Sunday 25 June 2017

Kerrigan boxes clever in bid for another title shot

A varied approach to training helped to get Cork over the line, writes Damian Lawlor

F OR the Cork footballers, negative thinking had become a bad habit; one they had to break. And ultimately, it was youngsters like Paul Kerrigan they turned to in a bid to end their losing All-Ireland final sequence.

Last September saw Kerrigan make his first senior final appearance, but the experience ended in tears with a beating from Kerry. It was a game that passed him by. All winter he tried to move on, but he couldn't shake the gnawing sensation that he'd let a golden opportunity slip. Mind you, it was only his first senior final defeat. He often wondered how elders like Graham Canty and Anthony Lynch coped with losing three.

Conor Counihan called to sound a return to training in November. Kerrigan was extremely eager. "I was itching to get back but the comeback wasn't like I'd thought," he recalls. "The winter ban meant we couldn't do collective work on the field, so Conor came up with this boxing idea."

Counihan's plan was simple. They'd been on the road two years and most of his squad had lost at least two finals. Time to vary it. He would bring in two boxing trainers, Seanie Barrett and Dan Lane, work the squad for two months and put them on show at Christmas. All proceeds would go to charity.

"I found that idea more nerve-wracking than running onto Croke Park for an All-Ireland final," Kerrigan smiles. "For two months, we worked three nights a week on boxing with each squad member due to fight a bout (three one-minute rounds) in front of a huge crowd at Christmas. This was a great idea: different to looking at a pair of GAA posts. We trained for an hour and a half each session, a real good workout."

On December 27, they gathered in the Rochestown Hotel, not knowing what to expect. Just short of 1,000 people paid to watch them. Kerrigan was dreading drawing Alan O'Connor or another warrior like Canty or Quirke. He says he was lucky enough; Paddy Kelly was his opponent.

"Fellas were nervous going in. At the end of the day, you don't want to make a fool of yourself. And you know that your opponent wants to knock you out too."

Kerrigan won his bout. It was some feeling. The whole night was a resounding success and their chosen charity, Breaking the Silence, benefited handsomely.

The variety in training continued following the turn of the year and Kerrigan loved every minute of it. Once Easter arrived, they were summoned to the military camp on Bere Island in the mouth of Bantry Bay.

Players carried each other on stretchers over long distances, dragged weighted rucksacks around the island and trudged up the highest peaks over two days of torment. They left that island pulsated and energised. But this is Cork football. They impressed in the league, and looked the team everyone had to beat, but things are seldom straightforward.

They lost to Kerry, floored Cavan in the qualifiers, struggled badly against Limerick, laboured past Wexford and Roscommon, and needed a late rally to defeat Dublin. Almost by accident, they found themselves back in another All-Ireland final.

"The Limerick game and a few others were messy and it was a messy year in general," Kerrigan admits. "But does that bother me? Not in the slightest. About 12 months ago, everyone was raving about us and our excellent football. We were built up as favourites and it didn't do us much good. But this year, as we got closer to the final, people talked us down.

"The bottom line -- and we took this from the Tipp hurlers -- you need a very high work-rate. We didn't reach the levels they did in the first few minutes, but we learned from them. If you're not in a game, you work your way into it. Pa (Paddy Kelly) and I spoke about that the night before the final. Last year's decider passed us by. It wasn't going to happen again."

Maligned for their short, and lateral, passing, they went straight for the jugular in the first half and should have scored a lot more. They went even more direct in the second half.

"After the Dublin game, we made a conscious decision that there was a bit of room in the Down full-back line and we wanted to be more direct. Mix and match it at the very least. We were doing too much running and handpassing this season. We said we might as well try our luck going direct. That came from both management and players. Critics said we had no mental strength, but this year we showed mental strength more than anything. The qualifiers were no joke; for a month we had game after game. They can't question the mental strength of this team anymore."

He doesn't mind whether the acclaim comes or not. And he knows they'll be back playing second fiddle once the hurlers get their act together.

"Ah, we're used to small crowds, sometimes there would only be a couple of hundred at our games but it doesn't bother us. The hurlers had serious success and they had great personalities too . . . Seán óg, Sully (Diarmuid O'Sullivan), so hopefully we'll build on this a bit more."

He has a new target now. To win another medal would equal his father Jimmy's haul. The slagging might finally stop then. But there's more to it than that.

"The benchmark for a team like us has to be Tyrone," he says. "When they first broke through they had experienced players like Ger Cavlan, Chris Lawn and Peter Canavan. We have Graham, Lynchie, Nicholas Murphy and Derek (Kavanagh). But Tyrone had a lot of underage success and some good under 21s coming through. Hopefully we have that too. We have to try and stay at the top now. They say a good team wins one but a great team wins two. The feeling I had on the pitch last Sunday was the best I ever had. I want that again; I just didn't want to get off the field."

As elder statesmen move on over the next couple of years, it will be up to Kerrigan and that healthy crop of youngsters to keep Cork at the top of the pile. That's the next challenge. And after a few weeks enjoying the buzz, he'll be ready for that call to arms once more.

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