Tyrone: 2-15 Cork: 2-12
This could have changed everything. Cork were humming, Tyrone were rattled, and for 42 minutes at least the prospect of two more proper Super 8s to come was very much alive.
Then everything changed – Tyrone hitting Cork where it hurts, scoring 2-2 without reply, bouncing a six-point deficit into a two-point lead, and with that ultimately sealing their All-Ireland semi-final for a third successive year.
They still had to close out Saturday evening’s deal, Cork drawing level again as late as the hour, with some goal chances that might have changed everything again, only for Tyrone’s guile and experience and conditioning to see them through.
It remains to be seen what exactly Tyrone will want to prove against Dublin in Omagh on Sunday week, both teams already safely into the semi-finals, only for manager Mickey Harte there was some proof here that his team can change their game if needed. The small crowd perhaps some proof too that Croke Park is no place for a neutral venue.
“We’ve been in worse places before, got out of it, so we did feel confident enough that we could do it”, said Harte, and as bad as Tyrone looked for the first half, there was always the sense things could change.
“But we didn’t expect to be back as quickly as that. We had to change the style of play and attack the game more. We always revise what we can do and I don’t think we can blame any system for the way we played in the first half.
“The whole idea is not to be a slave to any system or plan. You have to be able to adjust and adapt within the game. All of these changes and all the things you do in this game of management, there’s an element of gamble in them. If they come off and you win then people thinks it’s wonderful, and if they don’t then you’re not so wonderful”.
Those changes were twofold: Harte's three half-time replacements – Richard Donnelly, Michael Cassidy and Pádraig Hampsey – all made their presence felt, and tactically they also pushed up on Cork's kick outs, and cracking down on their direct game which saw them hit 2-3 within the first 18 minutes, also while being patient, probing, and waiting for opportunities.
The 2-2 sucker punch began with a brilliantly simple goal finished by Cathal McShane, the short sequence of passing beginning with Mattie Donnelly to Michael McKernan, with McShane deftly slam-dunking the finish.
Peter Harte promptly added a neat free and then fired Tyrone in front for the first time with a smashing penalty kick, awarded after Niall Sludden was pushed in the back by Mattie Taylor as he closed in on goal.
Just like that Tyrone were up 2-7 to 2-5. Still Cork turned the screw back on Tyrone a little, a series of three points from replacement Michael Hurley bringing them level again on the hour, but not enough to rekindle a winning position.
Up stepped Harte and McShane again to restore Tyrone’s advantage, Tiernan McCann also coming off the bench to add one of the clinching points.
Mattie Donnelly also played the captain’s part chipping in with his third from play in the vital period, as Cork’s scoring rate declined – and with that sending them into dead rubber zone, as they play Roscommon in the last round with nothing to actually play for.
Afterwards Cork manager Ronan McCarthy put in all down to further leaning experience, and there were further tell-tale signs of a team returning to the top table, even if they’ll spend next spring down in the trenches of Division Three.
“It was the quick concession of so much, so quickly, which is poor from our point of view,” conceded McCarthy.
“As it went on, I felt the game was played more on Tyrone’s terms than it was ours. We never, as the game went on, looked tight enough at the back. They looked like they could score a lot of the times they went down, but we never get too hung up about whether you are ahead or behind at half-time.
“I thought we managed the game very well in the first half, textbook really, we were very patient. It wasn’t pretty on the eye but that is not our fault as the last thing we wanted to do is to take the ball into contact. And we started the second half quite well, but then when they had their period of dominance, we conceded too much. But at least, we came back and kept at it, kept going up the field and kept trying to score.”
Even with nothing left to play for against Roscommon, McCarthy was taking plenty of positives from season.
“We’ve played Kerry, Dublin, and Tyrone now, you are talking about an elite level. Our game management, at times, probably let us down a small bit, but we have had a lot of learning in those games.”
After conceding 3-3 in the last 10 minutes against Dublin last Saturday evening, Cork’s defence were expected to come under a different sort of pressure with the headline solo act that is McShane, although they were ones to promptly as questions of the Tyrone defence.
Having shot 11-65 already this summer, Cork needed only 14 seconds to add another goal, Ian Maguire tearing straight through the heart of Tyrone's defence passing off to Luke Connolly, who blasted into the net.
Their second goal on 18 minutes, finished by James Loughrey not long after he was sprung from the bench, was even more impressive, shot straight into the top of the left, with power to prove it. Just not the game-changing goals in the end.
TYRONE: N Morgan; R Brennan, R McNamee, H P McGeary; C Meyler (0-1), K McGeary, M McKernan; C Cavanagh, B Kennedy; F Burns, M Donnelly (capt) (0-3), N Sludden; D McCurry, C McShane (1-5, four frees), P Harte (1-5, a penalty, three frees).
Subs: M Cassidy for McGeary, R Donnelly for McCurry, P Hampsey for Kennedy (all half-time), T McCann (0-1) for McKernan (52 mins), C McAlister for Sludden (55 mins).
Yellow cards: C Cavanagh (15 mins), M McKernan (39 mins)
CORK: M White; S Cronin, Thomas Clancy, K Flahive; L O'Donovan, Tomas Clancy, M Taylor (0-1); I Maguire (capt), K O'Hanlon; S White (0-1), R Deane, K O'Driscoll; L Connolly (1-3, two frees), B Hurley, M Collins (0-2, both frees).
Subs: J Loughrey (1-0) for Tomas Clancy (12 mins), P Kerrigan for Hurley (48 mins), M Hurley (0-4) for Collins (51 mins), S Powter for White, J O'Rourke (0-1) for O'Driscoll (both 59 mins), S Sherlock for Cronin (66 mins).
Yellow cards: K O'Driscoll (37 mins), M Taylor (39 mins) L Donovan (41 mins)
Referee: Maurice Deegan (Laois).