Cork never had to move out of second gear
There was much to savour about Cork's victory over Mayo in last Sunday's Allianz NFL final at Croke Park.
The result bridged an eleven-year gap, it earned the Rebel County a sixth title, and, having lifted the Division 2 crown at Monaghan's expense in 2009, it allowed Conor Counihan's charges to taste league success for the second time in the space of 12 months.
In addition, it was achieved with a team showing seven changes from that which lined out against Kerry in last year's All-Ireland final and containing four players who have yet to appear in a championship game at the top level.
More than enough there to suggest that Cork can head into the championship in buoyant mood, all the more so in view of the ease with which they dispatched a Mayo side that went into the match with high hopes following an impressive march to the final.
Two weeks ago at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Mayo claimed the top spot in Division 1 when comfortably accounting for Cork in the final game in the group. But they were completely outgunned this time, and their tame capitulation was in keeping with the county's repeated failure to measure up in major games at Croke Park in recent times.
It could be argued that Mayo's wretched display took much of the gloss from Cork's win, and to say that the occasion was anti-climatic would be an understatement. The bottom line, however, is that Cork got the job done in most convincing fashion, and, looking for crumbs of mitigation, Mayo could point to the fact that Donegal and Tyrone endured a comparable experience against the Munster champions in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final respectively.
So too did Monaghan in the Division 2 decider in 2009, and surely it was a case of Cork confirming their rating as one of the top teams in the country as much as Mayo franking their unenviable reputation as perennial big-game bottlers.
It was always on the cards that Mayo would find it hard to register a second consecutive win over a Cork side strengthened by the return of seven championship regulars in 2009, including in-form attackers Paul Kerrigan, Patrick Kelly and Daniel Goulding, all of whom had been rested for the clash in Páirc Uí Chaoimh a fortnight ago.
As things transpired, Kerrigan and Kelly weren't especially conspicuous over the 70 minutes, although both paid their way up front, with Kelly restricting Mayo's Donal Vaughan, so influential as an attacking wing back the last day, to a totally defensive role this time.
Goulding, for his part, proved a major thorn in the Mayo rearguard, giving corner back Liam O'Malley a torrid time in the second half when he capped a sparkling display with a goal that emphasised Cork's superiority in the 62nd minute.
It was his Eire Og clubmate Ciaran Sheehan who did the spadework for Goulding's strike, unhinging the Mayo rearguard with a forceful run and a pin-point cross after taking a pass from Eoin Cotter. Sheehan got through an amount of effective work when drifting out around the half forward line in the second half, and he looked threatening as well at the edge of the square prior to that, even if gritty Mayo full back Ger Cafferkey managed to limit his impact to a large degree.
All in all, he can feel well satisfied with how he shaped up in his first outing with the seniors at Croke Park, and the same applies to Cotter, Jamie O'Sullivan and especially Aidan Walsh, who made a huge contribution from midfield.
That the four newcomers emerged from this test with credit was perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the day from a Cork point of view, but, in the final analysis, everything went according to plan, with the performance of Michael Shields at centre back another major positive.
Honoured with the captaincy for the game, Shields certainly led by example, and his mastery of playmaker-in-chief Alan Dillon was a key factor in ensuring that the Mayo attack never functioned with any sort of fluency.
By contrast, Donncha O'Connor was a revelation on the 40 for Cork in the first half, and Trevor Howley's inability to handle the Ballydesmond man meant that the Mayo defence always looked vulnerable. The picture wasn't any brighter for the Westerners at midfield where Walsh and Alan O'Connor ran the show for Cork, both chipping in with a point in the second half when wing back Noel O'Leary also got his name on the scoresheet.
Eight players in total shared in Cork's tally of 1-17, just three points of which came from frees, while Conor Mortimer was the only Mayo forward to raise a flag from play until Andy Moran pointed inside the last five minutes of regulation time.
