Paul Kerrigan: ‘The All-Ireland was always the goal, but I could never think past Kerry’

Former All-Ireland winner knows the challenge remains the same for Cork in Killarney

You might see him among the other faces in the crowd on Sunday, enjoying the panoramic view from the hills in Fitzgerald stadium. Paul Kerrigan was a streak of mischievous guile shooting through the formidably powerful and direct Cork All-Ireland champion team of 11 summers ago. He presaged an entire generation of lighting fast ball-carriers in Gaelic football.

Last winter he bowed out quietly after 13 years as a constant presence, by which time he had gone from being a kid on Conor Counihan’s rampaging team to the last survivor of an All-Ireland side which had, at its peak, the athletic and shooting prowess to crush the best.

The bare facts of Kerrigan's career make for vividly lop-sided reading. He won it all in the first five or six years – National League, Munster, All-Ireland. As Cork's profile deteriorated he found himself operating in the second and third league divisions, visiting grounds he never knew existed as a kid. But through thick and thin, the local thermometer for good health has always been the summer derby with Kerry.

In the opening act of Kerrigan's Cork career, championship games against Kerry teams were riveting and claustrophobic. From 2009-12 it was the best rivalry in the sport. Cork won the semi-finals of 2009 and 2012 but could never topple their nemesis in a Munster final. In Kerrigan's mind, Killarney was always the beacon.


“I always enjoyed going down there. It always seemed to be scorching,” he says when we speak on the hottest day of the year. He has just returned from a few days break in Kerry, where it was baking. Kerry-Cork has a festive-offering feel in the south: an independent ritual within the big contest.

“That’s how it felt. When I started off, the All-Ireland was always the goal. But I could never think past Kerry.”

The needling and cranky relationship of that era was best captured in the exchanges between Noel O’Leary and Tomás Ó Sé, the opponents who shared a fiery temperament and, to the crowd’s delight, often a frank exchange of views. In the 2000s Kerry were the ascendency, finding new ways to repel the best efforts of a fine Cork team. They met so often that a tetchy environment was inevitable.

"Those teams, we probably didn't like each other. No hatred there but definitely not a whole pile of socialising going on either. In the 2000s they had beaten Cork in a fair few All-Ireland semi-finals and Cork couldn't get over the line. So after that there were always good battles between the players. Johnny Miskella did well on Declan O'Sullivan, Graham Canty would have marked Kieran Donaghy, Marc Ó Sé on Donncha O'Connor, Tomás Ó Sé on Daniel Goulding.

“You had good rivalries there and not to beat them there was a bit galling looking back on it. Small things you remember – the back of Killarney there in the pitch you might be waiting to get on the bus and the Kerry fellas all togged out in their going-out clothes and walking down the street to Killarney. You are saying, Jesus it would be nice to beat them and march down to Killarney and have a few pints down there.”

You could theorise that if Kerry could somehow be physically annexed and stuck to, say, the coast of Down, then the history of Cork football would be very different. They’ve won their share of Munster championships: 37 titles is no call for anyone’s sympathy. But brilliant, good and mediocre Cork teams are ultimately defined by how they get on against the garlanded crowd over the border.

Since 2000, Kerry have won 15 titles to Cork’s five. Kerrigan’s synopsis of Cork’s trajectory after the All-Ireland win of 2010 is straightforward. From 2009-13, Cork teams were leading All-Ireland contenders. But after Dublin defeated them in the 2013 quarter-final, an entire generation was done.

Kerrigan sometimes identifies the 2015 Munster final game as a Cork’s “sliding doors moment”. It was arguably the last classic game between the pair: Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s Kerry side were All-Ireland champions but found themselves hit by three freewheeling Cork goals and trailing by a point after 72 minutes.

"Fionn Fitzgerald scored a point with the last kick," Kerrigan says with a light groan. "Like, Christ, things could have been a lot different. We had a lot of young lads on the team. Brian Cuthbert was only there for two years. Then Péader Healy came in for another two years. When you are winning you can ask for anything and you are getting the best of the best. Everything started to slip.

“And they started on the stadium in Cork and I’d say look they let everything go around teams. Then we got relegated from Division One on score difference. We eventually went to Division Three under Ronan [McCarthy]. But I felt that 2015 was a sliding doors moment for Cork.

“Then, the panel was always changing, too. There was nearly a quarter gone after every year so it is hard for a manager to build anything. Ronan arrested that a good bit because he wanted players who were committed. We had some bad results too but at least he instilled that.”

