Old foes bring out the best in each other
Seán Moran talks to former Kerry player and manager Mickey O'Sullivan about how the Cork threat spurred his county on to greatness
It became one of the great truths associated with the great Kerry team of the 1970s and '80s. "Cork," Mick O'Dwyer used say consolingly in beaten dressing-rooms, "are the second-best team in the country." It was just their misfortune to run into arguably - and there are people who'll argue it - the best team in football history in eight successive Munster finals.
To the revisionist eye this looks a little suspect. Apart from the 1976 meeting, which went to a replay and extra-time, and another draw in '82 there weren't that many finals in which Cork looked to be posing any greater threat to Kerry than the rest of the country were managing.
But according to one man with extensive experience of football's most enduring rivalry, the statistics are misleading. Mickey Ned O'Sullivan's intercounty dealings with Cork stretched out over 20 years as a player, selector and manager.
"You always got an exceptionally good game. It brought out the best in Cork. I don't think that was one-upmanship. I think Mick O'Dwyer believed it. We always felt that way. We were prepared to be caught by Cork. Remember the All-Ireland was easier to win back then. There were three hurdles: Cork, the All-Ireland semi-final that we generally won and the final."
He believes that not alone was the threat from Cork taken seriously but that it also helped shape O'Dwyer's remarkable team.
"I made my debut in 1970. We got hammered in 1971, '73 and '74. Likewise at minor and under-21. We grew up being hammered by Cork at underage and senior level so we had an incredible respect for them. And a hatred - well not pure hatred but a dislike for Cork because of our early experiences."
It is easy to forget Cork did indeed pose a considerable threat in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The county won a first All-Ireland in 28 years in 1973 and, in the view of many, would have added to it had they not underestimated the challenge of Kevin Heffernan's Dublin. Between 1971 and 1974, Cork won three of the four provincial titles by between seven and 19 points.
More influential was the domination in the underage grades. Between 1966 and 1977, Cork beat Kerry 10 years out of 12 and took three successive under-21 titles, 1969-71.
These were formative experiences for Kerry players who, as they developed, always guarded against complacency in Munster finals. To defeat a team in knockout competition for a record-equalling eight successive years was an exceptional feat.
The atmosphere helped. As with any other neighbouring counties the stakes were high. To the outsider Cork doesn't convey the impression of being passionate football territory but in certain areas the perennial contest matters.
"Outside of the city in the football areas of Cork," says O'Sullivan, "and all along the border areas the rivalry was intense. People would be meeting in pubs along the border and there'd be banter, which would build up the rivalry.
"From a managerial point of view, the Cork match was the main yardstick for any player. There was an intensity about the match because Cork were always up for it. With Dublin it was the town-culchie thing whereas with Cork it was a very parochial rivalry."
Mickey O'Sullivan is no doubt about his own outstanding Cork-Kerry occasion. In his first year as manager Kerry lost an unprecedented fourth final on the spin - and by a record margin. A year later with Cork chasing a first All-Ireland senior football three-in-a-row, they came to Killarney as hot favourites. You can hum the rest.
"We went out in 1991, 100 per cent certain we would win - which is hard to believe with the material we had," according to O'Sullivan. "But we turned a 16-point defeat into a two-point victory.
"That was distilled out of the humiliation of 1990. That went very deep with me and the players. I remember Charlie Nelligan saying at our team meeting a couple of weeks later that some Cork lad had passed a comment on the way out that day and that it had been the lowest point of his career. When a team reaches such a low it's easy to get improvement.
"I remember sitting down with the players after that match. I made out a list of 20 points to rectify. Things that hadn't been done right by players and from a management point of view. Over the following year we ticked them off one by one. There was great satisfaction addressing those points and turning them around."
One of the most striking aspects of O'Sullivan's three years in charge of Kerry was his ability to lift the team after the disaster of 1990. A year after the sensational win in '91, he took his side to Páirc Uí Chaoimh and saw them tear Cork asunder, winning by 10 points.
If anything, he spent too much of the team's capital on Cork, given that the age of the open draw had dawned in Munster. That year, 1992, would see Limerick come close to beating Kerry and on an epochal afternoon, Clare actually doing so to break the Cork-Kerry duopoly for the first time in 57 years.
Nonetheless in what has been an egalitarian age - Cork actually have slightly more provincial titles in the last 15 years - it would be easy to overlook the profound impact Cork's successes of around 30 years ago had on ensuring their neighbours' rise to legendary status in the years that followed didn't founder at the first serious hurdle.
"It was the main factor," says O'Sullivan. "The vast majority of the 1975 generation had experienced year after year of humiliation against Cork. It had been rubbed into those guys. That's why they avoided losing to Cork. If you lost to Dublin you just about got away with it but if you lost to Cork it was rubbed in day and night."