Malachy Clerkin: The Cork footballers have been out of the conversation for far too long

Mark Keane’s goal against Kerry in 2020 turned out to be just another surreal note in the Covid championship rather than a springboard back to the top tier of the game

In Adelaide this week, Mark Keane has been the golden boy. The Crows’ AFL game against Carlton eight nights ago came down to one last defensive shift for the former Cork dual player to complete. One final, hopeful Carlton punt into the area right in front of the Adelaide posts where he was patrolling. Under the dropping ball, the Crows held a two-point lead with the clock nearly up. A mark for either team would win the match.

Keane’s side have had a shaky start to the 2024 season. They lost their first four games on the spin. They’ve tended to generally be a mid-table outfit over the past few seasons but zero points from four games makes even that kind of mediocrity feel like a lofty ideal. So now that they had finally engineered a winning position, a fifth defeat from five would have been a sickener.

Enter Mitchelstown’s finest. Swooping in from stage right, a clear third favourite for the ball, Keane sailed above two players to pluck the Sherrin from the skies. No sooner had he landed back on earth than the hooter sounded and the Crows had their first win of the season. “Oh, the Irishman!” roared the commentator. “The Irishman Keane!”

The Irishman Keane has form with last-gasp interventions, of course. In November 2020, in an empty Páirc Uí Chaoimh, he was the Cork player who caught that one final, skied ball in front of the Kerry posts and dispatched it to the net in the Covid Munster semi-final. We were in injury-time at the end of extra-time and there wasn’t even time for a kick-out. It was his first ever game for the Cork senior footballers. His last ever score for them, too.


So much of that 2020 championship was surreal. It was the height of the Level 5 restrictions so it felt wild to be in the stadium at all. Before the match started, the Páirc Uí Chaoimh announcer came on the tannoy three times to ask the players to go to their starting positions for the anthem, which was one of the GAA’s Covid guidelines (they wanted to avoid huddles, if I remember rightly). Both teams ignored him and stood at their respective ends of the pitch.

The scene that will always stick in the memory from that night came afterwards. Out on the road at the entrance to the Páirc, a line of cars had gathered. Just because they weren’t allowed into the stadium didn’t mean they couldn’t come and park outside and be supporters. They had come down from the houses around Ballintemple, maybe 20 or 30 of them, flags and horns ready to go.

And though the rain was falling and the night was perishing, they stood there with their doors and windows open and played The Banks at full volume on their car radios. The Cork players soon filed by in their own cars, flashing their lights and giving them a beep. In a winter where connection and communion were so hard to find, it was a small, deep scene that felt genuinely special in the moment.

You’d miss Cork. That night should have been the trampoline that bounced them back into the top tier of the football championship again. Nobody imagines they’d have beaten Dublin when all came to all but they could have gone into 2021 with a Munster title to defend. Instead, they lost the final to Tipperary and finished behind Clare and Kildare in Division Two South in the 2021 league.

Keane’s winner against Kerry was a one-night stand. There was no second date. Since then, they’ve played 13 championship matches and won six. They’ve beaten Limerick twice, Louth twice and last year they accounted for Mayo and Roscommon. On the flipside, they’ve lost all three matches to Kerry, as well as defeats to Dublin, Derry, Tipp and Clare.

They have been, in other words, a slightly below average intercounty side. They win most of the time they’re supposed to win and very rarely cause an upset. Those late rallies against Mayo and the Rossies last year at least showed some bit of a spark and gave evidence of a backbone under John Cleary that hadn’t been seen for a while. But they were summarily dealt with by Derry in the quarter-final.

Football could really do with them being better than that sometime soon. When we cast around for teams that ought to be getting right up in the grill of the likes of Kerry and Dublin, we know that Cork shouldn’t be spending this long out of the conversation.

They haven’t been in Division One since 2016, despite finishing top of the table in both seasons before that. That means there’s a whole generation of Cork players who only ever face the best teams when they’re in championship mode. Think of them as the photo negative of Monaghan, the majority of whose players will play their first ever games outside the top flight next spring.

It will, of course, seem quite hilarious to the last Cork side to compete at the top level that anybody is pining for their return. When you think of the Cork team that won the 2010 All-Ireland, your mind goes to the ascetic drive of Graham Canty, the spiky belligerence of Noel O’Leary, the sky-scraping force of Alan O’Connor, Aidan Walsh and Pearse O’Neill. As the last All-Ireland champions to win Sam without any of their forwards getting an All Star, they were gloriously functional rather than spectacular.

But even so, the whole scene would benefit from them getting back in among it. Functional won’t win you an All-Ireland in 2024 but it could be enough on a good day to ruin the prospects of one of the higher-ups. They haven’t won in Killarney since 1995 and nobody expects them to this time either. Then again, when it eventually does happen, it will probably fall from the clear blue sky against everyone’s predictions.

For the record, Mark Keane’s Adelaide Crows lost again yesterday, going down 78-75 to Essendon. One catch is only ever worth so much.