Cleary, who collected her ninth All-Ireland medal last September before retiring, was somewhat taken aback by the set-up of the Rebels at Parnell Park — Cork corner-forward Orla Finn operating inside her own 20-metre line at one stage in the opening half.
Galway enjoyed greater possession and scoring opportunities, but were reduced to lateral hand-passing and speculative long-range efforts — six first-half wides testament to Cork’s work-rate and discipline inside their own half. The class of Tracey Leonard sustained the Tribeswomen during that spell — the full-forward kicked 0-5 of their 0-6 tally— as Cork, buoyed by Ciara O’Sullivan’s fisted goal on 14 minutes, snuffed out the threat of Olivia Divilly, Edel Concannon and Patricia Gleeson. At least three Cork forwards would retreat each time Galway moved into opposition territory and it was their hunting-in-packs approach that prevented Galway sub Aoibheann Daly getting a shot away to win the game in the final minute.
But Cork manager Eamonn Ryan didn’t take kindly to suggestions of an ultra defensive mentality.
“I don’t get this, Kerry were saying the same thing the last time,” he quipped. “What you have is the same field as a 100 years ago, with the same number of players, but a hugely increased standard of fitness.
“Inevitably, if a player is beaten they follow their player. Inevitably, you are going to be going back. You don’t deliberately (set up that way)… maybe some people do. I wouldn’t have the brains to set up defensively.
“You are nearly out of fashion now if you don’t come up with some real good theory or a defensive strategy. Everyone is told to work back if their person has the ball and so they work to win the ball back. It is that simple.”
Ryan was pleased by their response to Galway’s 10-minute blitz early in the second-half when the westerners turned a three-point interval deficit into a four-point advantage.
Annette Clarke and Louise Ward split the posts, the latter moving the underdogs into pole position on 35 minutes when stepping beautifully inside three Cork defenders to goal and edge Kevin Reidy’s charges 1-8 to 1-6 clear.
Two Leonard frees doubled their advantage and they could have been further ahead on 40 minutes with Annette Clarke pulling her penalty effort left and wide after Cork ‘keeper Martina O’Brien upended Ger Conneally.
Sub Eimear Scally ripped open the Galway rearguard in the next passage of play and while her goal drive was smothered, Valerie Mulcahy scrambled the rebound across the line for Cork’s first score of the second-half.
Doireann O’Sullivan and Mulcahy (free) swapped points with Edel Concannon and Patricia Gleeson thereafter, Cork appearing to strike the telling blow on 52 minutes.
Mulcahy teed up sub Rhona Ní Bhuachalla — one of four important personnel changes rung by Ryan in the second-half — and her effort sailed into the top left corner of Johanna Connolly’s goal. That strike left it 3-8 to 1-12 in Cork’s favour. Galway heads never dropped and strong defending from Emer Flaherty, Nicola Ward and Sinead Burke, allied to excellent forward play from Louise Ward and Gleeson enabled Leonard and sub Lorna Joyce to land the equalising scores.
Ryan admitted: “It was a great game. We were lucky to beat them by a point in Mourneabbey and we’re damn glad to get out of here.”
V Mulcahy (1-5, 0-4 frees); C O’Sullivan, R Ni Bhuachalla (1-0 each); D O’Sullivan, R Buckley, A Walsh (0-1 each).
T Leonard (0-8, 0-2 free); L Ward (1-1); A Clarke, E Concannon, P Gleeson, L Joyce, B Hannon (0-1 each).
M O’Brien; M Ambrose, R Phelan, B Stack; V Foley, R O’Sullivan, G O’Flynn; R Buckley, B Corkery; C O’Sullivan, A Hutchings, A Walsh; D O’Sullivan, V Mulcahy, O Finn.
E Scally for Finn (38 mins), R Ní Bhuachalla for Hutchings (42), O Farmer for D O’Sullivan (47), G Kearney for A Walsh (51).
J Connolly; S Gormally, E Flaherty, A Seoighe; N Connolly, N Ward, S Burke; A Clarke, G Conneally; B Hannon, P Gleeson, O Divilly; L Ward, T Leonard, E Concannon.
C Cormican for Connolly (38 mins), L Joyce for Concannon (47), A Daly for Divilly (51).
G Corrigan (Down).