They needed more than 80 minutes of action to get over the line but ultimately Cork’s trip to Austin Stack Park in Tralee proved fruitful last night as they retained their Cadbury’s Munster U21 football title with a narrow success over Kerry.
A game that bristled with potential failed to scale any heights for long stages and was marred by the fussy officiating of referee Keith O’Brien.
The encounter was redeemed for the 5,318 patrons present by the dramatic finale to normal time, when Kerry hauled Cork back for a draw. In the additional periods Cork eradicated the sluggishness of their play in the closing stages of normal time and a powerful opening burst to extra-time when they registered 1-3 without reply proved pivotal to their success.
Cork were forced to overcome a series of setbacks with influential players like Tomas Clancy and John O’Rourke limping off with injuries while they also were bizarrely nearly reduced to 14 men at one stage in extra-time. Cork defender John Cronin was shown a red card during extra-time after it was incorrectly deemed he had been booked for a second time but after walking to the sideline, the Lisgoold player was then summoned back to the action after the referee realised his mistake.
The momentum lay firmly with Kerry entering extra-time after their stirring revival in normal time as a stunning point from a sideline by wing-forward Shane O’Carroll tied the teams. But despite being cheered by vociferous home support it was Cork who emerged for extra-time in vibrant fashion. Captain Donal Óg Hodnett kick-started their scoring spree by pointing after a tremendous run and then substitute Dan McEoin, who made a vital contribution when introduced, grabbed another stylish point. In the 64th minute they then grabbed a key goal when Luke Connolly finished coolly to the net after a fine team move involving Jamie Wall, O’Rourke and Brian Hurley, who was in outstanding form all night. When Rory Deane fisted over a point in the 67 minute, Cork were 2-11 to 0-11 to the good at the midway juncture.
Kerry mounted a brilliant recovery that ensured Cork could never relax. Substitutes Eanna O’Connor and Gavin O’Grady made a big impression in improving the fortunes of the Kerry attack and they were handed a lifeline when the referee adjudged Stephen O’Brien to have been grounded close to goal in the 76th minute by the Cork defence. Chris Brady held his nerve to dispatch the ball to the net. Cork produced a telling response when McEoin lofted the ball between the posts during a raid forward. Late points by O’Connor and O’Grady cut the gap to the minimum and despite Kerry’s frantic attempts to find a levelling score, Cork held firm and were grateful to a timely interception by Cronin as the Kingdom attacked late on.
Cork had made a blinding start to the game as they sprinted into a 0-4 to 0-0 lead. Backed by a strong breeze, they strung together some fine passages of play, with Hurley particularly proficient in their attacks. Then, two minutes before half-time Cork pounced for a critical score that had a significant bearing on the course of the game. Luke Connolly sized up a long-range free from the left wing but his effort to kick a point came unstuck as the ball dropped short. Yet the indecision of the Kerry defence proved costly and was in contrast to the alertness of Donal Óg Hodnett, who challenged for possession in the air and pounced as the ball hit the ground to stab a left-footed shot past Paul O’Sullivan.
However Kerry never allowed their opponents to get too far ahead. Conor Cox spearheaded their fight as he troubled the Cork rearguard when fed possession during the first half. His place kicking left him down on occasions but in general he was busy and inventive in the full-forward area, and was Kerry’s biggest attacking threat as he amassed 0-8 in total during the match. By half-time, Kerry were only adrift 1-5 to 0-5 and in the second half, they began to gain control with midfielders James Walsh and Darragh O’Sullivan having terrific games. Defenders Mark Griffin and Pa Kilkenny were others to catch the eye and while they trailed by 1-8 to 0-9 entering the closing stages, Kerry kept calm to tie the game through points by Cox and O’Carroll. They looked the most likely victors at that point but Cork reorganised well before extra-time and their strong start proved significant in propelling them to an All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Dublin on Saturday April 21.
Scorers for Cork: B Hurley 0-4 (0-2f), D Óg Hodnett, L Connolly 1-1 each, D McEoin 0-2, A Cronin, J Wall, R Deane, J O’Rourke 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kerry: C Cox 0-8 (0-7f), C Brady 1-0 (1-0 pen), E O’Connor (0-1f), S O’Carroll (0-1 sideline) 0-2 each, K Hurley, G O’Grady 0-1 each.
Subs for Cork: D Nation for Healy (49), C O’Sullivan for Clancy (inj) (50), A Cadogan for Sugrue (57), D McEoin for Hallissey (62), D Drake for O’Rourke (inj) (70), B O’Driscoll for Wall (77)
Subs for Kerry: M Reen for Galvin (26), N O’Shea for Hurley (43), D Culhane for Galvin (53), G O’Grady for Cox (66), T Morley for Sherwood (66), E O’Connor for O’Carroll (70)
Referee: Keith O’Brien (Tipperary).