Moran seldom got a look-in from Noel O'Leary otherwise, and Trevor Mortimer was similarly subdued by Paudie Kissane, with the result that, in addition to the control exerted by Michael Shields at centre back for Cork, Mayo constantly struggled to make headway in the half forward line.
It as obvious from the outset that Mayo had targeted Cork's relatively inexperienced full back line as a possible weak link, and the early indications were that the tactic of pumping the long ball into the danger-zone might yield rich dividends.
In the 16th minute, for instance, full forward Aidan O'Shea got a fist to a long delivery from wing back Kevin McLoughlin, but the ball rebounded off the crossbar. Corner forward Mark Ronaldson blasted a chance wide shortly afterwards before O'Shea was denied by an excellent block-down from Jamie O'Sullivan two minutes later.
O'Shea, from whom so much was expected, got little change subsequently from O'Sullivan, however, and once Cork's last line of defence settled down, Mayo ran rapidly out of ideas up front.
After Ciaran Sheehan, fed by Patrick Kelly, and Mayo midfielder Seamus O'Shea had traded early points, Cork bagged consecutive scores through Goulding, Kerrigan and Kelly before their defence was almost breached tellingly on three occasions in as many minutes.
A couple of booming points from the rampant Donncha O'Connor followed, however, to put them firmly in the driving seat where they remained until half-time. It was 0-9 to 0-5 at the end of a first half in which wing back Kevin McLoughlin was about the only player to make a significant impression for Mayo.
Mayo introduced Ronan McGarrity as a third midfielder for the second half, and they hinted they might be ready to make a game of it after Conor Mortimer struck over a brace points, the second from a free, within three minutes of the resumption. But McGarrity did little to improve their fortunes at midfield where Eoin Cotter performed competently for Cork along side the ever-influential Walsh and Alan O'Connor, whose fisted point made it a four-point game again, 0-11 to 0-7, in the 45th minute.
O'Connor touched over a Daniel Goulding free won by Fintan Goold after the latter had intercepted a misplaced delivery from a free by Trevor Howley, and it effectively marked the end of Mayo's bid to mount a recovery.
Although failing to make a sustained impact against Kevin McLoughlin, Goold had his moments at wing forward for Cork, while Ray Carey, despite conceding three points to Conor Mortimer from play, kept his end up fairly well overall at corner back.
Paddy O'Shea reacted smartly to foil an effort for a goal by Andy Moran at the death, but he had an easy time of it between the sticks on a day when the Cork defence came up with most of the answers.
It was a comprehensive win by any standards, underlined by the fact that Goulding's goal left Cork 1-17 to 0-9 to the good before Mayo landed three consolation points in the dying minutes.
Scorers - Cork: D. Goulding 1-5, 0-1 free, D. O'Connor 0-5, 0-2 frees, C. Sheehan 0-2, P. Kerrigan, P. Kelly, A. O'Connor, A. Walsh and N. O'Leary 0-1 each. Mayo: C. Mortimer 0-6, 0-3 frees, A. Dillon 0-3 frees, S. O'Shea 0-2, A. Moran 0-1.
Cork: P. O'Shea, E. Cotter, J. O'Sullivan, R. Carey, P. Kissane, M. Shields, N. O'Leary, A. O'Connor, A. Walsh, F. Goold, D. O'Connor, P. Kelly, D. Goulding, C. Sheehan, P. Kerrigan. Subs: N. Murphy for Goold, D. Kavanagh for Walsh, C. O'Neill for D. O'Connor, J. Hayes for Goulding, G. Spillane for O'Sullivan.
Mayo: D. Clarke, C. Barrett, G. Cafferkey, L. O'Malley, D. Vaughan, T. Howley, K. McLoughlin, T. Parsons, S. O'Shea, A. Moran, A. Dillon, T. Mortimer, C. Mortimer, A. O'Shea, M. Ronaldson. Subs: R. McGarrity for Ronaldson, A. Kilcoyne for T. Mortimer, A. Freeman for Parsons, B. Moran for C. Mortimer, P. Harte for A. O'Shea.
Referee: P. Hughes (Armagh).
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