With just a few minutes left on the clock, Kerry led by eight points and plenty of seasoned observers from both sides of the Munster divide were already streaming out of Croke Park in the certainty that this match was settled. After all, Kerry don’t do last-ditch capitulations.
Admittedly, it had taken the entire second half of the Munster final for Cork to turn the tables in dramatic fashion, but this extraordinary comeback was fashioned in what seemed like seconds. Even now, you have to pinch yourself to believe that Cork are still alive in this summer’s championship.
So, just how did a contest which had become totally one-sided suddenly morph into the most unlikely of draws? Okay, Cork demonstrated an element of sheer determination which had been conspicuous by its absence for most of the afternoon in clawing back the deficit, however, what were Kerry thinking about in blowing an eight-point cushion?
At referee Joe McQuillan’s final blast, the Cork players wore the incredulous expression of men who’d just escaped the gallows, while their opponents simply looked shell-shocked. If there is any psychological advantage going into Sunday’s replay – now part of a Croke Park double-header with the other semi-final between Tyrone and Wexford – Cork probably have it.
“We could’ve died,” said Cork manager, Conor Counihan whose side’s Lazarus-like qualities had also revealed themselves in the Munster semi-final against Limerick.
“We’ve had other occasions during the year when we could’ve died, but the players stuck with it. That must count for something. That character and that strength. Once we have that in the tank, there’s always a possibility. Where there’s light there’s hope, and they’ve always kept that light shining.”
Meanwhile, Kerry boss, Pat O’Shea, insisted that his team’s spectacular loss of concentration in the closing minutes didn’t feel like a defeat.
“Not really, no, because we’re still in the championship. Nothing has changed. It would’ve been nice to have finished the job, but it wasn’t to be. That’s sport. We felt in control, but they were always likely to create some chances and obviously, they did that.”
But back to the extraordinary denouement for a second. Cork had bottomed out for much of the second half managing just a single point over 30 minutes, and when Bryan Sheehan landed a free four minutes from end of normal time to increase the gap to eight, it seemed that Kerry would inflict an even greater wound on their rivals than in last year’s All Ireland final.
A couple of points from John Miskella and John Hayes appeared to be little more than tokens of Cork resistance, but then the complexion of the game changed in a quick series of highly-charged moments.
In the 70th minute, Michael Cussen lofted a ball more in hope than anything else towards the Kerry square and replacement James Masters’ punch somehow squirmed under ‘keeper Diarmuid Murphy’s legs for an unlikely goal.
Suddenly in sight of a reprieve, it wasn’t hard to sense Cork’s new urgency. They surged forward once more as Kerry dithered, and Cussen and Hayes combined to put Graham Canty into space. The captain was about to get off his shot when he was felled by a clumsy Aidan O’Mahony challenge, and McQuillan had no hesitation in awarding a penalty.
Hayes stepped up and in defiance of the immense pressure on his shoulders, calmly slotted the ball into the corner of the net with Murphy left stranded.
There was even time for Kerry to launch a last desperate attack, but the sight of Killian Young’s shot bouncing wide off an upright seemed pre-ordained. Cork had survived – again.
“This group of players has been through an awful lot at the hands of Kerry over the last three or four years,” added Counihan. “I’d like to think that this boat will level itself out at some stage because in terms of commitment and determination these guys have given it everything. But talking about momentum is one thing, we’ve got to go and do it. Kerry gave up a lead, and they gave up a lead in the Munster final. But we must do the work ourselves and not be depending on others to do it for us.”
For the eagerly-awaited replay, the All Ireland champions will be without Darragh O Se who was sent off early in the second half for lashing out at Pearse O’Neill off the ball. Ironically, if Kerry had won last Sunday, the midfielder would have missed the final, however, he now still has a chance to win another medal.
“It’s very disappointing for Darragh,” said manager O’Shea. “He’s a very passionate player and he has given fantastic service as an amateur to the game. Unfortunately, he has been targeted, blamed and painted with different brushes all his career.”
Cork’s Donnacha O’Connor also received his marching orders for striking O’Mahony, but this was a gentle enough slap and the way O’Mahony fell to the ground as if in agony was an embarrassment both to himself and to the traditions of Kerry football.
Cork surely won’t be as inept again for Sunday’s replay as they were for much of the drawn game, and Kerry surely won’t let a similar lead slip. For Cork, it has been the year of living dangerously, and it might just be that they’ve used up all of their lives.