WHEN all looked lost for champions Cork in Croke Park yesterday, trailing by two points with eight minutes remaining and staring defeat in the face, the utter belief in their ability to hold on to the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies football title frustrated a Dublin team which, in truth, turned in the better performance on the day.
It was reflected in a powerful finish which yielded four points in a five-minute period, the result of a rare period of dominance when it was most needed and assisted by the contributions from substitutes Linda Barrett and Mairead Kelly.
The end result was that in the final minute’s play, Cork literally owned the ball as they ran down the clock. And, while the sound of the hooter signalled victory by a mere point (contrasting with a margin of 14 in last year’s final against Monaghan), all that mattered to manager Eamonn Ryan and his multi-talented squad of players was that they had won. That they were winners for the fifth year in a row.
Six times over the course of an outstanding contest, the scores were level and that testified to the admirable challenge mounted by Dublin throughout. They were superbly fit, very strong in the tackle and supremely confident. And, that more than the fact that Cork under-performed in certain sectors (Ryan pointed out that several of the players had been with the doctor in midweek), was why the destination of the Brendan Martin Cup was in doubt right up to the very end.
Dublin, who got 10 of their scores from play before top forward Sinead Aherne put over a late free, made the better start and were two points clear inside two minutes. And, but for the vigilance of goalkeeper Elaine Harte in blocking a certain goal from Lyndsey Davey in the first minute, they would have made things even more difficult for the holders. Instead, they got the game’s only goal themselves in the fifth minute – when Valerie Mulcahy availed of a defensive error to put Nollaig Cleary through and she finished in style.
After that, Dublin were fortunate that Cork missed two goal chances, first when the impressive Amy O’Shea hit the post and then when Rhona Buckley kicked wide after Mulcahy was again the provider.
Conversely, the Dubliners were out of luck when, in the 17th minute Sinead Aherne missed a penalty awarded after a tackle by wing-back Ciara O’Sullivan which led to her being sin-binned. Aherne didn’t get in a good shot and Harte, once more, came to her team’s aid by anticipating the kick.
Shortly before that Dublin drew level, following some excellent team play all the way forward from dependable goalkeeper Cliodhna O’Connor and especially smart football from Mary Kevin and Amy McGuinness in the half-forward line. Additionally, basketball international Lyndsey Peat was prominent and would have had more to contribute but for tenacious covering from Briege Corkery.
Dublin again had the chance of a goal in the 22nd minute when Peat came through from the left flank only to have the ball taken off her by Angela Walsh, who, as ever, was rock-solid in defence. Indeed, her steadfast play at full-back, allied to the reliability of Rena Buckley alongside her in the corner and support from Brid Stack in the centre was crucial to Cork at a stage when they struggled to impose their will on the game.
Part of the reason for that was Dublin’s greater mobility at midfield and more alert play at half-back, which at times saw Cork captain Mary O’Connor and Nollaig Cleary back in their own half-back line trying to win ball. Interestingly, when Cork did get forward with the ball, very often Dublin turned them over through the force of their tackling.
In the circumstances, they were relieved to see Juliet Murphy kick over two valuable scores from frees, the second of which in the 26th minute brought scores level after an Elaine Kelly score put Dublin in the lead for the first time. However, a second point from Mary Nevin had the home side back in front, 0-6 to 1-1 at half-time.
Scores were level a further three times in a 12-minute period after the resumption, when Dublin again threatened more in attack. And once again, they were denied goal chances, first when midfielder Norita Kelly cut out a dangerous cross to Sinead Ahern and afterwards, when excellent defending meant Lyndsey Peat had to be content with a point.
Valerie Mulcahy – with the first of three vital kicks from frees – and Siobhan McGrath swapped points before Amy McGuinness put Dublin back in front at the three-quarters stage. And then a good score from Ahern opened up a two-point advantage.
Notably, however, when Dublin needed to build on their lead, it was Cork who seized the initiative. It needed a Denise Masterson intercept to deny Nollaig Cleary another goal before Mulcahy again scored. After that substitute Mairead Kelly – her strength was a huge asset at a time when Dublin were starting to tire – kicked a levelling score.
By now, Murphy and Norita Kelly were in control at midfield and, showing composure under pressure, Cork opened up a two points gap through Cleary and Mulcahy (from play). After that, they weren’t going to be beaten.
SCORERS FOR CORK: V. Mulcahy 0-5 (0-3 frees); N. Cleary 1-1; J. Murphy 0-2 frees; M. Kelly 0-1.
Dublin: S. Ahern 0-3 (0-1 free); A. McGuinness and M. Nevin 0-2 each; L. Davey, E. Kelly, L. Peat and S. McGrath 0-1 each.
Cork subs: L. McMahon for O’Shea (inj, 42); L. Barrett for R. Ni Bhuachalla (48); M. Kelly for O’Connor (52)
Dublin subs: L. Kidd for Comyn (29); N. Hurley for Kelly (43); E. Travers for Barrett (58); K. Flood for McEvoy (61); R. Byrne for Nevin (62).
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