Dubs exit, defiant to the end ...
Cunningham non-committal on future after Cork defeat as he hails fighting spirit of his 14 vanquished men in blue
There was a strange kind of glory for the Dublin hurlers on Saturday night, but that made it no less bitter a pill for Ger Cunningham to swallow.
"Gutted" was the first word uttered by the Sky Blues boss as he contemplated the end of their championship road for 2016, the fatal incision inflicted by his own beloved Cork.
What else is there to say?
Plenty, in fact, but the net result is still the same: not remotely teeming with confidence but their dreams still intact, Cork march on to their next qualifier litmus test this weekend ... whereas Dublin have many long months to contemplate the rare occurrence of a summer that ends on the first weekend in July.
It remains to be seen whether Cunningham will be there when the new season dawns. His two campaigns have incorporated a jumble of mixed signals: an ability to survive in the big league of Division 1A but a two-year SHC record that contains just one victory of real significance, against Limerick 12 months ago.
The Leeside legend has a third year remaining but he was, understandably, non-committal on his future plans in the wake of Saturday night's roller-coaster of emotions culminating in a three-point defeat, by 1-26 to 1-23.
"We were looking at winning and looking forward to next weekend, going into the draw on Monday, which is not to be. So we'll sit back and reflect," he explained. "We'll chat to the lads on the board and see what we're going to do. This is not the night."
If Cunningham does return, he can take encouragement from how the younger generation led the fight on a night when Dublin were reduced to 14 men for over 40 minutes following Chris Crummey's double-yellow dismissal.
Shane Barrett was immense at wing-back, reigniting the visitors with two late points during a fourth quarter that elevated this initially jittery, error-prone qualifier into the realms of epic drama.
Chris Bennett, parachuted in for his first SHC start, was better again. Fresh from his recent U21 heroics, the Faughs forward tallied four eye-catching points from play, he won frees, and then he picked Christopher Joyce's pocket before releasing Eamon Dillon for his 52nd minute goal - a score that, all too briefly, gave Dublin the second half lead.
So there is emerging talent in the capital; there is plenty to work on. Yet they aren't so over-burdened with marquee hurlers that they can do without Danny Sutcliffe for a second season: convincing him back should be first on the check list for 2017.
There should also be an acknowledgement that inconsistency has blighted progression, both this season and last.
If the chaotic first half of the Galway replay left Dublin playing catch-up for the rest of 2015, then the third quarter of last month's Leinster semi-final, when Kilkenny devoured Dublin alive off their own puckout, left many wondering about this team's direction.
Saturday night at Páirc Uí Rinn was so much better. The one caveat? They were playing a fretful Cork instead of frightening Cats. "I'm just so proud of the lads - their commitment and their attitude in the second half was top class. We had a bad second half against Kilkenny, and I think we went some way to redeeming ourselves," Cunningham declared.
"They really believed, coming down tonight, that we were going to win the game. And it made it difficult when you were down to 14 men but, in fairness, they showed great character, great attitude ... and we were right there at the wire."
Would they have won with 15? Perhaps, when you consider they were trailing by just a point when Crummey departed and when you reflect on how Cork sub Conor O'Sullivan flourished as their free man in defence after the interval.
Next question - should he have walked?
"I have to say it was harsh," said Cunningham, even if TV replays and the assessment of some decorated retired defenders in the Sky Sports box begged to differ.
He expanded: "I thought the first one wasn't a yellow. It happened right in front of us, the ball was high and he went to play the ball - and you are allowed to go and play the ball.
"The second one was a shoulder challenge, and I thought he put himself in a situation, put himself under pressure with the first yellow card.
"You see the effort that these guys make, the commitment and the sacrifices. The referees need to get these calls right. It's a big call to send somebody off, and a team has to play for the whole of the second half with 14 men. But, you know, they've made the call and they've got to live with it."
The counter-argument is that Crummey's first offence (catching Séamus Harnedy with a swinging hurl) was the type that usually attracts yellow ... and, once on a booking, he was duty-bound to temper his aggression in the tackle.
Crummey had just scored an uplifting point after David Treacy's soaring catch. But then, in seeking to rectify his own loose pass, he attempted a high-risk, full-blooded shoulder on John Cronin; even if he caught Cronin in the vicinity of his shoulder blade, the Corkman was front on ... and duly floored.
To Dublin's eternal credit, 14 men never once took a backward step. They trailed by 1-10 to 0-11 at the break but, with whatever wind advantage going, kept snapping at Rebel ankles through the sniping of Niall McMorrow from midfield, the sharpness of Bennett and the free-taking of Treacy (who nailed a sequence of high-pressure monsters late on).
Crucially, though, Cork's response to Dillon's lead goal was a trilogy of quickfire points.
Then, in a captivating finale, just when Rebel nerves started to fray again and they lost a four-point lead to the combined heroics of Barrett and Treacy, Bill Cooper capitalised on an overcooked Treacy handpass for the lead point.
They would then add three of the final four scores, fittingly from Conor Lehane (who came alive after a subdued first half), the imperious Alan Cadagon (who turned and tormented a variety of Dublin defenders en route to scoring 1-5 from play) and Patrick Horgan, who banished his recent Tipp trauma with the last of his dozen points.
SCORERS - Cork: P Horgan 0-12 (8f), A Cadogan 1-5, C Lehane 0-3, D Kearney 0-2, L O'Farrell, W Egan, B Lawton, B Cooper 0-1 each. Dublin: D Treacy 0-9 (7f, 1 '65'), P Ryan (4f), C Bennett 0-4 each, E Dillon 1-0, N McMorrow, S Barrett 0-2 each, J McCaffrey, C Crummey 0-1 each.
CORK: A Nash 7; M Ellis 6, D Cahalane 6, K Burke 6; A Walsh 7, C Joyce 6, C Murphy 5; W Egan 6, B Cooper 7; L O'Farrell 8, S Harnedy 6, J Cronin 6; A Cadogan 9, P Horgan 8, C Lehane 7. Subs: C O'Sullivan 8 for Murphy (ht), D Kearney 7 for Cronin (46), B Lawton 7 for Egan (49), L McLoughlin 6 for Burke (63), S Kingston for Harnedy (67).
DUBLIN: G Maguire 7; E O'Donnell 6, C O'Callaghan 7, J Madden 5; C Crummey 5, L Rushe 6, S Barrett 8; N McMorrow 8, J McCaffrey 6; D Treacy 7, R O'Dwyer 6, E Dillon 6; P Ryan 5, C Bennett 9, M Schutte 6. Subs: N Corcoran 6 for Madden (ht), S Treacy 6 for Ryan (44), D O'Connell 6 for McCaffrey (46), F Mac Gib 6 for Schutte (62), D Plunkett for Bennett (67).
WIDES: Cork 15 (9+6); Dublin 9 (6+3).
YELLOW: Cork 2 (Murphy 27, Joyce 71); Dublin 3 (Crummey 16, 30, Rushe 55).
RED: Cork 0; Dublin 1 (Crummey 2nd yellow 30).
REF: P O'Dwyer (Carlow).
MAN OF THE MATCH: Alan Cadogan (Cork)