Colm O’Neill’s stylish return caps a successful night in Croke Park for Cork

Class forward makes a dramatic impact from the bench with the final two points to seal victory over wasteful Dublin

Substitute Colm O’Neill celebrates scoring the last point of the game to seal victory for Cork  against Dublin at Croke Park. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Substitute Colm O’Neill celebrates scoring the last point of the game to seal victory for Cork against Dublin at Croke Park. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Mon, Mar 3, 2014, 01:00

Dublin 0-18 Cork 1-17

A perfect league night in Croker on Saturday, thick with imperfection in a pleasing early-season sort of way. Cork and Dublin put two young teams to work and made them learn on the job. When it ended, Cork had their first win over Dublin at HQ since the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final and Dublin had learned a little more about the players who exist on the fringes of the fringe of their first 15.

Jim Gavin’s side could have taken the spoils but they kicked far too many second -half wides to deserve them.

As it was, the night belonged to a Cork substitute. Colm O’Neill wasn’t the Man of the Match but he was certainly the man to whom the match mattered most. The 20 minutes he got on the pitch at the end were his first in a Cork jersey since tearing the cruciate in his right knee against Donegal on St Patrick’s weekend last year.

Right knee
It was the third cruciate injury of his career, six months short of his 24th birthday. His only piece of luck was that it happened to his right knee, for a third on his left knee would almost certainly have meant the end. That he was on the pitch at all on Saturday night would warm the heart. That he kicked the two points that won the game would nearly make it burst.

“I’m absolutely thrilled for him,” said Cork manager Brian Cuthbert afterwards. “I was a selector last year and I was in the dressing-room at half-time against Donegal when he was inconsolable because he knew himself that the ACL was gone. And I suppose I have seen him at close quarters for the past three-and-a-half months in rehab and working with [team physio] Colin Lane every morning at seven o’clock.

“All he wants is like every other boy in the country – to play football. I spoke to his mom and dad afterwards and they’re on tenterhooks every time he goes out now. But at the same time today should give him huge confidence because he won the game for us really.”

O’Neill came on in the 50th minute to replace John Hayes, who’d caused Dublin all manner of hassles in putting 1-3 on the board in the first half.

Allied to a night of gloriously sweet striking by free-taker Daniel Goulding, Hayes’s contribution helped Cork to a three-point lead when O’Neill entered the fray.

He had to wait a full 10 minutes to get his hands on the ball, by which time Dublin had closed the gap off the back of some electrifying running by Jack McCaffrey. So when O’Neill did get a touch, it was time to make it count.

First ball. Catch, turn, over the bar. Eight minutes later, Cork a point up, his second point was even better. More dynamic, more ruthless. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like there was nothing on his mind, nothing to worry about.

“He’s after doing that move umpteen times with the physio,” said Cuthbert. “And I’m after seeing him kick the ball over the bar like that umpteen times with the physio. Outside of anything that happened out there I’m just over the moon that Colm O’Neill is back playing because the game is better for him to be out there.

Knocked back
“He has been knocked back three times now and we have seen glimpses of the player he could be if he could just sustain a length of time of playing. He’s still a young man and, taking my Cork hat off for a second, I sincerely hope that there’s someone looking down on him who will look after him for the next seven or eight years of his career because we can all see how good a player he is.”

Dublin had their chances and on another night with more of their regulars involved probably wouldn’t have kicked the eight second-half wides that cost them here. No matter. When the story of 2014 is told, a two-point league defeat to Cork will merit barely a sentence.

For Colm O’Neill though, it was the first day of the rest of his life. There can’t be a person in the country who wouldn’t wish him a clear run at it.

DUBLIN: S Cluxton (0-3, 0-2 frees, 0-1 45); P McMahon, S George, M Fitzsimons; E Lowndes, J McCarthy (0-1), J Cooper; C O’Sullivan, MD Macauley; D Byrne, C Kilkenny (0-3, 0-1 free), B Cullen; K McManamon (0-3), C Reddin (0-2), C Costello (0-4, 0-1 free). Subs: J McCaffrey for George (23 mins), D Nelson for Lowndes (half-time), E O’Gara for Byrne (47 mins), P Hudson (0-1) for Costello (52 mins), S Carthy (0-1) for Reddin (63 mins).
CORK: K O’Halloran; A Cronin, E Cadogan, N Galvin; J Loughrey, C Dorman, T Clancy; A Walsh, F Goold (0-1); J O’Rourke, P Kerrigan (0-1), M Collins; D Goulding (0-7, all frees), B Hurley (0-1), J Hayes (1-3). Subs: K Crowley for Dorman (24 mins), D Óg Hodnett (0-2) for Galvin (half-time;), C O’Neill (0-2) for Hayes (50 mins), R Deane for Wals1h (54 mins), A O’Sullivan for Goold (58 mins), K O’Driscoll for Loughrey (70 mins).
Referee: P Hughes (Armagh).