It could easily have been a draw.
For a moment deep in injury time it even looked like it was a draw, only for Anthony Nash’s triumphant fist pump to signal Fergal Hogan adjudged Jason Flynn had been in the square before he’d scrambled the ball to the net.
Afterwards it even seemed like a draw, at least to Anthony Cunningham, once he knew that results elsewhere assured his team’s top-flight status, on account of Galway’s superior head-to-head record over Kilkenny and Clare.
For Cork, it was a win, and felt like one to Jimmy Barry-Murphy afterwards.
It was hardly as fluent or as comprehensive a display as the one over Dublin the previous week but then that was probably the beauty of it: the contrast. Croke Park was a landslide. Salthill yesterday was a battle. They didn’t need goals against Dublin. Yesterday they did — and got them.
“Some people were questioning our performance against Dublin, not getting goals,” he’d say afterwards. “It never worries me because I think they’ll come when you need them — if you’re good enough to get them.”
Paudie O’Sullivan was good enough to take them — two of them in fact. “He’s a great goalpoacher,” his manager would remark yesterday. “Those goals were crucial.”
The second of them essentially decided this game. With five minutes to go Galway were two up and in the ascendancy, but then a Greg Lally pass from along his own end line went astray.
O’Sullivan capitalised, and while diving forward shortened his hurley to propel the ball past Colm Callanan.
“We’d be disappointed with the last goal,” Cunningham would admit. “We’d gone ahead and looked to be in a commanding lead. We’d actually defended it quite well, it was just a loose ball and Cork did very well to finish.”
You can take it as read that Cunningham was thinking of that play when he referred to “younger players in defence probably need to get a bit more savy”, but as he’d immediately add, “that comes with experience.”
He’ll be pleased enough with how his team are shaping. Though they’ve lost as many games as they’ve won in this league, there has been a consistency and grit to them in this campaign, as early in the year as it is. About the most disappointing thing from a Galway perspective was the state of the pitch, that looked even more patched up than Croke Park infamously did when the counties played an All Ireland semi-final 30 years ago after a U2 concert.
Galway had trailed 1-10 to 0-10 at half-time, fluffing a couple of goal chances in the opening two minutes and then shooting a further nine wides before the break, even with the aid of the wind.
Cork were more economical, exemplified by some delightful play by Daniel Kearney, first playing a clever diagonal sideline ball for Patrick Horgan to run onto and point, then pointing from his own 65 out by the touchline.
There had been encouraging signs from Galway. Joe Canning nicely eased himself into the hurling year here, scoring a trademark sideline cut to open his team’s account, then swivelling on a sixpence to swing over a couple of points from range before the break. Just as importantly, he was feeding and trusting teammates, especially the impressive Joseph Cooney who’d rifle over three points from play. At full forward, Cathal Mannion would finish up with four.
In the second half, Galway were the dominant team as their greater physical power, especially in the air, began to tell. David Collins was hurling a world of ball in the halfback line, while Aidan Harte came on to shoot over three quick points that would give them 0-18 to 1-13 lead entering the final 10 minutes.
Cork, mounting up the wides as they failed to penetrate the Galway cover, sprung Luke O’Farrell and Alan Cadogan from the bench.
Cork would hang in though. Conor Lehane would chip in with his third quiet yet telling point of the day. At wing back, rookie Cormac Murphy was very impressive at winning puckouts and coming out with the ball; while JBM would have been thinking of his distribution when commenting upon how some of Cork’s decision-making could improve, he knows the kid did a lot more right than wrong.
Then came that stray pass and O’Sullivan’s goal. Canning would pummel the Cork goal line with two injury-time frees but Stephen McDonnell took the bullet for one of them while Flynn would be deemed to be in the square when he’d deflected another ricochet to the net. Cork were still up by three and, seconds later, their winning streak had extended to three as well.
Paudie O’Sullivan’s goal five minutes from time.
Galway had charged into a two-point lead but when Greg Lally’s pass along his own endline went astray, O’Sullivan was there to pounce for his second goal.
The state of the Pearse Stadium pitch. Not good enough in this day and age, at least for this level.
Some of the foiled goalchances because of the uneven surface; first a Paudie O’Sullivan goal chance midway through the first half, then 35 minutes later, the ball similarly broke – bobbled – away from Johnny Glynn when he looked right through for Galway.
Joseph Cooney’s striking from range and general contribution from play was a feature of the game.
Both management teams made decent changes, Aidan Harte coming on to rifle over three quick points from play, while Rob O’Shea’s late introduction for Aidan Walsh paid off, the Carrigaline man rifling over a point late on to extend Cork’s lead to three.
Fergal Horgan’s only big call came in injury time, disallowing a Galway square ball goal. And like nearly everything else on the day, he got that right too.
Cork host Tipperary on Sunday to decide which one of them earns top seeding for the following week’s quarter-final.
Galway can also experiment a bit next week, knowing even a loss in Parnell Park won’t deny them a quarter-final spot in a competitive league.
Scorers for Galway: J Flynn 0-5 (4 frees), C Mannion and J Canning (1 sideline ball) 0-4 each, J Cooney and A Harte 0-3 each, D Higgins 0-1.
Scorers for Cork: P Horgan 0-8 (3 65s, 2 frees), P O’Sullivan 2-1, C Lehane 0-3, D Kearney, A Walsh, S Harnedy, B Lawton, R O’Shea 0-1 each.
GALWAY: C Callanan; P Mannion, J Hanbury, J Coen; G McInerney, G Lally, D Collins; A Smith, I Tannian; J Cooney, J Canning, J Flynn; C Mannion, J Glynn, J Regan.
Subs: P Breheny for Regan (27 mins), D Higgins for Breheny (inj, 35 mins), A Harte for Tannian (43), K Hynes for C Mannion (67).
CORK: A Nash; W Kearney, S McDonnell, S O’Neill; L McLoughlin, M Ellis, C Murphy; D Kearney, A Walsh; C Lehane, S Harnedy, B Lawton; S Moylan, P O’Sullivan, P Horgan.
Subs: A Cadogan and L O’Farrell for Moylan and Lawton (51 mins), R O’Shea for Walsh (61), J Coughlan for Harnedy (70).
Referee: F Horgan (Tipperary)