Years ago, there used to be a fisherman who was well known around our way in west Kerry. His routine would always be to come in and drink his fill of porter before heading off out to sea nicely. He went away off this one time and one of the fellas was shaking his head at the sight of it.
“Féach siar ó fionn trá is é ar a mhíle a ndicheall é fheinig a bhá.”
Roughly translated, he was saying, “Would you look at your man heading out from Ventry and him flat out trying to drown himself.”
When I heard the scores coming through from Cork’s game against Waterford a couple of weeks ago, my man came to mind. Would you look at them now, flat out trying to drown themselves. They don’t need any help from Kerry to bring them down these days – they’ve got it covered all on their own.
That's why I think this Munster semi-final against Tipperary on Saturday night is the biggest game they've had in years. Some games are pivotal to a county – they have a wider meaning beyond the result on the night. If Cork lose to Tipperary for the second year in a row, I honestly think the consequences for Cork football are massive.
If you give the 10-year-old boy a reason to give up on you, you lose someone who could be the future
Culture means a lot in the GAA. The games are always important for what they are but they’re also crucial because of how they feed the public imagination. I’ve often thought that the most important people in the crowd at a match are 10-year-old boys. That’s the age when it really goes in. You know enough by then to know what you want and it’s up to the fellas out on the pitch to make that 10-year-old boy want this for himself.
I was 10 in 1985, when Kerry were winning All-Irelands. They soon stopped winning them and if anyone thinks it was inevitable that they would start again, they weren’t in Kerry in the early to mid-‘90s. There was a lot of talk of what had been lost and how it might never be found again.
Kerry football became a laughing stock. When I started playing senior, you’d have fellas saying things to you like, “Yeah, you’re Kerry but you’re not the real Kerry – you haven’t won anything.” That attitude was there and it took a lot of work to change it.
But the one thing we had going for us was that the culture lived on. There was a heap of us coming through at underage level and we had all been 10 in the mid-‘80s. And though we got a couple of good beatings from Cork at minor level, that only spurred us on to sort it out when we got to under-21. Out of that under-21 team, the basis for a senior team took shape and Kerry got back to winning All-Irelands.
I’m not saying it was all as simple or straightforward as that. But the point I’m making is that the culture is the building block. If you give the 10-year-old boy a reason to give up on you, you lose someone who could be the future.
So who is the 10-year-old boy in Cork obsessed with these days? Whose jersey is he after? Is it Paul Kerrigan? Aidan Walsh? Eoin Cadogan? Not a hope. That 10-year-old is mad about Conor Lehane and Patrick Horgan and Luke Meade and all these young hurlers who killed Tipp in Thurles a couple of weeks ago. And rightly so.
That’s why I think this game is so huge. Tipperary are a serious team. They’ve been coming up the ranks, they’ve done all the hard yards at underage, they’ve got a couple of excellent inside forwards. But none of that cuts any ice with a 10-year-old Cork football supporter. They just see their team being beaten by Tipperary for the second year in a row. So where do they go from there?
This can go one way or it can go the other. Beat Tipperary on Saturday and they’ll have a Munster final in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. If nothing else, pure curiosity will bring a crowd to the first game in the new stadium and they will have a chance to win back their people again. But lose to Tipperary and they’ll be in the qualifiers for the second year in a row. How many will come to see them then? Would they get 4,000?
Naturally enough, Cork people would be wary of any Kerryman worrying about Cork football. And they’re right to be. Self-interest rules. I saw it plenty of times in years gone by where you’d meet someone in the street in Tralee or Killarney and they’d be saying isn’t it great to see the Cork hurlers going so well.
The idea was always that you wanted the culture of Cork GAA to be weighted towards the hurlers so you’d keep a lid on the footballers. As long as the hurlers picked off a couple of their good under-21s every year, that suited Kerry just fine.
But you don’t want it to go too far the other way either. If Cork are no good at all, it’s bad news for Kerry. That’s the honest truth of it. Kerry need them to be good without being great. They need a serious test in Munster before heading to Croke Park.
It just goes to show how quickly and easily the culture can slip away from you
Just at the minute, Cork don’t look like a serious test. If they did, Waterford wouldn’t have been allowed to entertain notions of even keeping that game close. The rule against weaker teams has always, always been to knock any dangerous thoughts out of their heads quickly. Don’t be giving them bad habits such as thinking anything’s possible. Bang in a couple of early goals and make them reconsider their life choices.
Cork didn't do that. They were careless and sloppy and low on confidence. Not only did they give Waterford a sniff, they did nothing to scare Tipperary. Liam Kearns is bringing his team down to Cork on Saturday night and you can be guaranteed that they all believe they're going down there as equals. When has that ever been part of people's thinking – in either county?
It just goes to show how quickly and easily the culture can slip away from you. Cork need to be really careful here. I saw an interview Cadogan did with the papers a week or two ago where he was saying that there was never any love for the Cork footballers. I was reading it thinking, “Who let this fella go out and tell the truth?”
That sort of thing has to be out of bounds. The line has to be, “The Cork public are great supporters, they’re 100 per cent behind us and we’re doing everything in our power to give them lots to shout about.” Now, there will be Cork people reading it going, “Yeah right, Eoin.” But so what?
Supporters need to be led
If you spend your time saying that nobody loves you, all that does is give people a way out. Supporters need to be led. They need to be given something to believe in. They need big players and big personalities showing them the way. Not giving them a reason to shrug their shoulders and decide that this is just how things are.
I remember playing Sligo in 2009 and watching as David Kelly lined up a late penalty
Not all games are equal. When we played Cork in the 2007 All-Ireland final, we felt more pressure than in all the other finals. This was a game we could not lose. It was non-negotiable. You can lose to Cork in a Munster final but you cannot under any circumstances do it in an All-Ireland.
Imagine we had lost that day. Where can you go after that? I remember playing Sligo in 2009 and watching as David Kelly lined up a late penalty. If he hit the net, we were beaten and the year was over. I was fairly resigned to the fact that he would score, so much so that the thought flashed through my head that I might head up to Sligo for the week and at least knock a bit of sport out of being knocked out in the middle of July. Defeat would have hurt but we'd have got over it.
That final against Cork in ‘07 was a different animal. Losing that final would have wiped out anything we had achieved up to then. We genuinely believed that. You can’t lose to Cork in an All-Ireland final and just brush it off. There’s too much cultural baggage there to allow you get away with that. We never had as much desperation to win an All-Ireland final as we did that year.
Cork need that kind of desperation this Saturday. They have to bring order to things. Their motivation has to be to remind Tipperary of where they see them standing in the world. Kill off the hope that the Tipperary players and supporters will be bringing to Páirc Uí Rinn with them. Pour water on the fire before it spreads any further.
They’ve put themselves in the position now where they have to win. This is an old-style championship game because the back-door will be such a let-down to whoever finds themselves in it.
Cork have to see this game as an opportunity. They’re at a crossroads but it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom. This is their chance to start winning people back. It’s not often you get the opportunity to do that in one go. They have to take it when it’s there – or it might not come again for a while.