NATURALLY, John Allen would have preferred if it hadn’t been so stressful.
Watching Limerick storm back in Thurles on Saturday and admitting afterwards that he would have been happy with a draw, the Cork manager agreed that there was a benefit to be gained for his team.
Looking to their fourth consecutive Guinness All-Ireland hurling semi-final in a fortnight with a mixture of concern and optimism, he remarked: “I have no doubt it will do us good.”
While replacement manager Richie Bennis insisted he had expected Limerick to do as well, it was surprising that the game teetered on a knife edge until the final whistle. In line with the general belief that they wouldn’t be good enough, Limerick looked out of touch for a good part of the contest.
But, hitting a purple patch 18 minutes into the second half, they hit five points without reply and shook Cork out of their lethargy.
And an explosive finish featured the bizarre situation of Cork full-back Diarmuid O’Sullivan being prevented by several Limerick players from going up to take a 66th-minute penalty earned by Brian Corcoran.
Allen explained afterwards that they sent O’Sullivan back down the field because he believed that “after getting so much grief”, he mightn’t have been “right” to hit the ball.
While he would have gone for a goal, Joe Deane opted to take a point — which is what separated the sides eventually.
While the scores were level four times up to the 22nd minute, a three-point advantage forged by Cork in the 29th minute represented the biggest margin up to then. It was stretched to five points (0-11 to 0-6) by half-time.
However, while that difference was minimal, in real terms Limerick were experiencing major difficulties at half-forward and at midfield and Brian Begley was going nowhere at full-forward.
Likewise, TJ Ryan’s move back to the attack yielded no return, whereas Stephen Lucey limited the threat from Corcoran.
The introduction of Donal O’Grady and Patrick Tobin in the second half helped to strengthen Limerick considerably. They got big performances from Brian Geary, Seamus Hickey and Mark Foley in defence.
Niall Moran was influential at right half-forward, while Andrew O’Shaughnessy and Conor Fitzgerald were more involved.
The cumulative effect fuelled a recovery that was heart-warming for their fans. Nevertheless, it was still a surprise to see Cork lose their grip at such a vital stage.
So, what happened? Ben O’Connor’s explanation was that with “nothing to lose”, Limerick were always going to come at them “with all guns blazing”.
And, as the game turned out, they did Cork a favour. “It would be no good going into the semi-final winning by 10 or 11 points,” he said. “When things were tight fellows were able to get stuck in. And that should stand to us.”
And for the impressive Neil Ronan from Ballyhea, victory was especially sweet. “When you’re living so close to the border, it’s great to beat the local rivals,” said Ronan.
John Allen, meanwhile, took a pragmatic view. Describing the display as “workmanlike”, he conceded that after Limerick “got on a run and scored some super points”, it looked like his team didn’t have an answer.
“We had three goal chances and didn’t take any. We certainly did not reach the heights. We have things to right and hopefully they will be righted,” he added.
At the same time, he realises that his team is entering a pressure zone. “We are on borrowed time to be honest,” he said. “The longer you go on, the nearer defeat is coming. But, I have no doubt this will do us good.”
Ben O’Connor, RTÉ’s choice as man-of-the-match, was delighted to put his injury problems behind him. As the game entered injury-time and Limerick were chasing an equaliser, he hit over a marvellous score. And just as crucial was another from Niall McCarthy, which restored a two-points advantage after Mark Keane had given Limerick hope.
In the end, the clock saved Cork after a rejuvenated Mike O’Brien had revived Shannonside hopes with the last score of the game.
As Bennis and board chairman Denis Holmes agreed afterwards, the sad part is that there is no immediate benefit to be gained other than the restoration of pride.
“We were unfortunate not to get a draw,” said Holmes.
Minutes from the end, John Allen would have settled for one. Victory proved a bonus, gained in different circumstances to last year’s semi-final against Clare, but just as dramatically. What’s that he said about “borrowed time”?
Scorers: Cork: B. O’Connor (0-2 frees) and J. Deane (0-4 frees) 0-5 each; N. Ronan 0-3; T. Kenny and N. McCarthy 0-2 each; B. Corcoran and J. O’Connor 0-1 each. Limerick: A. O’Shaughnessy 0-5 (0-4 frees); N. Moran 0-4; C. Fitzgerald, M. O’Brien and P. Tobin 0-2 each; T.J. Ryan, M. Foley (free) and M. Keane 0-1 each.
CORK: D. Og Cusack; P. Mulcahy (capt), D. O’Sullivan, B. Murphy; J. Gardiner, R. Curran, S. Og O hAilpin; T. Kenny, J. O’Connor; T. McCarthy, N. McCarthy, N. Ronan; B. O’Connor, B. Corcoran, J. Deane. Sub: K. Murphy (Sarsfields) for T. McCarthy (62 mins).
LIMERICK: B. Murray; D. Reale, S. Lucey, S. Hickey; O. Moran, B. Geary, M. Foley; B. Foley, D. Ryan; N. Moran, M. O’Brien, T.J. Ryan (capt); A. O’Shaughnessy, B. Begley, C. Fitzgerald. Subs: D. O’Grady for D. Ryan (second half); P. Tobin for Begley (44 mins); M. Keane for B. Foley (66 mins).
Referee: E. Morris (Dublin). Eamonn Morris’s biggest appointment previously was the All-Ireland minor final last year. He made a small number of poor calls and while he refereed well for a major part of the game, he didn’t make a serious impression.