Live by the border, die by the border
The back-door system has deflated the rivalry between Kerry and Cork over the past decade, but it's still alive and kicking on the thin dividing line between the two counties, writes KIERAN McCARTHY
AMBROSE O'Donovan never had any trouble in sourcing inspiration for jousts against the old enemy.
For the former Kerry captain it was a simple as opening his front door at the family home in Gneeveguilla on the eastern edge of the Kingdom. He would gaze across the River Blackwater and straight into Cork territory. And that was that, no rousing pep-talk needed.
Nowadays, O'Donovan concedes, life along that thin divide between Kerry from Cork -- that keeps GAA strongholds like Rathmore and Gneeveguilla on the Kerry side, with Cork claiming the likes of Ballydesmond, Knocknagree and Cullen -- is not what it was in his time, back in the 1980s.
Don't get the former All-Ireland winning Kerry captain wrong, passions are still high in the outer reaches of both east Kerry and west Cork where the rival counties collide, along the only border that matters this week. But it's just not what it was, he laments.
"The rivalry is still intense and it's still a big game, but ever since the open draw and the back-door system came in, the edge wouldn't be the same as it was years ago," the Gneeveguilla man says.
"Back when I was playing, when you lost to Cork that was it, you were gone for the year. But nowadays it might favour you to lose in Munster because the qualifiers can be the making of a team.
"They are still big games. This Sunday's will be one. But a little bit of the cutting edge has gone now," he sighs.
It's a Kerryman's opinion backed up by that of a well-known Cork football stalwart, Knocknagree's John Fintan Daly, a man well placed -- both from geographical and experience points of view -- to cast an eye over life along the Kerry and Cork border.
"It's no longer do-or-die. It's no longer winner-takes-all. But that's the case all over the country with the back-door system affecting a lot of local rivalries," the former All-Ireland U-21 winning Cork manager explains.
"Whoever loses this Sunday, whether it's Kerry or Cork, they still have another chance to come back. And Kerry and Cork, over the last decade, are nearly always in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
"The result won't decide the All-Ireland race, but, psychologically, it's important. Both teams will be keen to put down a marker for later in the championship -- Cork because they are All-Ireland champions and Kerry because they want to show everybody that they are still a force to be reckoned with."
And while O'Donovan is a Gneeveguilla and Kerryman to the core, and Daly hails from the Cork village of Knocknagree, such is the incomparable life along this particular border that both men are actually in the same parish of Rathmore.
And before and after Sunday's main show in Killarney, Daly's home village of Knocknagree will be thronged to bursting point, as it has always been a popular haunt of match-goers from both sides of the border.
Daly won't be in the middle of the festivities in a heaving Knocknagree this Sunday, as duty calls. The press-box at Fitzgerald Stadium will be his home as a match commentator with County Sounds. But he agrees that there won't be room to move there.
"It's a big socialising village and you will have people coming from all over, from Rathmore, Gneeveguilla, Ballydesmond, Cullen, Kiskeam, Boherbue, Millstreet and , even from out around Killarney," Daly points out.
"Along the border is where the key Kerry and Cork rivalry exists because that's where most of the interaction goes on. The people that live along there are very connected. They are all inter-married and they socialise together.
"There has been inter-linking of football around the border for generations."
Kerry and Cork may have their own traditions, but around the border the two counties are intrinsically intertwined -- more than most people realise.
Take Sunday's Munster final for example. On the Cork side, Donnacha O'Connor's father, Dan, is from Doctor's Hill on the Kerry side of Ballydesmond, while Patrick Kelly's father, John, hails from Rathmore.
Then look at Kerry's Tom O'Sullivan, whose father, also Tom, is from Ballydaly in Cork, but who moved to a farm near Rathmore many years ago.
Just two years ago, in the Munster JFC final between Kerry and Cork, there was the unique situation where Ballydesmond GAA Club -- a parish that sits in both counties -- had a player on the Kerry side, Niall Fleming, and another on the Cork team, Jerry Healy.
The cross-over has always been there, and still is today. And with such an overlap it's little wonder that the counties' rivalry is at its fiercest from Rockchapel all the way down to Millstreet, as O'Donovan -- a man who went to school in Tureencahill, barely half a mile on the Kerry side of the border -- explains.
"A lot of people don't realise how intense the rivalry is along the border. It's there where it becomes real, where it really matters to people. You need to live there to fully understand what it means. The result of a game between the counties decides the mood of the following week," O'Donovan says.
"The rivalry is at its greatest here. That was always the case. Even when I was starting out. It was always the game that people would look forward to -- and still do."
Daly agrees: "Whoever wins when Kerry and Cork meet, it gives the people that are on top a lot of ammunition. It's great for the fella whose county wins, but not so much for the fella who loses."
Even today several bars along the border will house glasses along the top-shelves packed with wagers on Sunday's tussle in Killarney, with more than just money at stake. Bragging rights are priceless here. That leads O'Donovan to reminisce.
"Great friends that used to meet every Friday or Sunday night for a pint, but after a Munster final, depending on who won, you wouldn't see the other fella until the game was well gone," he recalls. "If Cork won, the Kerry fella would stay away, and vice-versa. Once the game blew over they would be best friends again. That was always the case, and long may it continue."
Certainly, the Kerry and Cork border will be alive this week ahead of Sunday's Munster showdown. And with the counties clashing more frequently in the championship, now more than ever, those who live by the border, die by the border.