CORK'S bid to regain the All-Ireland U20 title ended on Saturday evening after they came unstuck against a livewire Offaly outfit in Portlaoise.
Offaly were full value for their 3-10 to 0-14 win, even if Cork briefly threatened a comeback when they reduced what had been a nine-point deficit to just two with time almost up, but a late goal from impressive full-forward Jack Bryant extinguished Cork’s hopes.
This Offaly team had only barely squeezed past the challenges of Wexford and Westmeath in the Leinster opening rounds, so there was no real sign of a potential All-Ireland challenge early doors, but the comprehensive 0-15 to 3-3 win over Dublin certainly made people sit up and take notice. They duly proved that the performance that day was not a once-off with a truly brilliant display on Saturday.
The devastating cruciate injury picked up by star attacked Conor Corbett, in the Munster final triumph over Tipperary, as well as the hamstring injury picked up by Ballincollig midfielder Evan Cooke, really tested the strength of Cork’s panel, with Ciaran O’Sullivan and Michael O’Neill stepping in for the injured pair.
Given that Keith Ricken was already missing the services of the likes of the injured Jack Lawton, Daniel Lenihan, Cian O’Donovan and Aodhan Ó Luasa, who all played no part in the victorious Munster campaign, it has to be stated that the squad was being stretched to breaking point, and so it proved.
The Cork defence had shipped 3-11 and 3-10 in their two victories over Kerry and Tipperary, while Offaly only shipped six scores in their Leinster Final triumph over Dublin, albeit three of those had been goals, so the signs were certainly there that the Cork attack might struggle, and that is exactly what transpired.
Cork only kicked three points in the first half, and although the expected rally did eventually materialise, they had left themselves far too much to do, with two goals by Offaly in the 45th and 63rd minutes ensuring that there would be no famous Cork comeback.
Ultimately, it is hard to make a case for the better team losing. Offaly created six goal-scoring opportunities over the course of the hour, taking three of them expertly, whereas Cork never threatened the Offaly goal at all.
Just like the Cork seniors the U20s really hurt their chances with their kick-out strategy, or rather lack of one. Offaly were able to take short kick-outs, and secure possession, on six occasions, whereas Cork only managed two short kick-outs by Gavin Creedon.
Even some of the ‘long’ Offaly kick-outs were measured efforts, often sliced out towards the sideline, where space was, in order to favour themselves.
Cork, on the other hand, were happy to hoof it long and hope for the best. The result of this is that Cork only secured possession 15 times out of the 37 contestable kick-outs in the game, which is not something you would have imagined when you viewed the heights of the respective midfield pairings at the throw-in. It just goes to show that size isn’t everything.
In fact, when Cork got within two points of Offaly in the dying minutes they had a real opportunity of completing their comeback, but with the game on the line, they lost the last four contestable kick-outs when possession at that stage meant everything.
Of course, the restarts were only part of the story of the defeat. In the first half, they looked ponderous and lethargic in their build-up play and at times various Cork players genuinely did not seem to know what they were trying to do, with the result on a number of occasions being that these players ended up being blown for overcarrying.
Cork had gone in at halftime trailing by 1-7 to 0-3, and it could have been a lot worse, as Offaly had kicked two extremely straightforward goal-scoring opportunities wide in the 18th and 19th minutes, as well as kicking five other wides in the opening period.
The 21st-minute sin-binning of wing-back Adam Walsh-Murphy was arguably the most significant moment in the match, as Cork were comprehensively outscored by 1-4 to 0-1 during this period. Indeed, Cork failed to score between the 12th and 32nd minutes. That is one-third of the game right there where Cork failed to register a single score.
Cork really needed a quick start but it was to be the Faithful county who kicked the first two points of the half, meaning that the gap went to nine.
In fairness to Cork, they did kick the next five points, but just when they thought they were right back in it Offaly wing forward Cathal Flynn scored a 45th-minute goal that proved a fatal wound for Cork’s hopes.
Cork will never know how they would have faired had they had a full hand to play on Saturday, but injuries cruelly robbed them of key personnel, but that is not to take from Offaly’s achievement, as they were deserving winners on the day.