The Rebels’ interest in the competition ended on Saturday with a disappointing All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Donegal though hindsight may yet place their endeavours in a more favourable light.
It’s Herlihy’s belief that Donegal, the Ulster champions, and Kerry, who beat Cork in the Munster final, are the two best teams in the competition. That may offer some solace in the coming weeks though Herlihy wasn’t putting it forward as an excuse after watching Cork’s challenge peter out after a strong start.
The young Rebels led by five points early on and by four at half-time with Jason McGee’s 27th minute goal for Donegal the lifeline the northerners clung to.
The second half was a different story with Donegal curbing the influence of Cork’s key performers to win the half 1-13 to 0-3 and, ultimately, the game by six. That margin flattered Donegal slightly as there was only a point in it with 53 minutes played though Sean Paul Barrett’s side finished strong with 1-2 on the spin.
“We had one minor from last year so it was a brand new Cork team,” said Herlihy. “We put a huge amount of work into it. I think we probably came up against the two best teams in it in Kerry and Donegal. I have a feeling they’ll both be in the final.”
As for his team’s shortcomings on the day, Herlihy shrugged. “We had a good first half, had good intensity to our play but coming out in the second half, Donegal definitely upped their game and we dropped off.
“Whereas we bossed the game in the first half, Donegal did that in the second half. They got two chances for goals in the game and took them. Those were the difference, at the end of the day. We got a couple of sniffs and didn’t take them. They kind of squeezed the life out of us in the last 15 to 20 minutes.”
Donegal played with a packed defence like their senior team though Cork cut through it with ease initially. Mark Buckley, who hit 2-2 in the Munster final, was terrific again and hit four first-half points. Cork led 0-6 to 0-1 when McGee burst through the middle and blasted home Donegal’s goal. But Cork’s response was strong and a four-in-a-row of points, including two from Buckley saw them lead 0-10 to 1-3 at the break.
In all, Donegal managed just one point from play in the first half, in injury-time, though they were a different side after the break. Switching Aaron Deeney onto Buckley helped and the Dohenys club man managed just one point in the second half. Donegal punished Cork’s foul play at the back with five points in the half from converted frees. The 2014 All-Ireland finalists restricted Cork to one point from play in the second half, that Buckley score in the 37th minute. Donegal still led by just 1-11 to 0-13 after 53 minutes but defender Alan McCarthy’s 52nd minute dismissal for a second yellow card cost Cork. The excellent Peadar Mogan converted two more frees and McGrath’s 57th-minute goal was the decisive score, killing off Cork for good. Donegal’s rewards is a semi-final with Galway.
N. O’Donnell (0-5, 4 frees); J. McGee, S. McGrath (1-0) each; P. Mogan (0-3, 3 frees); A. McLaughlin, E. McCormick (0-2 each); E. McGettigan (0-1).
M. Buckley (0-5, 1 45); D. Gore (0-4, 3 frees); T. Corkery, C. Maguire, C. O’Callaghan, C. O’Mahony (1 free) (0-1 each).
G. Mulreany; S. Ferry, A. McCrea, M. Curran; O Shiels, JD Boyle, A. McLaughlin; J. McGee (c), K. Gallagher; P. Mogan, N. Boyle, E. McCormick; O. McFadden-Ferry, N. O’Donnell, E. McGettigan.
A. Deeney for McCrea (35+2); S. McGrath for Shiels (h/t); B. O’Donnell for Boyle (54); G. Molloy for McFadden-Ferry (64).
M. White; A. McCarthy, N. Walsh (c), T. Corkery; A. Browne, R. O’Driscoll, L. O’Donovan; S. Minihane, C. Foley; S. O’Sullivan, M. Buckley, C. Maguire; D. Gore, C. O’Callaghan, C. Og Jones.
K. McMahon for White (12); S. Ryan for Minihane (h/t); C. O’Mahony for Maguire (44); J. Twomey for O’Driscoll (46); R. Fowley for O’Sullivan (50); L. Fahy for Jones (54).
J. Henry (Mayo).