WHERE do we even begin to describe a day like this? A day when Mayo belied their underdog status to produce the biggest shock of Championship 2011 and ambush the All-Ireland champions.
A day when James Horan watched his team manufacture a magnificently organised and disciplined display that was laced with hard work, enthusiasm and any amount of self-belief.
One of the many reasons Mayo beat Cork in the championship for the first time since 1916 was because they wanted it more; they hit the field with their ‘game faces’ on and they allowed nothing to distract them from the task-at-hand.
Stalwarts like Keith Higgins, Trevor Mortimer, Alan Dillon and the outstanding Andy Moran rolled back the years on a stage where they have seen as many bad days as good ones.
And standing shoulder to shoulder with them were the new generation of foot-soldiers like Tom Cunniffe, Donal Vaughan, Seamus O’Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Cillian O’Connor and Jason Doherty.
Each and every one of them stood firm in the heat of battle; winning individual battles and 50/50 balls, and playing with a spirit and commitment that has too often been lacking in the recent lost years.
That new-found ‘esprit de corp’ was badly needed after 15 minutes when Donnacha O’Connor drilled over a ‘45 to ease Cork ahead by 1-4 to 0-1.
However, remarkably, Mayo outscored the All-Ireland champions by 1-12 to 1-2 in the hour that followed as they tore into their opponents with reckless abandon, and with an appetite for destruction not seen since the halcyon days of ‘96, ‘04 and ‘06.
A half-time deficit of two points (2-5 to 1-6) was overhauled steadily soon after the restart and Mayo embellished their impressive second half defensive record by holding Cork to a solitary point.
The winners shot seven scores at the other end, starting as they meant to go on as Enda Varley dispatched a free, Robert Hennelly drilled over a ‘45, and Alan Dillon kicked Mayo in front for the first time.
There were 52 minutes on the clock when John Miskella surged upfield to fist Cork level and four minutes later Fintan Goold drilled the ball wide when he seemed set to score a game-changing goal.
But Mayo were playing with a fervour and an intensity that was simply irresistible. Keith Higgins scurried through to slot over the lead score and Jason Doherty made an instant impact off the bench with a classy score from distance.
By this stage Cork were struggling to find answers to the difficult questions, with Andy Moran terrorising All Star Michael Shields in front of Hill 16.
The nerveless Cillian O’Connor slotted two frees to push Mayo’s lead to four and the title holders were reduced to lobbing hopeful balls into Robert Hennelly’s square in the closing stages in an effort to rescue a lost cause.
The dismissal of John Miskella shortly before the end merely compounded their miserable day.
Such an outcome had seemed improbable when Donnacha O’Connor tucked away a seventh minute penalty (after Ger Cafferkey was adjudged to have pulled him down in the square) and clipped a fine point from play.
Paul Kerrigan and Fintan Goold (free) also hit the target as Cork moved through the gears ominously with a lone free from Cillian O’Connor all that Mayo could manage.
The game seemed to be about to follow the worrying script that had been predicted; instead Mayo got down to work and took the game, and the fight, to their opponents at every opportunity.
The revival got under way properly when Kevin McLoughlin slalomed through the Cork defence on 21 minutes and ended his 30m run with a shot that speared into the top corner of the net.
That sensational goal pared the gap back to the minimum but Cork’s response was emphatic three minutes later. The move which led to Paul Kerrigan flicking in a sublime goal from close-range began when Aidan O’Shea lost the ball in the tackle, and deft hands from Pearce O’Neill and Fiachra Lynch sliced Mayo open.
It would have been easy for the challengers to hang their heads at that stage but, instead, they responded brilliantly with a couple of Cillian O’Connor frees and a trademark score from Andy Moran.
It turned out that they were only getting started; the next stop of an eventful season will be an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry later this month.
It’s just like old times.
R Hennelly (0-1. ‘45); T Cunniffe, G Cafferkey, K Higgins (0-1); R Feeney, D Vaughan, T Mortimer; A O'Shea, S O'Shea; K McLoughlin (1-1), A Dillon (0-1), A Moran (0-1); E Varley (0-1, 1f), A Freeman, C O'Connor (0-6, 5fs).
Subs used: J Doherty (0-1) for Varley; P Gardiner for Freeman; R McGarrity for S O'Shea; A Campbell for McLoughlin; L Keegan for Feeney.
A Quirke; M Shields, E Cadogan, E Cotter; N O'Leary, J Miskella (0-1), P Kissane; A O'Connor, A Walsh; F Goold (0-1, 1f), P O'Neill, P Kelly; P Kerrigan (1-2), D O'Connor (1-1, 1-0 pen, ‘45), F Lynch.
Subs used: G Canty for O'Leary; M Collins for F Lynch; N Murphy for O'Connor; D O'Sullivan for Goold.
Referee: R Hickey (Clare)