Kerrigan is a teacher in Coláiste Chríost Rí, his alma mater. In a recent talk he gave to college students, he spoke with candour and insight about the common experience of anxiety. He graduated in the same year as he won his All-Ireland medal. It was the era of the IMF and staggering unemployment levels. Several of the new All-Ireland champions couldn’t find work. A few of the Cork players appeared on a Late Late Show themed around the unemployment crisis. “It was an unprecedented time. People just didn’t have the jobs to give.”

Kerrigan pursued education and found a vocation in teaching. The experience of teaching through the pandemic continues to be unique and he has particular sympathy for the years both finishing and starting their secondary school lives.

“I was thinking back to my time – the graduation mass and holidays and the grad and all that. And not being able to represent the school in sport is a big one as well. So I do feel for them a lot. They were missing milestones in their lives and the younger ones developing and making friends and things like that.

“The weather was fine and we had a good system in school but we were learning as we were going. The calculated grades were pretty tricky because you didn’t want to be overburdening kids and have them on their devices all day. And I am someone who likes that bit of structure. And at home we had a newborn baby so we were trying to manage that for the first time as well. So it was a hectic time.”

He’s a Cork city kid and even though he played with the easy city swagger, he was always acutely aware of the pressures and perceived advantages that came with being Jimmy Kerrigan’s kid. He was only four years old when his father, who played with Cork for 14 years, starred on the brilliant teak-tough Cork All-Ireland winning teams of 1989 and 1990. But the city crowd has an encyclopedic knowledge and the memory of an elephant when it comes to sport.

“Ah yeah like. There are not too many Kerrigans around Cork. So you would be asked. It was a bit of pressure and maybe starting out people would think you got the chance because you were such and such’s son. But I felt I found my feet after playing in the All-Ireland of 2009. I come from Nemo. I went to Coláiste Chríost Rí, Cork’s biggest football school. My second name is Kerrigan. I am the first to realise I got opportunities others may not have. And you know, I was just determined not to mess them up.”

Expectations run high: soccer, Gaelic football, hurling, basketball, rugby, athletics: Cork is an intimate city where bumping into this or that legend is a common Friday night occurrence. Winning stuff is kind of an unspoken obligation.

“When you lose then it is not like a reaction, it is an over- reaction,” he laughs. “It’s ‘Jesus, they are brutal altogether’. That is what I always found – sometimes the happy medium isn’t there.”

He was given the captaincy during a turbulent time for the Cork team and admits he found the honour heavy going, feeling like a reluctant middle man between management and his team-mates.

“You are taking stuff home and are fielding everyone else’s problems. I remember when I was young I used to watch Graham Canty and he always looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Maybe he didn’t but his team were under a different pressure to get to the top. We were kind of stagnant and no matter what we tried we weren’t improving.”

The game itself was changing at a rapid pace. When he started playing for Cork, the management left the kick-out strategy to Alan Quirke, the team's goalkeeper – who had an array of giant-sized target men at his disposal. The advent of packed and, then, system-oriented defences rather than straight man-marking reduced the opportunities of taking a direct opponent on. Kerrigan went through a growth spurt in his late teens.

“Whatever happened, I just got quick with the ball,” he laughs. But he worked fastidiously, too, keeping a set of ladders and poles in the car for whenever he was doing a bit of kicking. The sight of Kerrigan accelerating through a crowd was thrilling, and at times his contribution was criminally underrated. The opportunity for players to make those line-to-line dashes have since become scarce.

"Karl O'Connell is really quick, a lot of the Mayo boys too," he says of the current crop of fliers. "Gavin White for Kerry. A lot of teams play to the wings and do get a chance to open up but they will generally run into a system. They are only gaining ground.

"Back then I felt if I beat a man on the wing it would open up. They are all massive athletes now playing but I like to see the out and out fast guys go for it – like your man Conor McKenna from Tyrone, he opened up last week against Donegal from the 21 to the 21 and it was a joy to watch."

He played through last winter with a sense of serene finality. He had spoken to Ronan McCarthy. Two weeks after his club season with Nemo Rangers finished, he played in the league against Leitrim. His last on-field championship appearance came, appropriately, in that famous raid against Kerry. It was a strange, sweet moment. Many of the younger Cork players were savouring the sensation of beating Kerry for the first time. It was dark outside the stadium when they left.

“Pitch black and a few Cork fellas outside going berserk. I wouldn’t say it made up for everything. But it was nice.”

Kerry are moving through this season in heat-seeking missile mode. There is a theme of atonement about this latest Munster final. If he can get a ticket, Kerrigan will be somewhere in the stadium keeping his fingers crossed for his former team-mates. Times have changed since he played his first and he thinks for a second when asked if the contest, with all its baggage and accents and stories, is still a true rivalry.

“A rivalry is when teams are beating each other,” he says. “We probably need to beat them a few times. But I hope we are a bit closer to that again.”