Tomas Ó Sé: Beating Rebels feels as good as winning the All-Ireland
Playing Cork is like going to war – you are a different person in those derbies
It won't be a common Kerry view, but there's a part of me that will curse the wrecking-ball about to cut loose on Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Sure it's turned into a bit of a kip across the years, but you can be fond of a place for more than how it looks.
People say it's an awful stadium and, on so many levels, it is. Yet I've probably loved it for the same design flaws that sometimes had you wondering if you were being filmed for ‘You've Been Framed.'
The dressing-rooms are so small, you'd barely tog an U-12 team inside. Rumour has it they were designed for soccer and there's always been something wild about the tunnel outside and the challenge of slipping out through a narrow chute of stewards, opposition supporters bawling their worst.
But, you know, even thinking about that makes me tingle now. My first experience there as a footballer was playing minor on Munster final day in '96. The rain tipping down and two Kerry wins on one brilliant afternoon in enemy territory.
Nowadays the minors tog out in a prefab behind the stand but, back then, both teams were in connecting dressing-rooms. It meant there must have been up to 30 grown men in one tiny room, a massage table in the middle.
So just as we were hitting the showers, Páidí was revving up the seniors, his words bouncing off the walls like ricocheting bullets. We stood there listening, the whole thing giving us goosebumps.
Declan O'Keeffe's brother, Kenneth, was in goal for us that day and Declan came into the shower to give him a hug. Then Darragh and Páidí arrived for me. I never experienced anything like that again in my career because it felt such a huge day for Kerry football.
It was Páidí's first year as manager, and things had been at a bit of a low. It
wasn't long after Euro ‘96 and I'll never forget the supporters on the terrace started singing ‘Football's Coming Home’ at the end.
You couldn't put a price on that feeling for a Kerryman. I remember reading a line in Teddy McCarthy's book where he said that winning a Munster final against Kerry actually meant more to him than winning an All-Ireland. I could relate to that 100pc, except – of course – in reverse.
My first taste of the rivalry was playing for North Kerry U-16s in a tournament when we came up against a Cork selection. Charlie Nelligan was in charge of us that day and, Jesus, the passion that Charlie had for playing Cork just lit up something inside of him.
I remember him saying to us: “Lads, when ye win against Cork, ye will experience a feeling that can't be repeated against any other opposition!”
So playing Cork has always been different for Kerry. One thing I will forever be proud of is the fact that, in my career, they never beat us in Killarney. You felt you were protecting something that mattered.
Still, there would be no rhyme or reason to some of the games we had against them because, no matter how good Kerry might have been at the time, whether or not we were All-Ireland champions, we never came out of Cork with a handy win.
They have always been the barometer for Kerry and Sunday will be no different. Both teams will feel something deep inside that has become ingrained by history. It's not hatred. It's more an unbelievable hunger just to deny the other a win.
I'm living in Cork and, to my mind, there isn't a better sporting county in the country. I always had the utmost respect for them as footballers but, once we stepped over the white line, it
was really a case of going to war. For that hour to hour and a half, your head was in a different place. You were a different person really.
The nightmare scenario for a Kerryman in recent years would have been to lose an All-Ireland semi-final or final to them in Croke Park. That would have been horrendous.
If I was to pick my favourite day as a footballer, it would probably have been the 2005 Munster final. A sweltering day in the Pairc and we beat them with a huge team performance. I got man of the match and I felt as good coming out of there as I felt about winning any All-Ireland. I was wrecked, sunburnt, dehydrated, everything, but didn't give a damn. For the hour or two immediately after that game, I was in pure heaven.
It's funny, I've been thinking this week how things change. I'm not sure where the lads will be based before Sunday's game, but you can rest assured, wherever it is, they'll be given world-class care.
I remember the morning of one Munster final in Cork a few years back and meeting up in Rochestown Park Hotel. There was no warm-up area available, so we slipped out the back of the hotel and Páidí, em, gently navigated his way through a wire fence to get us into what had been a quiet a housing estate.
We started doing our warm-up on this little green in the middle of the estate when, suddenly, this Cork fella arrived out of his house, screaming blue murder. “Who gave ye permission to be here, ye've no right...”
We didn't know where to look until, maybe two doors down, another fella emerged, told yer man to get lost, that we were as welcome as the flowers in May. “They can do whatever they like,” he roared. “And, if there's a God in Heaven, they'll wipe the floor with ye today. Up the Kingdom!”
I would question if the boys will win on Sunday because I'd be wary of the Cork forwards clicking. The key will be the middle eight. I would include myself in the criticism that, over the last couple of years, that's where Kerry haven't really produced. Maybe we did in Killarney last year, but just not consistently.
If people are questioning you – and people are questioning the likes of Anthony Maher, David Moran, our half-back line, our half-forward line – you need to answer those questions. If people doubt you, the only response is to horse that doubt back down on top of them.
But, if the middle eight don't perform on Sunday, Kerry won't win.
Brian Cuthbert has made Cork far more direct and they have forwards inside, like Brian Hurley, who can really punish you. He was the star of the show when Cork destroyed Kerry in the National League and I know for a fact that defeat hurt deeply. Just the idea of them arriving into Tralee and winning so comprehensively...
I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at last night's team meeting because Thursday night is usually when the floor is left open to the players. We had some unbelievable talks like that down the years, talks that would leave the hairs standing on the back of your neck.
It's up to Kerry to use any little triggers they can find now. And that's what I used love about playing championship in Cork. The fact they'd put you in this tiny little dressing-room, as if shoving the two fingers up to you. And, whether it was true or not, you'd have this idea in your head that Cork would be up the corridor in the lap of luxury.
Anyway, that middle third will be the key, it's where you can boss a game. Bully it. But you need to be almost willing to die to get the breaking ball. That's the challenge for Kerry. When people doubt you, go answer that doubt.
And no better place to do it than the Pairc.