The one thing you cannot do as a Kerry footballer is lose to Cork in Killarney
Sunday’s game might not have relevance to the year ahead but there is a proud tradition to uphold
A large crowd in Killarney await the start of last year’s Kerry versus Tyrone qualifier clash. “None of these Cork players have ever beaten Kerry there. This is no time to be giving them a taste of it.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Growing up in west Kerry, there was no better prospect than going up to Killarney to see Kerry play Cork. You knew it was the real start of the summer. The weather was normally pretty good and everybody was in good form. You were off school and the nights were long so you knew that whatever the result happened to be, you could go home and play Cork again in the your own garden well into the evening.
The beauty of Fitzgerald Stadium as a kid was that you could wander down from the stands and get right close to the tunnel where the players came out. You’d get the smell of the Wintergreen and see these big huge Cork fellas run past you and wonder how in the name of God were we ever going to beat them. But then the green and gold would go past and all would be right with the world.
It’s a grand town for grown-ups as well. I’d say even Cork people nearly prefer playing in Killarney. The pitch is in the middle of the town and you don’t tend to lose people along the way like you do on that walk down to Páirc Uí Chaoimh. I’ve set off for the Páirc before with half a dozen men around me and found that we were down to the bare two or three by the time we got there. If that happens in Killarney, at least you know they’ll have found a good home.
Killarney will be hopping this weekend. The Ring Of Kerry Charity Cycle is on and you can’t get a hotel room in the town for love nor money. I rang a fella I know in one hotel during the week and he said he has a waiting list of 67 people looking for rooms. It’s the place everyone wants to be.
Does the game matter though? Well on one level it always will. Obviously it’s not as important as it was when I was a kid or even when I started playing for Kerry. Both sides will still have the same ambition of winning the All-Ireland on Sunday night as they do today.
But whatever shape the championship takes in years to come, whatever rejigging they do down the line, this game will endure. No matter what era, you will still find that most of the Kerry players know the Cork players and vice-versa. They play against each other at underage, at college, at county.
And regardless of the level, one thing never changes. You have to beat Cork if you’re a Kerry footballer. And you have to beat Kerry if you’re a Cork footballer. It’s just part of the deal really. There’s too much history for it not to matter.
Sunday matters to Kerry. Cork haven’t won in Killarney since 1995 and Kerry will be intent on keeping that record going. There’ll be a big push not to give it away in front of their own people and to drive home the idea of Cork not being able to win in Fitzgerald Stadium. None of these Cork players have ever beaten Kerry there. This is no time to be giving them a taste of it.
A draw is no real use to them either. Draw with Cork in Killarney and there’s a fair chance they’ll get you in the replay. Anytime we drew with them and had to go Cork a week later, there was always a little voice in the back of your head telling you that the likelihood was that they’d catch you next time.
That’s what happened in 2009, my last year playing for Kerry. I remember coming out of Fitzgerald Stadium that day and heading off down into the town with Paul Galvin. We were going to the Malton Hotel by the train station there for a bite to eat with the team but as we left some kids started abusing us, calling us the two dirtiest footballers in Kerry.
Well the humour was bad enough already without having to put up with this. I knew in my head that Cork probably had our measure and they probably should have beaten us without the need of a replay. I was already doubting myself and wondering if I had been right or wrong to come back for one last year. So this was the last thing I needed.
Now, on mature reflection as they say, maybe the lads had a point. One way or the other, now wasn’t the time to be debating it with them. We trudged on and there wasn’t another word about it. We headed off and had our dinner, the two lads went about their day.
Cork beat us in the replay and beat us well. But funny enough, I didn’t think we were in any real trouble as a result of it. Maybe it was a bit or arrogance on my part but I definitely felt that we had it in us to come back and do something later in the year. And at least we hadn’t lost in Killarney.
One thing I knew was that we weren’t as badly off as the 1-17 to 0-12 scoreline suggested. Cork were the better team over the two games but they weren’t eight points better. When people wonder if teams take it easy in games because they know the qualifiers are there as a safety net, the honest answer is no, they don’t. But you can guarantee we wouldn’t have been beaten by eight points if it was a do-or-die game.
And I remember thinking at the time that getting to the stage where every game needed you to be all-in was going to be good for us. It was to our benefit that we had no get-out-of-jail-free card anymore. It would concentrate the minds and make us play on the edge. We would react better when there was no room for error.
Win or lose this Sunday, there’s no room for error on either side. Kerry look to me like they are further down the line with what they’re trying to do than Cork. I saw Cork play Kerry in a league game in Tralee back in the spring and Cork looked like they had all just met for the first time. It’s a complicated system they’re trying to put in and it will take them a while to get it right.
They’re trying to put a lot of bodies behind the ball and play a sweeper like Donegal do. The difference is they haven’t got a Mark McHugh yet who can gobble up loose ball in the full-back line and then turn defence into attack. McHugh has it down to a tee, he knows his role and he carries it out.
Whereas to me, the Cork lads didn’t quite know yet what they were supposed to be doing. They hadn’t designated somebody in that McHugh role. They had bodies back there but they seemed to be getting in general areas rather than doing specific jobs. Very often, they ended coming out of defence ahead of guys who had the ball instead of running off their shoulder into space, that kind of thing.
It takes time and patience to put a system like that together properly and I think they’re a bit away from it yet. That was the second-last game of the league and they were at sixes and sevens with it. They’ve only had three games since to get it right – against Mayo, Limerick and Clare. It’s hard to see them having it perfected in that time.
The handicap on Sunday is Kerry -1 and to me, that’s a great bet. I’d have Kerry three- or four-point favourites in all honesty. They’re in the right kind of shape and in the right place mentally to go through the front door here. Aidan O’Mahony will be a loss but I still think Kerry have the upper hand. They’re more organised and more focused on what they’re trying to achieve. And if all else fails, they also have the Killarney factor in their favour.