Cork heave a huge sigh of relief


MUNSTER SFC FINAL: Cork 2-6 Limerick 0-11: CORK DIDN’T have to get as far as Croke Park for some revisionism to set in concerning the humbling of Kerry last month. In yesterday’s GAA Munster football final, harried and chased down by a wonderfully committed Limerick challenge, the champions had to scramble hard to hang on to their provincial title.

In the end they made it by a point to retain the championship for the first time in 14 years. Limerick had been hoping to bridge a wider gap, one spanning a couple of centuries back to 1896 when the county last won this title.

Yet again the county’s footballers maintained their reputation for competitiveness at this level and but for some loose finishing during a dominant first half, Mickey Ned O’Sullivan’s team might have banked enough to put the match beyond Cork.

It was a subdued performance from the home side, who went an entire 35 minutes without scoring, before a modest attendance of 20,676. The all-action power game that drove through Kerry was well contained by Limerick, who flooded the middle third and maintained a ferocious work-rate during the first half to prevent Cork building from the back and streaming through the centre.

Although the challengers were disappointed with their conversion rate, they showed sufficient scoring instinct to build three-point leads on two occasions, having been pegged back by a contentious penalty tucked away against the run of play by Donncha O’Connor in the 14th minute after Daniel Goulding was deemed to have been fouled at the end of the first attack of any real menace launched by Cork.

Limerick’s top forward Ian Ryan led the charge for the county and ended the first half with four points from play but was unable to add to his total after the break as the team’s challenge slowed.

Ryan was ably assisted by captain Seán Buckley, who fired over three from play in the first half, but who was similarly unable to find the target afterwards. Stephen Kelly’s speed and probing also created problems for Cork.

These difficulties were epitomised by the problems facing captain Graham Canty, initially on Ryan and then on Buckley, and also by a lack of concentration that saw poor kick passing and surrendered possession. As anticipated Jim O’Donovan and John Galvin proved a handful at centrefield.

Starved of serviceable possession Cork’s full forwards had the additional obstacle of determined markers in Limerick’s last line of defence, especially Johnny McCarthy at corner back. The former UCD Sigerson star brought off some terrific defensive plays, the pick of them a ball plucked under pressure from Donncha O’Connor in the 50th minute. In front of them Stephen Lucey prevented Pearse O’Neill from establishing the attacking beach-head he had maintained against Kerry.

Limerick’s half-time lead of three, 0-8 to 1-2, could have been doubled had the penalty not been awarded against them but equally had Stephen Lavin, whose buccaneering runs up the right wing from wing back created a number of openings, been able to convert a 28th-minute goal chance instead of sliding it wide of the far post.

The third quarter should have seen Cork raise the tempo but instead the team looked dispirited and even less urgent than previously. After a first half when their only wide came in injury-time – reflective of lack of opportunity as much as of economy – the champions began to miss good chances, deepening the unease amongst the home support.

Perhaps inevitably Limerick’s industrious covering waned as the match wore on. What defined the difference between the teams and ultimately led to Limerick’s downfall was the ability of Cork to take goal chances. O’Connor’s penalty was well dispatched and going into the final quarter Daniel Goulding intervened to turn the tide.

Firstly in the 53rd minute his shot on goal was deflected over for a point by Limerick goalkeeper Seán Kiely. A minute later Canty – more recognisably authoritative in the second half – pumped a high ball in on the opponents’ square. Replacement Colm O’Neill, one of the talented, All-Ireland winning under-21s, touched it down to Goulding, who flashed a stinging shot into the net to equalise at 2-3 to 0-9.

The sense that the danger had been averted was strengthened when after another minute Goulding added a further point and although Lavin equalised, O’Neill restored the lead with a great point from the left.

Although there was just two points in it, 2-6 to 0-10, after Donncha O’Connor had kicked a free, for the final 10 minutes Cork exhibited the demeanour of a side leading by seven.

Unfortunately for themselves, Limerick seemed to share this view and although they had reasonable forward possession Cork defended tenaciously and although Kelly cut the deficit to the minimum in injury-time the champions held on.