Last year’s All-Ireland Ladies Football final spent no time in purgatory but ascended straight to sports-fan heaven.
This year’s edition... not so much.
Measuring up to 2014 was always going to be a challenge; nothing short of a stone classic was going to release those chilled by autumn in Croke Park yesterday back into civilian life with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
As it was, we had a grinding game which stayed alive until the very end, when most of Cork was inside the 14-metre line at the Canal End, throwing back a last desperate Dublin attack to hold out for a stunning fifth All-Ireland title in a row, a tenth in 11 years.
The tag line in the build-up by sponsors TG4 was luas agus fuinneamh, and Dublin showed plenty of both speed and energy. The trouble was that that’s not sufficient against a team with such a hard drive of experience to draw from. For evidence, consider the matter-of-fact attitude from Cork captain Ciara O’Sullivan after the final whistle; asked if she was worried when Dublin were just one point behind her side, O’Sullivan said she’d prefer to be a point up rather than a point down.
Victory apart, would Cork be entirely happy with their display? They’d would hardly be satisfied with those turnovers conceded as they tried to penetrate the Dublin half-back line early on, for instance. But in the same period Dublin heads were shaking when they put seven shots wide, never mind the possession they spilled when trying to get inside Cork’s last line of defence.
Cork boss Eamon Ryan said afterwards that his side had emphasised not conceding goals, and in the first half in particular Dublin looked like a side hunting a green flag.
Neither team looked like getting a goal, though, apart from a moment of panic at the Dublin end five minutes from the break — Doireann O’Sullivan looped in a high ball which came back off the bar, and Valerie Mulcahy gathered near goal, but the chance evaporated as a platoon in sky blue descended on the Cork sharpshooter.
Forwards being outnumbered by defenders was a commonplace once the game settled. A six-two split was common on both sides, by which I mean half a dozen backs outnumbering two forwards. Little wonder that it was 0-5 apiece at the break.
As it was, the other big take-away from the early going was the continuation of last weekend’s theme — the focus on restarts. Both Cork and Dublin hurried up their restarts, trying to prevent their opponents from settling, and it was no surprise that the more experienced side adapted quicker.
As the half wore on Cork unlocked the Dubs’ kick-out formula and kept their opponents pinned back.
On the resumption Cork won the game, to put it bluntly. In the opening minutes of the second half they hit four points — three from Mulcahy and one from Doireann O’Sullivan, and Dublin never recovered.
The side in sky blue cut the deficit to one late on, but the effort put in to cutting Cork’s lead left gaps at the back, and Cork were able to keep their noses in front.
Dublin needed that goal badly, and though Cork had the most dangerous lead in Gaelic games with the hooter ready to blow, a match-winning goal never looked likely.
The challengers also made the errors that betrayed their inexperience: after the game Eamon Ryan said that Dublin were a lot younger than Cork (“on and off the field”) and that showed clearly in a couple of misplaced passes, one or two bad options.
CORK didn’t give a clinical performance either — they hit three bad wides in the second half, but Ryan used the term “capricious” to describe the windy conditions.
“What we said to them at half-time, that they were in a battle and that they had to be patient,” said Ryan. “We had a few wides in the second half and I thought we might lose that patience, but in the last 10 minutes they were very good and they showed their quality.
“About the panel — it annoys me sometimes to hear of a player being ‘dropped’. In today’s game, the field is the same as it ever was, there’s the same number of players, but the athleticism has gone through the roof. It’s no surprise to see a crowd around the ball — you see that in hurling, there’s a scrum every couple of minutes around the ball. But I don’t see any lowering in standards, but a rise in athleticism.”
Asked about his future, Ryan was poker-faced: “We’ll see, that took a lot out of all of us, and there aren’t too many miles left on the clock. We’ll see.” All of Cork will want Ryan to remain. Actually, broaden that constituency. Who wouldn’t want their sport represented by someone of that calibre?
Dublin manager Gregory McGonigle was proud of his side in defeat.
“The only difference (to last year) obviously is that we weren’t in the lead and we weren’t pinned back. I’m very proud. It’s a very young side as well but I think everyone in the media today would have had us written off in terms of Cork being the team going for ten-in-a-row.
“When we knew we were going to be playing Cork we talked about a game plan and in fairness they gave us that and implemented it and stuck to the process and didn’t go away. Whatever we asked them to do, they always tried to be the best that they could.”
There was a concerted push to secure for Croke Park the highest attendance at a women’s sporting event in Europe this summer, and the previous was broken by yesterday’s attendance. They mightn’t have seen a classic, but they saw history.
Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley added a dusting of magic to the proceedings by winning their 16th All-Ireland senior medal between camogie and ladies football, and just for good measure Corkery collected a well-deserved player of the match bauble, having inspected every corner of the field over the hour.
The pair of them exist in a zone now above the GAA immortals, somewhere. Maybe a penthouse in Valhalla. The way Cork played yesterday, they could have company joining them there soon enough.