loss, there is much to look forward to for Ephie Fitzgerald and his Cork team in the coming months.