In our first Classic Games, KIERAN McCARTHY revisits Cork’s nail-biting 2010 All-Ireland SFC semi-final triumph against Dublin, as Donncha O’Connor shares his memories of a red-hot day in Croke Park. It was a game the Rebels didn’t deserve to win, but they did, an important step on the road to glory
DONNCHA O’Connor was fairly nonchalant in the middle of the gladiator arena when the sword was pressed up against Cork’s throat.
This was Cork’s sixth All-Ireland senior football championship semi-final in a row, but they were playing like a team who’d met for the first time outside Croke Park a couple of hours earlier. Dublin had dominated the first 53 minutes and led by four points when sub Colm O’Neill, just one minute after coming on, was bundled over by Ross McConnell for a penalty.
Up stepped O’Connor. This could make or break the Cork challenge.
‘People say there was pressure on that penalty, but I don’t think there was,’ the Ballydesmond sharp-shooter recalls.
‘When we got the penalty, it was shit or bust, but I didn’t feel any pressure. The game was slipping away as it was. If I missed it, then it was game over. And even if I scored it, it looked like the game was slipping away anyway.’
O’Connor kept his cool. He didn’t feel the pressure. He wrapped his right foot around the ball, struck it low to his left and sent Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton the wrong way.
Goal. It was now 1-10 to 1-9 with 55 minutes on the clock. Game on.
Cork travelled to Croke Park that August Sunday in 2010 fully expecting to beat a Dublin team with notions under Pat Gilroy.
The Rebels also had one target in mind that summer.
‘All we cared about that year was getting to the final – because we wanted to rectify what had happened the year before,’ O’Connor says.
In 2009, Cork lost the All-Ireland final to Kerry, like they had in 2007. They were the nearly men. But they were building with several years, Conor Counihan taking the squad Billy Morgan had to the next level.
‘We felt we were further down the road than Dublin, we had more strength in depth, more experience and we definitely felt we were a better team than them so it wasn’t the biggest scalp to take,’ O’Connor explains.
‘We knew how to play all the way to the 72nd or 73rd minute, we knew that there was time left and we didn’t panic – that’s from the experience we had built up over the years before.
‘But we got out of jail, to be fair.’
The opening line on the match report on GAA.ie from that sunny Sunday says, ‘It was a game Cork should never have won.’
There’s a truth in that. Dublin called the shots for long stretches with Bernard Brogan superb. He finished with 1-7, including a goal in the second minute. The Hill was humming. They had their sights set on Dublin’s first All-Ireland football final appearance in 15 years.
There was an intensity to the Dubs that Cork didn’t match for long spells – but the boys in blue couldn’t sustain that level of work-rate until the last minute.
Cork hung in there, always behind the Dubs but never too far away either.
O’Connor’s penalty was crucial. It breathed new life into the Rebels. Dublin did add the next two points, but even in second gear Cork were coming, inspired from the bench.
‘We never really got going in the match. It was nearly too late when we woke up,’ admits O’Connor, who finished with 1-5.
‘Just as we were starting to get into the game, Colm O’Neill came on. I’m not sure who was marking him but he was struggling because Colm kept getting out in front and he won the penalty and a few frees.’
The momentum was building, with subs playing their part. O’Neill’s movement in the inside line caused Dublin lots of problems. He won the penalty and two frees that O’Connor converted, and he added 0-1 himself. Nicholas Murphy did well when he came on early in the second half for Alan O’Connor while Eoin Cadogan steadied the ship when he was brought on at half time for captain Graham Canty, who had passed a late fitness test but clearly wasn’t fully fit.
Cork didn’t panic. Trailing 1-12 to 1-9 with 60 minutes gone, points from Colm O’Neill and Paddy Kelly left them poised to strike. And they did, but only after Dublin had reopened a two-point gap.
In the 66th minute, Colm O’Neill was fouled. Donncha O’Connor pointed. One point game.
In the 68th minute, Colm O’Neill’s jersey was pulled. Free to Cork. O’Connor scored. Level, 1-13 apiece.
In the 69th minute, a rampaging Noel O’Leary was hacked down by Ross McConnell, who picked up his second yellow card. The Dubs were down to 14 and their inexperience and lack of discipline was costing them, whereas Cork and Donncha O’Connor kept their cool. He converted his third free in four minutes. Cork now led.
Derek Kavanagh, off the bench, put two points between the teams in injury time. Bernard Brogan did pull one point back, but time ran out on the Dubs. Cork won 1-15 to 1-14 – and they were back in the final like they had targeted.
‘That win gave us a huge boost because we didn’t play well, not near as good we could have, but we still won,’ O’Connor says.
‘We were pretty poor for a lot of it, but we hung in there, and you always hear the cliché that it’s a sign of a good team that they can win playing badly.’
Cork went on to beat Down, 0-16 to 0-15, in the All-Ireland final a few weeks later, to end the county’s 20-year wait for Sam Maguire, but that win against Dublin bore the hallmarks of an experienced outfit that did what they had to do. They kept their heads as Dublin lost theirs.
CORK: Alan Quirke; Ray Carey, Michael Shields, John Miskella; Noel O’Leary, Graham Canty, Paudie Kissane; Alan O’Connor, Aidan Walsh (0-1); Paul Kerrigan (0-1), Pearse O’Neill, Paddy Kelly (0-2); Daniel Goulding (0-4, 3f), Ciaran Sheehan, Donncha O’Connor (1-5, 4f, 1-0 pen).
Subs: Eoin Cadogan for Canty (ht), Nicholas Murphy for O’Connor (43), Colm O’Neill (0-1) for Sheehan (52), Derek Kavanagh (0-1) for Miskella (61), Fintan Goold for O’Leary (71).
DUBLIN: S Cluxton; M Fitzsimons, R O’Carroll, P McMahon (0-1); K Nolan, G Brennan, C O’Sullivan; R McConnell (0-1), MD Macauley (0-1); N Corkery, A Brogan (0-2), B Cullen (0-1); D Henry, E O’Gara, B Brogan (1-7, 0-1f).
Subs: B Cahill for O’Sullivan (33), P Flynn for Henry (46), E Fennell for Corkery (57), C Keaney (0-1f) for O’Gara (63), D Bastick for O’Carroll (68).