FOR the first time since 2010, all four provincial football finalists were beaten in their first qualifier matches.
Cork were one of the four back-door sides coming through successfully, beating Munster final losers Limerick – just as was the case 12 years ago. In 2010, the four qualifiers (Cork, Dublin, Down and Kildare) then continued their momentum, meaning that, for the first time ever, no provincial champion was in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
In an ideal world, the omens would continue and Cork would go all the way to Sam Maguire glory, but even in The Echo we have to concede that that would be the longest of long shots. They are massive underdogs for Saturday’s quarter-final against Dublin in Croke Park and the Rebels have only won two of 16 championship meetings between the counties. The first of those was the 1989 All-Ireland semi-final; the second was the last-four tie in that fateful year of 2010.
Having come through the quarter-final with Roscommon, Cork – beaten in the finals of 2007 and 2009 – knew there was a great opportunity following the elimination of Kerry and Tyrone, but Dublin in a packed Croker represented as stiff a test as possible.
Dublin had been knocked out of the Leinster championship after a five-goal hammering by Meath but they had successfully regrouped. Pat Gilroy’s side were benefiting from a counter-attacking style of play, getting numbers behind the ball before breaking, with Bernard Brogan in attack in form that would win him the Player of the Year award.
It took him just over a minute of the semi-final to demonstrate his wares, winning a Niall Corkery delivery before firing a low shot past Alan Quirke. That buoyed the large Dublin following, and with the Leinster side funnelling men back at every opportunity, Cork’s build-up play was was slow and ponderous.
Cork were shading the aerial battle but their shooting was letting them down and two points was the narrowest gap in the first half. Dublin led by 1-7 to 0-5 in the 32nd minute before quick efforts from Donncha O’Connor and Paul Kerrigan left a goal in it as half-time neared.
Kerrigan almost got that goal – his shot came back off the post – but Brogan’s fourth point left Dublin four ahead at the break and Cork captain Graham Canty would be unable to continue in the second half, with Eoin Cadogan coming in for him.
The lead was still four points when Cork got a 53rd-minute lifeline in the form of a penalty – Colm O’Neill, only just on as a sub, was hauled down in the large rectangle by Ross McConnell. Greeted with a chorus of boos, Donncha O’Connor sent Stephen Cluxton the wrong way with his low kick and now we had a game on our hands, Dublin’s lead down to just one, 1-10 to 1-9.
Brogan’s sixth point gave Dublin some breathing space again, and Bryan Cullen followed that up with his first in the 59th minute. Though Cork came back through O’Neill and Patrick Kelly, with four and a half minutes left Dublin were 1-13 to 1-11 in front as sub Conal Keaney pointed.
But Cork were not going to wilt, displaying the same character that had got them that far, character which had been doubted on many occasions. A pair of Donncha O’Connor frees finally tied things up with two minutes of normal time left, and he was handed a chance to put his side in the lead for the first time after a heavy-duty tackle by McConnell on Noel O’Leary, for which the Dublin midfielder was sent off.
He nailed it for his fifth point, and in injury time sub Derek Kavanagh put the Rebels two ahead. Dublin would get one last chance, but Bernard Brogan put his intended delivery over the bar, and Cork survived to make it through to a second consecutive final and a third in four years.
The 20-year wait for Sam would come to an end the following month against Down in the final.