Having wiped out a nine-point second half deficit, Cork were caught by a late Kerry sucker punch as the Kingdom displayed true grit to advance to a fifth successive All-Ireland senior football final.
The three-in-a-row dream remains very much alive for Pat O’Shea’s charges as lethal Colm Cooper’s 66th-minute goal proved decisive at Croke Park this afternoon.
Munster champions Cork looked dead and buried with twenty minutes remaining of an absorbing encounter at GAA HQ as they trailed by 2-12 to 1-06.
But 15 minutes later, the Rebels had doubled their score as an unanswered 1-06 sensationally brought them level with rattled Kerry, who blew eight-point leads in the Munster final and last Sunday’s drawn match.
It seemed that the momentum was very much with Conor Counihan’s battlers, but typically, Kerry refused to panic and somehow found an extra kick, having looked a spent force.
O’Shea took his time bringing on substitutes during the second half but one of them, the speedy Darren O’Sullivan, cut in from the left touchline and supplied 1-08 hero Cooper for a cool finish past Alan Quirke.
Two minutes later, Kerry were safe after midfielder Séamus Scanlon kicked his second point and Cork suffered another huge blow when full-back Derek Kavanagh was sent off for kicking out at Cooper in the build-up.
Cork’s top scorer Daniel Goulding, who finished with 1-07, pointed in stoppage time to cut the deficit back to a goal, but unlike last Sunday, there was no fairytale finish for the Leesiders on this occasion as Cooper nailed a late free to seal the win.
Kerry breathed a huge sigh of relief at the final whistle and although their critics will point to the fact that another huge lead was frittered away in a big game, their character has to be commended after hitting back in the face of adversity.
Few would have predicted such a dramatic end to proceedings as Kerry, without suspended midfielder Darragh Ó Sé and captain Paul Galvin, controlled the first half, and approaching the break, led by 1-08 to 0-03.
Cork had made three changes to the team listed in the programme before throw-in as Noel O’Leary, Nicholas Murphy and Donncha O’Connor, granted a dramatic reprieve following his red card last Sunday, came in for Ger Spillane, Kieran O’Connor and Alan O’Connor.
Kerry also shuffled their pack with Micheál Quirke drafted into midfield to fill the void created by Ó Sé’s absence, as Tommy Griffin moved to full-back with Pádraig Reidy losing out.
Donnacha Walsh was left out of the starting line-up too as Eoin Brosnan came into the Kerry attack.
The sides were level at 0-02 apiece after 15 minutes but Kerry were soon in cruise control with U-21 star Tommy Walsh in blistering form.
His marker, Diarmuid Duggan, man of the match in the Munster final between the counties, was a beaten docket after just 29 minutes and was substituted for Michael Shields.
In the 24th minute, Walsh burned Duggan and after advancing through on goal, fired a lovely left-footer past Alan Quirke for the game’s opening goal.
Kerry looked primed for a half-time lead identical to their Munster final interval advantage, but with the last kick of the half, Goulding buried a goal at the Hill 16 end to revive Cork’s chances.
But after climbing back off the ropes, the Rebels were straight back on the canvas just 26 seconds after the restart when Declan O’Sullivan netted for Kerry after taking a pass from Kieran Donaghy.
Kerry opened up a nine-point lead for the first time in the game when Walsh pointed three minutes later, and the champions were coasting to victory when Brosnan kicked his solitary point of the afternoon to send Kerry 2-12 to 1-06 clear after 50 minutes.
It looked like there was no way back for Cork, but after kicking five unanswered points, the second half goal they craved arrived with seven minutes remaining when Pearse O’Neill took advantage of some good approach work by James Masters and Nicholas Murphy.
O’Neill roared through on goal and slipped his shot past Diarmuid Murphy to cut the gap to just a single point, 2-12 to 2-11.
Two minutes later, O’Connor swooped for a point and suddenly, it appeared that Kerry’s Croke Park stranglehold over Cork would finally end.
Cometh the hour, cometh Cooper as the Dr Crokes man visibly knocked the stuffing out of Cork with his coolly-taken goal.
Few would back against Kerry in the final on 21 September as midfield powerhouse Ó Sé will be available for what he will hope is a glorious Croke Park swansong.
And then there’s a certain Mr Galvin waiting in the wings having served his three-month suspension....
Kerry: D Murphy, M Ó Sé, T Griffin, T O’Sullivan; T Ó Sé (0-01), A O’Mahony, K Young; M Quirke, S Scanlon (0-02); E Brosnan (0-01), Declan O’Sullivan (1-0), B Sheehan; C Cooper (1-08, 0-06f), K Donaghy, T Walsh (1-02).
Substitutes: Darren O’Sullivan for Quirke (51m), Seán O’Sullivan for Sheehan (63m), D Moran for Brosnan (66m), D Bohane for Walsh (70 +2m), Quirke for Donaghy (70 + 3m).
Cork: A Quirke; D Duggan, D Kavanagh, A Lynch; J Miskella (0-01), G Canty, N O’Leary; N Murphy, P O’Neill (1-00); S O’Brien, D O’Connor (0-04, 0-02f), K McMahon; D Goulding (1-07, 0-05f), M Cussen, J Hayes.
Substitutes: M Shields for Duggan (29m), F Goold for O’Brien (half-time), J Masters (0-01) for McMahon (42m), P Kerrigan for Hayes (49m).
Referee: Jimmy White (Donegal).