Who knows how Cork would have fared in the All-Ireland quarter-finals had the Kerry defender not deprived them of the Munster title in Killarney three weeks ago, but defeat then couldn’t possibly have been as dispiriting as their Round 4A qualifier exit at a near deserted Semple Stadium on Saturday night.
The stadium stood almost naked aside from the 3,000 or so spectators huddled together in two sections of the Old Stand.
The early loss of James Loughrey to a black card was compounded midway through the first-half by the departure with a suspected cruciate knee injury of midfielder Alan O’Connor. When Conor Dorman hit the crossbar soon after half-time the runes were clear.
With defender Barry O’Driscoll and forward Brian Hurley demoted to the bench from the off and Patrick Kelly unavailable, Cork could ill afford that run of bad luck. Their fate was already sealed by the time Kevin O’Driscoll saw red 56 minutes in.
None of those factors were as damaging as the listlessness that afflicted Brian Cuthbert’s side seven days on from the replay loss to Kerry, nor the tactical surrender that saw them sit with 13 men behind the ball against a side relegated three months ago to the league’s third tier.
As in Killarney last week, Cork failed utterly to muster forces or purpose inside their opponent’s third of the pitch as the slow build-up play and aimless running into contact that has been witnessed all too often resurfaced yet again in Thurles.
Even Jason Ryan admitted that Cork’s set-up had surprised them.
It was deadening stuff although Ryan – while overplaying Cork’s input – was correct in pointing out that it wasn’t all bad from a side that shipped a succession of blows before Colm O’Neill’s goal from a free after 57 minutes injected a modicum of urgency into them.
“Alan O’Connor’s one definitely caused a little bit of a lull in the Cork team, but I thought Cork were excellent when they came out in the second-half. They played with huge energy and they really came at us very, very hard. They were going until the bitter end.
“I suppose when Colm O’Neill scored that wonder-goal it gave them another lift and they went at us again. It was difficult, we had a lot of tired bodies. The guys pushed themselves really, really hard. They were really tired at that stage.”
In truth, Kildare rode out the mini-whirlwind comfortably and the significance of the win was enormous: a first win over Cork since 1928, a first defeat of a top-six team in forever and a first quarter-final berth secured since 2012.
For all Cork’s ailments, it is the Lilywhites that should hog the headlines.
Ryan’s side followed their league relegation with a Jekyll and Hyde back-to-back against Laois before falling to Dublin by 19 points. A squeaky two-point win over Offaly followed before Longford were dispatched, clinically, but no-one saw this coming.
Certainly not the magnitude of it.
“We believed that (this win was possible), absolutely,” Ryan insisted, “but we believed going into the Dublin game that we could win that game as well. It is not a cliché. People are going in to win every game. Against Dublin we didn’t show up. That is something that is passed.”
The result is some vindication for Ryan and his players who had been vilified in their own county on the back of difficulties even prior to this year, but they played nothing like a team under pressure, especially in the first half with their patience in breaking Cork down.
Better though the Munster side were on the restart, it didn’t last long. Dorman’s miss was compounded two minutes later when the excellent Niall Kelly finished off a superb Kildare team move by finding the bottom of Ken O’Halloran’s net. That was that.
Kerry now await in the last eight. Maybe Kildare will recall that the Kingdom fell at that stage five years ago to Down. They were reigning Munster and All-Ireland champions then, too. “Another handy one,” joked Ryan.
N Kelly (1-3); E O’Flaherty (0-5 frees); P Fogarty (0-3, 1 free); A Smith and P Cribbin (0-2); M Donnellan (0-2 frees); O Lyons, E Doyle, P O’Neill, C McNally (all 0-1).
C O’Neill (1-4, 1-2 frees): D O’Connor (0-5, 4 frees); B O’Driscoll, M Collins, P Kerrigan and B Hurley (all 0-1).
M Donnellan; O Lyons, C Fitzpatrick, M O’Grady; K Mufrnaghan, E Doyle, E Bolton; T Moolick, P Cribbin; C McNally, E O’Flaherty, P O’Neill; N Kelly, A Smith, E Callaghan.
P Fogarty for Callaghan (inj, 35+4); P Kelly for O’Grady (38); M Sherry for O’Flaherty (black card, 51); M Conway for McNally (57); F Conway for Kelly (64); G Whyte for Smith (71).
K O’Halloran; S Cronin, J O’Sullivan, M Shields; C Dorman, J Loughrey, B O’Driscoll; A O’Connor, E Cadogan; C O’Driscoll, M Collins, K O’Driscoll; C O’Neill, D O’Connor, P Kerrigan.
B O’Driscoll for Loughrey, black card (12); F Goold for O’Connor (inj, 20); B Hurley for C O’Driscoll (HT); T Clancy for Cronin (43); J O’Rourke for Dorman (48); D Og Hodnett for O’Sullivan (66).
M Duffy (Sligo).