This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare have been caught with their pants down now and again in the league – Derry and Down have both handed them 11-point hidings in Newbridge – but this was unprecedented in five years of championship campaigns under the Armagh man.
So, kudos to Cork for that, but 13-point canters in August are about as much use as one-sided cruises in February when it comes to the business of preparing sides for the white heat of an All-Ireland semi-final against an opponent such as Donegal.
Boil this one down and Cork were put to the pin of their collar for no more than a 15-minute spell prior to the break and maybe another five after it. And all this eight, long weeks after their one and only truly competitive run-out, against Kerry, this summer.
In fairness, it showed at times.
Though they purred towards the final whistle, the first-half was one in which both sides struggled to mould the game into anything approaching a pattern thanks to a plethora of spilled balls and some wayward passing.
Cork’s rustiness was understandable, Kildare’s less so given they had once again emerged into the last eight via a consistent run of games through the back door against Cavan, Limerick and then Sligo eight days previously.
No, more worrying for Conor Counihan was his side’s failure to claim a single score between the 19th and 43rd minutes, but they were at least fortunate to have had Lady Luck on their side at two crucial moments before the drought kicked in.
Donncha O’Connor had just handed the Munster champions their fourth point and first lead when Paul Kerrigan fashioned a one-on-one with Kildare goalkeeper Shane Connolly, whose save rebounded off the legs of Eoin Doyle and into the net.
Within five minutes, Kildare had been dealt another dodgy hand when a breaking ball bounced kindly for Colm O’Neill. In fairness, the forward made the most of it by means of a one-two with O’Connor which presented the Ballyclough man with a simple touch to the rigging.
Both scores were preceded by debated moments: the first when Eoghan O’Flaherty was penalised for what was Adjudged as a clean pick-up off the ground and the second by a sideline ball that possibly should have been awarded in Kildare’s favour.
Kildare have been hurt by more glaring injustices in recent years, but there was time to recover yesterday. With less than 20 minutes played, McGeeney introduced Daryl Flynn into the midfield and the switch kickstarted the Leinster side’s most productive spell.
Suddenly, balls were played in fast and low to Tomas O’Connor at full-forward and the more direct approach harvested five successive points from a Cork rearguard that had become accustomed to a more laboured handpassing approach.
The temptation is to surmise that the interval intervened, yet Kildare returned in much the same mood only to spill their momentum on a handful of wides that could have shaved the half-time deficit from three points to one.
And then, just as suddenly, the game turned again. As was the case in the first period, it swung, coincidentally or not, on events initiated on the sideline with Counihan sending Pearse O’Neill and Daniel Goulding on for Alan O’Connor and Nicholas Murphy. Goulding wasn’t on the pitch more than a minute before he ended his side’s alarming stagnation on the scoreboard and little could anyone know then that Kildare were already a third of the way through a barren spell of their own that would almost stretch half-an-hour. Another nine points followed in succession and, had Cork been of a mind to do so, they could have cashed half of them in for goals instead such was the ease with which they sauntered through a dissolving Kildare back line.
Aidan Walsh’s point, when he ran unmolested from midfield through to the Kildare penalty area before tipping over a languid point after 49 minutes, was the most obvious example of how uncompetitive the game became in what was really the blink of an eye.
McGeeney said later it was a case of his players vacating their posts in search of the scores that would propel them back into contention but it looked more like a case of a team, individually and collectively, abandoning hope. That they finished the last 15 minutes with just 14 men was a moot point as Kildare were eight points adrift by the time the unfortunate Eoin Doyle saw his day brought to a premature end with a second yellow card. The gut feeling is Cork ended the game with a better team than the one that started, but who can say for sure given Kildare’s surrender? We’ve waited this long to have our curiosity satisfied with this Cork team. Three more weeks won’t hurt.
Scorers for Kildare: A Smith 0-4 (1f), J Doyle 0-3 (1f), H McGrillen, R Kelly, E O’Flaherty (f), M Conway (f) 0-1 each.
Scorers for Cork: C O’Neill 1-3 (2fs), D O’Connor 0-4 (2 45s, 1f), E Doyle (1-0 own goal), A Walsh 0-3 (1f), P Kissane, P Kerrigan, P O’Neill, D Goulding 0-2 each, F Goold 0-1.
Subs for Kildare: D Flynn for Kelly (20), P O’Neill for Foley (47), F Dowling for Conway (47), S Johnston for E O’Flaherty (50), D Early for O’Connor (56).
Subs for Cork: P Kelly for Sheehan (34), P O’Neill for A O’Connor (40), D Goulding for Murphy (42), J O’Sullivan for Carey (47), D O’Sullivan for Canty (62).
Referee: K McQuillan (Cavan).
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