AFTER struggling and stumbling for so long, Cork finally appeared to have rediscovered their mojo and to have hit their stride at just the right time of Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final.
Down by four points in the 52nd minute, Cork turned over a Galway attack inside their 20-metre line before four Cork players stitched a passage of play together for Jack O’Connor to pick out Patrick Horgan with a pass to fire over the bar.
Ger Millerick won the subsequent Galway puck-out and was fouled by Thomas Monaghan, which Horgan converted. Cork won the next Galway restart too, which was eventually won by O’Connor before he arrowed a ball into Robbie O’Flynn, who showed brilliant improvisation to get around Daithí Burke and drill the ball over the bar.
Within the ground, the dominant mood was that Cork had finally got control of a match that they had carelessly relinquished early on through gross wastefulness and mass profligacy.
Millerick won the next Galway puck-out too and while Galway turned it over, that sequence of play continued until O’Connor had an opportunity to level the match from just outside the 45-metre line. His shot was blocked by Cathal Mannion and within a handful of seconds, Johnny Coen put Galway two points back in front.
Jack Grealish secured the subsequent Cork puck-out and set up Thomas Monaghan for an excellent point. From Galway’s next puck-out, Eanna Murphy picked out Joseph Cooney and he boomed the ball over the bar from inside his own 45-metre line.
The sides traded scores for the rest of the match. There was no one definitive turning point but that period at the outset of the fourth quarter when Galway halted Cork’s growing momentum and wrestled back the control which Cork had momentarily taken was absolutely critical to the outcome.
After blowing so many early chances and being forced to chase the game for longer than Cork intended, every Cork charge was matched by a productive Galway counter-charge in that fourth quarter.
Cork will have so many regrets. They had 14 more shots at the target than Galway but the infection infiltrated Cork’s system early and they never fully eradicated that bug.
In the first 10 minutes, Cork converted just one of 10 shots, two of which were clear-cut goal chances. Alan Connolly hit his shot straight at goalkeeper Eanna Murphy while O’Flynn could have taken the ball in further before pulling the trigger. Darragh Fitzgibbon had another opportunity to raise a green flag in the 23rd minute but Murphy was again equal to it.
The Cork forwards had 41 possessions after the break and, while they manufactured and finished far more chances, Cork never looked like raising the second green flag they needed to get ahead.
On the other hand, Cork had only one more shot at the target than Galway in the second half (22-21). Cork’s first-half profligacy meant their overall conversion rate only came in at 46% while Galway’s conversion rate over the 70-plus minutes was 62%.
As well as so many missed chances, Cork also turned over too much ball, 34 times in total, with Galway manufacturing 1-8 off that possession. Despite Cork doing so well on the Galway puck-out for so long, especially in the first half when Cork won nine opposition puck-outs, Galway still mined 0-9 from their own restarts over the 70-plus minutes.
Cork did well on their own puck-outs, winning 70% of Pa Collins’ restarts, 12 of which were secured beyond the 65 metre line. Yet Cork only sourced 1-5 off that possession.
Damien Cahalane was excellent. Ciarán Joyce had another fine match in his debut season. Two of Cork’s three best forwards coming into Saturday had been Conor Lehane and Seamus Harnedy but neither hit the same heights they’d consistently reached in Cork’s three previous games.
Lehane only had two possessions before being hauled off at half-time while he was wide from three of his four placed ball attempts. Harnedy only had six possessions and one shot.
Questions will inevitably be asked as to whether Horgan should have started when his presence in the second half steadied the ship, especially his placed ball striking. Yet Lehane had been in devastating form and he was more than entitled to be entrusted with the free-taking duties.
O’Flynn and Shane Kingston had the most possessions of the forwards with 13 each. O’Flynn scored 0-3 and almost had two goals, while Kingston bagged 1-1, was fouled for a free and had an assist.
Cork did get a big lift from their bench. Millerick made a huge impact. Horgan scored one point, had one assist and was fouled for a converted free while he nailed three of his four placed balls. O’Connor had two assists while Cadogan was outstanding; from five possessions, he scored 0-3, hit the post and had an assisted shot.
In his post-match interview, Kieran Kingston said he was proud of the players for the character they showed in overcoming such a poor first half display and in trying to hunt Galway down after the break.
In other ways though, that was also a metaphor for Cork’s season. After such a poor start to the campaign in Munster, Cork did show huge character in bouncing back to win three games in a row but Saturday’s display still encapsulated all of the inconsistencies which has contaminated their championship.
And ultimately, that inconsistency eventually brought Cork to their knees.