Donegal 0-16 Cork 1-11
The dichotomy couldn’t have been more pronounced and, for keen Donegal supporters, the significance of the optics was so, so apparent.
Just as they absorbed a first All-Ireland final appearance in 20 years, they were given the opportunity to applaud Karl Lacey as he accepted an acknowledgement from the Donegal County Board on making a terrific 100th appearance for the county.
Backtrack to late June 2010 when Colm McFadden was presented the crystal for the same achievement on Crossmaglen’s Oliver Plunketts pitch. After a nine-point embarrassment against Armagh in that first round qualifier and with the team’s small following having vacated the area, he looked like he wanted the world to swallow him whole.
But then that was pre-Jim McGuinness and yesterday was the latest in a list of highlights of his reign, his brother-in-law McFadden delivering again with five points.
In front of a yellow and green-laden 55,169 Croke Park crowd, Donegal gave the most convincing display yet that they are ready to become All-Ireland champions.
Against what had been the most physically-imposing team in the country, they looked in control throughout, even if Cork were the better team in the opening half.
With Neil Gallagher ruling in midfield, Cork were forced into restarting short. As expected, they dominated in the possession stakes but found themselves having to continuously recycle ball and changing the point of attack.
That worked well for them but was heavy on their gas and after the break they found themselves reversing from cul de sacs and paid the price for a collection of turnovers.
Two years ago, Cork won an All-Ireland title bullying teams into submission. The likes of Dublin and Down wilted as they crashed wave after wave of strong running against their defences before they eventually relented with acts of indiscipline.
Yesterday, Daniel Goulding’s 14th minute free was the only free opportunity within 45m of Paul Durcan’s goal. McGuinness had clearly done his homework on how Cork earned their corn and his defence’s discipline was exquisite.
Instead, it was Donegal who scavenged and then feasted on turnovers before attacking with such an authoritative directness that you couldn’t help but hear The Ride of the Valkyries in your head as they raided forward.
They didn’t start off that way, though, preferring to punt high ball into Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden in the initial stages. Cork, on the other hand, went through the heads and by half-time had offloaded with their hands over three times as much as their opponents. For all the critics of Donegal’s style of football, that statistic was quite the silencer.
The sides were level on seven occasions in the first-half, Cork going ahead on three occasions through Paddy Kelly punishing a short Donegal kick-out in the seventh minute, Colm O’Neill firing off the second of a quick brace in the 25th minute then Ciarán Sheehan finishing off a lung-bursting move after he had refused to give up on a hopeless ball.
Cork were also successful in matching Donegal, returning immediate fire on them twice in the first-half, Sheehan and O’Neill finishing off moves that originated with those short kick-outs.
However, it was Donegal who led at the break 0-8 to 0-7, scoring the last two points of the half via substitute David Walsh with his first kick of the game and Mark McHugh fisting over following a strong Leo McLoone run.
The championship quarter’s lock, stock and barrel was owned by Donegal as they changed tact, soaking up Cork’s attack, turning the ball over then attacking as a cavalry. Graham Canty twice found himself in space but on his weaker left foot and once again Donegal’s ability to push opponents not renowned for their scoring into such areas worked a treat.
McFadden, Frank McGlynn and Karl Lacey scores puts plenty of daylight between the teams. But for some excellent long range scores from Aidan Walsh and Sheehan, the curtains could have been pulled much earlier than they were.
Surrounded by four defenders, O’Neill did so well to get a shot away in the 46th minute only to see it rattle Durcan’s bar. Its cost was realised shortly after when fouls on Murphy and Cadogan were punished by the Donegal captain and McFadden.
That put five between the teams and despite more accurate distance shots from Paul Kerrigan and O’Neill, the difference remained the same going into injury-time thanks a McFadden 45 and a Martin McElhinney point.
A superb block by Anthony Thompson on Walsh looked to be the end of Cork’s challenge before O’Neill, who had clearly pushed his marker to make the space, beat Durcan in the second minute of the additional three minutes.
But unlike the Kerry game, there was no panic here from Donegal and they saw out the remaining time in Cork’s half of the pitch.
They now hold rightful claim to being All-Ireland favourites. The 20-year gap to their last (and victorious) All-Ireland final pales in comparison to what McGuinness has achieved these past 20 months.
In beating Tyrone, Kerry and now Cork, they are the champion slayers. Providing Dublin beat Mayo next Sunday, they can complete the set next month and secure a most outstanding of All-Ireland titles.
Scorers for Donegal: C McFadden 0-5 (2f, 1 45), M Murphy 0-3fs, K Lacey 0-2, R Kavanagh, David Walsh, M McHigh, F McGlynn, A Thompson, M McElhinney 0-1 each.
Scorers for Cork: C O’Neill 1-3, C Sheehan 0-3, P Kerrigan 0-2, P Kelly, D Goulding (f), A Walsh 0-1 each.
Subs for Donegal: David Walsh for Bradley (30), M McElhinney for Kavanagh (inj 59), Declan Walsh for McGrath (68), D McLaughlin for McBrearty (inj. 72), C Toye for McFadden (72).
Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).
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