By Kieran Rooney
AT last, the pundits got it right in the knock-out stages of the All-Ireland Football Championship. But only just.
Dublin had a place in the All-Ireland final in the palm of their hands. Watched by a capacity crowd of over 82,000 at Croke Park on Sunday, they led for virtually all of the semi-final only for Cork to snatch a dramatic 1-15 to 1-14 victory in the dying minutes.
Was it down to Cork's experience and composure when it really mattered or just a blatant lack of discipline on the part of the Dubs? A bit of both.
There's no question that Cork's greater experience told. It's all about keeping your head when things are tight, and then making the best use of your opportunities when they come your way.
Cork did both but, my goodness, they were helped by the Dubs. Over anxious, and perhaps tiring, they conceded a penalty and a series of frees when victory appeared to be in sight.
Against a less experienced team they might just have got away with it. But Cork have had too many disappointments themselves in recent seasons to let such an opportunity slip.
At various times, the Dublin team, inspired by Bernard Brogan, led by five points. As the game went into the last 20 minutes they were 1-10 to 0-9 in front and it was hard to see how Cork were going to turn things around.
But the introduction of Colm O'Neill as a Cork substitute in the 51st minute changed everything. Within a couple of minutes O'Neill was flattened by an over anxious Ross McConnell to provide Cork with a penalty and a way back into the game.
Donncha O'Connor gave Stephen Cluxton in the Dublin goal no chance as he calmly put his shot into the corner. Now just a point (1-10 to 1-9) ahead, Dublin needed to show some composure.
For a time they did, Bernard Brogan and Bryan Cullen sending over points to make it 1-12 to 1-9. Enough, the huge Dublin support might have thought to see them over the line and into a long overdue All-Ireland final.
They were wrong. Dublin started to dive in to tackles, giving away frees. Not exactly a good idea with Donncha O'Connor in the Cork camp.
In complete contrast to some of his opponents, O'Connor could not have been more calm, or at least that's the way it looked. His accuracy from the dead ball eventually brought Cork level at 1-13 apiece with two minutes of normal time remaining.
The momentum was with Cork. The one thing Dublin had to do was to regain their composure. Instead, McConnell barged recklessly into Noel O'Leary to provide Cork with a chance to take the lead.
To no one's surprise, O'Connor slots the free between the posts. McConnell is sent off for a second yellow card and a minute into injury time Derek Kavanagh add another to put Cork two in front.
Bernard Brogan, who else, quickly responds with a Dublin point but by then it is too late. The final whistle goes and Cork are celebrating a victory which proves that they have learned a lot about how to deliver when the going gets tough.
Dublin, by contrast, are asking themselves where it all went wrong. But it's straightforward enough. They lost their discipline, jumping into those unnecessary challenges in the final quarter.
A side as streetwise and as experienced as Cork saw them coming. Most importantly, they had the composure and know-how to take advantage. That's the difference between winning and losing, no matter what the sport.
Dublin manager Pat Gilroy knows the score. "We conceded the penalty and a number of soft frees and you would have to look at why we conceded them." he asked.
"Look, it's a one point defeat and it is all about the little things that add up. The little things went Cork's way today. That's sport. It can be cruel but you have to learn lessons from it, that is all you can do when you lose."
To be fair to Gilroy, he has done a remarkable job to turn this Dublin team around. They are a young side with a tremendous work ethic but, as things stand, are too dependent on the brilliance of Bernard Brogan.
Brogan started the day by scoring a wonderful goal in the opening minute. He finished with 1-7, scoring 1-6 from play, to deservedly gain the Man of the Match award.
While Cork may not have had anyone to match him, they do have real depth, maybe up to 20 players of the required standard. When it came down to the crunch, they were able to call on an outstanding bench, a decisive factor in their ability to turn the match around.
"I'm just very, very relieved, it was a titanic struggle. Dublin really put it up to us as I knew they would." remarked Cork manager Conor Counihan.
"We showed a bit of bottle. The important thing was not to panic, keep our heads, the chances would come. We have learned to dig. When things get rough we have to dig in and work it out and that's what we did."
He's right. Once again, Cork didn't play to their true potential for much of Sunday's encounter but to come away with a victory in such circumstances marks the Rebels out as a side that is going to take a lot of beating in the All-Ireland Football final on September 19.
Inevitably, you feel, they are going to get better. That said, they are almost certainly going to have to in order to beat the winners of next Sunday's second semi-final between Down and Kildare.
For much of last Sunday's match, Cork were second best. It didn't help that Bernard Brogan started in such brilliant fashion, taking a long delivery from Niall Corkery before sliding a shot into the corner of the net.
Apart from the efforts of Brogan, the other problem for Cork was that they hit far too many wides. To compound matters, they saw a shot from Paul Kerrigan rebound off the posts before Brogan extended Dublin lead to 1-8 to 0-7 at half-time.
The fact that Brogan had contributed 1-4 by that stage shows his influence on the game. A match winning performance many Dublin supporters must have thought, especially as their team was still four points ahead for much of the second half.
But everything was to change with the the introduction of a number of Cork substitutes, most notably O'Neill, the penalty, and the lack of discipline on the part of the Dubs. Then again, it's one thing to be provided with an opportunity and quite another to grab it with both hands.
It might be hard for the Dublin fans to admit it, but Cork must be given tremendous credit for the way they drove their advantage home when they had the chance.
PHOTO BY INPHO
Tyrone minors stage comeback
TYRONE gained some consolation for their seniors recent defeat to Dublin by reaching the All-Ireland Minor Football final in the opening match at Croke Park on Sunday.
The fact that the Ulster side were capable of scoring goals was the difference between themselves and Mayo. Tyrone got three of them to defeat the Connacht Champions 3-10 to 0-16.
It was tough on Mayo who appeared to be on they way to victory when leading by seven points going into the last 15 minutes. But a critical five minute spell then saw Tyrone score two goals through Richard Donnelly and substitute Dara Donnelly.
The goals enabled Tyrone to regain control, although Mayo very nearly snatched an equalizer in injury time.
The All-Ireland Under 21 Hurling final, meanwhile, will be contested by Tiperary and Galway. Tipperary annihiliated Antrim 2-32 to 1-7 while Galway secured a 2-14 to 1-10 victory over a disappointing Dublin outfit in the other semi-final.
Walsh to stay with Yeats County
Some welcome news for Sligo football supporters is that manager Kevin Walsh has decided to stay with them instead of returning to his native Galway. Following the departure of Joe Kernan, there had been speculation that Walsh would take over in the Galway hot seat. But Walsh has confirmed that he will stay at Sligo. He added: "It's work in progress at Sligo at the moment. We have made good progresS over the last two years but there is more to do."