Nine points up with less than 10 minutes remaining, Dublin hit a quick-fire 2-1 to make a game of it. Erica Byrne’s penalty and Julia Buckley’s second goal had Cork nerves jangling before Jade Sweeney Knott pointed to leave the Sky Blues just two behind – 4-9 to 2-17.
But Cork, captained by Cleary’s daughter Laura, kept their cool and midfielder Ciara McCarthy cut through for a wonderful solo point with six minutes left.
Cork kept Dublin at arm’s length from there and after playing keep ball for the guts of 90 seconds, corner-forward Sadhbh O’Leary landed the insurance score in the final minute to seal a ninth competition win.
McCarthy, Cleary, O’Leary and Grace Culloty were excellent, collecting 12 points from play between them. But the shooting star was Nemo Rangers forward Saoirse Noonan, as the full-forward finished with 2-5, including two first-half goals.
Rachel Douglas got Dublin off to a flier with a goal within a minute but Noonan struck in the 8th and 15th minutes to hand Cork the advantage.
At the break, the Rebels led 2-7 to 1-5 but Dublin rallied with a 37th minute goal from Buckley. Cork’s response was impressive as they landed the next four points but spirited Dublin – denied a first title in this grade since 2012 – made a game of it before Cleary’s charges could breathe easily.
Cleary said: “It was typical ladies football – up and down. We looked like pulling away two or three times but we didn’t and Dublin caught us on the break and got two or three good goals. We were slightly the better team but a small bit lucky to hold out in the end. Credit to our girls, they never panicked. Maybe we were panicking a small bit on the line but they didn’t and saw the game out.”
S Noonan 2-5 (0-2f), S O’Leary 0-5, C McCarthy 0-3, L Cleary & G Culloty 0-2 each, C Ryan & A Scannell 0-1 each.
J Buckley 2-1, R Douglas 1-3 (0-3f), E Byrne 1-0 pen, J Sweeney Knott, M Jennings, H O’Neill, D Lawless & C O’Sullivan 0-1 each.
M O’Sullivan; E Spillane, A O’Sullivan, S Phelan; C Hughes, B Casey, A Lynch; N Murphy, C McCarthy; C Ryan, L Cleary, A Scannell; G Culloty, S Noonan, S O’Leary.
J Brew Dinan for Lynch (46), L O’Neill for Scannell (50), S Hurley for Phelan (50), C Moran for McCarthy (60).
K Ronan; S Hannigan, T O’Sullivan, S Moran; E Flannagan, L McGinley, M O’Gorman; J Sweeney-Knott, E Byrne; M Jennings, H O’Dea, H O’Neill; D Lawless, J Buckley, R Douglas.
J Dunne for Jennings (h.t.), C O’Sullivan for Douglas (43), S Murtagh for Flannagan (43), A McGrath for Lawless (46), H Bolger for Moran (50).
M Farrelly (Cavan).