A DOUBLE-SAVE from rookie keeper Chris Kelly midway through the second half was crucial to Cork grinding down Louth in a 2-12 to 2-8 All-Ireland qualifier win at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Up 0-9 to 1-4 at that juncture, the Rebels were able to keep their noses in front thanks to Kelly's heroics until the outstanding Brian Hurley finished a flowing move involving Ian Maguire, Seán Powter and Brian Hayes to open a six-point gap with five minutes of normal time left. That forced Louth out of their shell and the closing stages featured some actual high-tempo action.
The visitors knocked over three successive points before Steven Sherlock released Colm O'Callaghan to stitch Cork's second goal. It was over by then but straight down the other end, Conor Grimes raised another green flag before Sherlock had the final say with a free after Paul Walsh was hauled down with a goal on.
The lively finale got the crowd engaged, which was no mean feat given they were derisively cheering Cork passes in the second half in response to Louth's refusal to step up and press the Rebels until they reached the final third.
The first half was a very tough watch. On every Cork kick-out, Louth pulled their whole team back to the 45. Cork tried to stretch their play as much as possible and were patient in their approach but it didn't make for an appealing spectacle.
The Wee County were making little or no headway up front but you could understand Mickey Harte's tactics after being ripped apart by Kildare in Leinster using a more standard formation. It reaped a reward after 20 minutes when they drove out from defence with Sam Mulroy and Liam Jackson combining for a goal to level the game at 1-1 to 0-4.
Cork still led at the break, Sherlock curling over some wonderful frees from distance, and Hurley offering a consistent threat despite the blanket defence.
Mattie Taylor was his usual high-energy self and Kevin O'Donovan and John Cooper raided upfield effectively in the second half. The half-forwards though found it difficult to make headway.
Sharpshooter Cathail O'Mahony was peripheral in this system so was replaced at half-time by Brian Hayes, whose height and athleticism added some bite and Damien Gore was a busy replacement too.
For Cork, it was a case of a job done, with one of Roscommon, Donegal, Limerick and Kildare standing between them a first quarter-final proper since 2014. They did reach the Super 8 round-robin quarter-finals in 2019 but lost all three matches to Tyrone, Dublin and the Rossies.
Had Cork been drawn away to Tyrone, Monaghan, Armagh or Mayo, a battling performance would have offered a bit of nourishment going into the off-season. However, being pulled out of the hat at home, to one of the two weakest remaining counties based on league ranking, alongside Limerick, put pressure on John Cleary's side.
Cork football history is littered with defeats or poor performances in the wake of games against Kerry. It's something Micheal O'Brien's minor side will have to contend with when facing Derry next weekend after their terrific Munster final success at Páirc Uí Rinn.
That wasn't a case here though Louth didn't have the tools, or the confidence, to actually cause an upset.
Steven Sherlock: 1-36 (0-22 f, 1 45);
Brian Hurley 1-22 (0-7 f, 0-1 45, 0-1 mark);
Blake Murphy 0-7;
John O’Rourke 1-4;
Cathail O’Mahony 0-4;
Kevin O’Donovan, Colm O’Callaghan 1-0;
Joe Grimes, Daniel O’Connell 0-3 each;
Mattie Taylor (Mallow) 0-2 each;
Mark Cronin, Fionn Herlihy, Dan Dineen, David Buckley, Seán Powter (f), Tadhg Corkery, Ian Maguire, Rory Maguire, Cian Kiely 0-1 each.
Steven Sherlock 0-14 (0-11 f, 0-1 45);
Brian Hurley 1-4 (0-1 mark);
Cathail O’Mahony 0-3;
Colm O'Callaghan 1-0;
Kevin O’Donovan, Eoghan McSweeney 0-1 each.
Beaten by Kerry in Munster final; got past Galway but eliminated by Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Munster final hammering by Kerry; rebounded against Sligo before an All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Mayo.
Cruelly denied a Munster final win in Killarney before a replay loss; knocked out by Kildare.
Stunned by Tipperary in the provincial semi-final; beat Limerick and Longford but blew a lead against Donegal in Croke Park loss.
Lost the Munster final to Kerry; defeated in an extra-time epic by Mayo.
Heavy beating from Kerry; thumped by Tyrone in Portlaoise.
Ran Kerry close at Páirc Uí Chaoimh; qualifier wins over Limerick and Laois put Cork into the Super 8s when they lost to Dublin, Tyrone and Roscommon.
Stunned the Kingdom in the Munster semi-final but failed to fire on home turf against Tipp after.
Mauled by Kerry in Killarney in a straight knockout Munster final.
Lost to Kerry again; beat Louth to make the last 12.