TV pictures suggested it was a lot more than that but the Cork manager was right in his basic belief that this was a clash of razor-thin margins.
Cleary was stood more or less behind Enda Reilly as the Cavan man stood over his injury-time free with the Ulster champions trailing by a single point and the referee glancing suggestively at his watch.
It was an unenviable task facing the youngster. Substituted — bizarrely — after 48 minutes, he was sent back on when the free was won to kick into the teeth of a deceptively strong wind and it proved beyond him.
“In fairness, he threw it up and the wind just took it,” said the Cork manager moments afterwards. “I thought if he tried to punt it (from the ground) maybe he had a better chance into the wind. Still, two feet isn’t a lot.”
It was a scenario all but impossible to imagine with ten minutes to go when Cork held a 0-13 to 0-7 lead before a Chris Conroy goal triggered a rush on the Cork end that nearly saw them lose a third straight semi-final at this level.
Cleary admitted he would have feared for his side had they been consigned to an extra 20 minutes.
As it is, the late fright will have concentrated minds ahead of the final against Galway in a fortnight.
Cleary said: “When games start going against us we don’t seem to be able to stem the tide. But, look, these are all young lads and they are learning their trade and maybe this was another lesson that they will learn and they might improve.”
That they found themselves up against the wall at that late juncture was something of a travesty as for 50 minutes they had contained the exuberance of a Cavan team cheered on by a considerable section of the 8,120 in attendance. It was a collective effort that had taken them that far: From the rear divisions where Alan Cronin and Brian O’Driscoll excelled through the dominant midfield axis of Sean Kiely and Ian Maguire and beyond.
The pretty patterns weaved up front ensured that they extracted full payment for their shift with Mark Sugrue at 11 playing behind a full-forward line that was given far too much space by their markers.
Cavan did most of the probing in the first-half but Cork reconciled to their defensive duties well and weathered the storm to such an extent that they led by two points after the first quarter and by the same again come the break. With that tricky breeze blowing more or less into their faces, that made for a good half-an-hour’s work and they maximised its worth after the restart with a trickle of points that had Cavan staring into the abyss.
The manner in which those scores came told the story of the game in general. Cavan had to grind out their scores for the most part while Cork’s forwards interlinked with a fluid ease that made it all look so simple.
Then again, Cavan didn’t make it easy on themselves.
Enda Reilly had just popped over his third point from play when he was called ashore and, by the game’s end, the county’s brains trust had seen fit to sub three players who accounted for 1-5 of their final tally.
That last quarter aside, the expectation is Cork will have the ability to tie up the last elusive knot against Galway but they will need more about them for that to happen early next month.
“We have a small bit to work on but we are in an All-Ireland final and that takes on a life of its own maybe and we will give it one mighty crack and see where it takes us,” said Cleary.
Scorers for Cavan: E Reilly (0-3); C Conroy (1-0); P O’Connor (0-2); J Brady (0-2, 1f); T Mooney (0-1); D McVitty (0-1); C Madden (0-1); C Moynagh (0-1).
Scorers for Cork: D MacEoin (0-4f); M Sugrue (0-3); L Connolly (0-2); B O’Driscoll (0-2); B Hurley (0-2); A Cadogan (0-1); D Cahalane (0-1 ‘45’).
CAVAN: C Gilsenan; J McLoughlin, K Clarke, C Brady; G Smith, D McVitty, D Sexton; B Sankey, M Argue; T Mooney, J Brady, C Conroy; E Reilly, P O’Connor, F Flanagan.
Subs: C Moynagh for Sexton (37); P Graham for Mooney (37); C Madden for Reilly (48); J Dillon for Conroy (27); E Reilly for O’Connor (64).
CORK: D Hanrahan; A Cronin, D Cahalane, C Dorman; B O’Driscoll, T Clancy, J Wall; S Kiely, I Maguire; A Cadogan, J O’Rourke, M Sugrue; D MacEoin, l Connolly, B Hurley.
Subs: C Vaughan for Cadogan (57); TJ Brosnan for Clancy (59); J Burns for Clancy (59).
Referee: L Devenney (Mayo).