Paul Kerrigan - master of his own destiny
Paul Kerrigan insists Cork have nothing to prove in quest for Sam.
THE needle of the conversation is stuck on a familiar point: the issue of whether Cork footballers have won less than they should. Paul Kerrigan is listening politely. He can appreciate why it creates some noise but he subscribes to the line posited by Conor Counihan. Paraphrasing his manager, he states: "You have had five different All-Ireland winners in the last five years yet we are the only ones to underachieve?"
Sometimes he figures that people expect too much and lose the run of themselves. "After the Limerick game this year I was talking to some of my friends on the phone and they were saying, 'ye were shocking in the first half', and I was saying, 'we were 10 points up!'. It was our first championship game out.
"Three leagues in a row is good going. If we won another All-Ireland we would be up there with the great teams. You see how competitive it is."
So Cork hasn't a case to answer? "Don't think so," he responds spritely. "We've had several new starters this year and I think we are under the radar more now. The Limerick game was ideal. In the second half it was over and the new players got time and touches on the ball to build up their confidence. Clare the last day was a bit of a tougher game, even though we won comfortably in the end. A few of us got some hard hits, got a sense of what it is going to be like."
In the beginning, before Paul, there was Jimmy. He came on to the Cork senior football team in 1978, three years ahead of Counihan, and had to learn a level of patience that might have coloured later perceptions of glasses being half-filled or half-empty. It is 30 years since Cork ambushed Kerry in the Munster final and ended their bid for nine provincial titles in a row. They didn't get to play in an All-Ireland final until 1987 and didn't win one until '89 when many of those careers had nearly dissolved.
Paul Kerrigan came into the Cork team 20 years after his father and was playing in an All-Ireland final in his second season. A year after that he won an All-Ireland medal. Kerrigan junior saw little of his father's skills at first hand but was aware of his status and as a kid got quickly roped into the winning culture at Nemo Rangers where Jimmy pocketed five All-Ireland club medals.
"He'd be witty, the life and soul of the room. I'd probably be a bit quieter," says his son. He relates a story to underline how their eras differed. "I remember in 2009 when we won the Sigerson with Cork IT and the final was on the Saturday, he dropped me out to a 21st on the Friday night and he was saying, 'Jaysus take it easy now, only have three or four pints.' And I am like, 'sure I have a match tomorrow'."
There was never a doubt in his mind that he would wear the red jersey. "When I was young I kind of knew I was going to play for Cork, I had it in my head, I just wanted to do it. Since I came into the panel the likes of Alan Quirke, 'Lynchie' (Anthony Lynch), Nicholas Murphy, Noel (O'Leary), the values they had, they really instilled those in me. And I suppose humility as well. I would think now my job is passing that on to any of the young fellas. If you look at the team picture from the 2010 All-Ireland final there have been a lot of changes but the values stay the same."
Kerry is omnipresent in any Cork footballer's career and Kerrigan's first taste of championship football was on one of the remarkable days in the rivalry's folklore. Having won an All-Ireland in his third and final year at under 21 grade in 2007, he graduated on to the senior side soon after Nemo were defeated in the '08 All-Ireland club final by St Vincent's. Kerry led Cork by eight points at half-time in that summer's Munster final in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Kerrigan didn't start but the day left a deep impression.
Much of the decade had been a tale of Kerry supremacy. The previous year they lost in the Munster final by two points in Killarney and by 10 in the All-Ireland final to the same rival. Eight points down in the Munster final a year later, the situation had reached crisis point. "I remember in the dressing-room Derek Kavanagh stood up and said, 'I am sick of this – it's not happening again.' And they went out and backed it up in the second half. I came on and only got one touch and got a point, the last point of the game. I was thinking of going away for the summer but that changed that."
Cork won by five but Kerry denied them again in the All-Ireland semi-finals. This was not the cakewalk of the previous September though, with Kerry needing a replay and meeting far greater resistance. Again, he was used as a substitute but by 2009 he had nailed a starting place. Kerry kept shadowing them, asking questions. They went into the All-Ireland final of 2009 as favourites, a team in blinding form, started the game in the same vein and then succumbed to a slow asphyxiation. He watched the closing quarter from the bench, having been wheeled off. There was no way through the Kerry cover. They had Cork sussed.
"It was a funny year. We won Division 2, we weren't a Division 1 team yet we were favourites for the final. Some players were starting their first All-Ireland final. I'd say Kerry loved it coming under the radar like that. We got a dream start and then we were playing catch-up. We had a great running game and kind of ran over Donegal and Tyrone, flew through them, but Kerry just filled up the spaces. I remember getting the ball and Tomás ó Sé was not up my ass, he was standing up giving me that space and there was nowhere to kick it to. They shut us down. I remember Tomás getting a point on the break and the big roar. Such a big lift to Kerry. A killer.
"I suppose it made us that bit tougher. If you play well all year it doesn't mean you will play well in an All-Ireland final. It definitely made us hungrier. For the new fellas, too, that loss hurt us and drove us on. The older fellas had that already."
Through childhood Kerrigan spent summers in Derrynane where the family keep a holiday home, so Kerry was never a remote part of their lives. "We were down there the whole time. For the match (today) they (family) will go from Derrynane up to Killarney. I love playing them to be honest with you."
Why? "Cork and Kerry, it's hard to describe. I think the whole county buys into it. Fellas saying I hope you beat them. If we were playing Kildare in the morning in an All-Ireland semi-final there wouldn't be half the interest. It's one of the biggest games of the year and you want to do well. It can go overboard from time to time but generally I think it's a good football game, I think they respect us for that. I think they don't like northern teams for that reason. We still haven't beaten them in Killarney since 1995 and we have come so close, we got two draws down there and a couple of years ago that was very close, it went down to the last couple of minutes (Cork lost by three, with Kerrigan their leading point scorer from play).
"It hurts not to beat them down there. I even remember Nicholas Murphy was hoping to beat them once before he finished. They won down there just before he came on the panel and it didn't happen for the whole time he was playing. I love playing there; it is my favourite stadium after Croke Park. I love the drive from the hotel up to it."
He is 26 now, recently qualified as a teacher and currently seeking employment. Being an inter-county footballer keeps him busy and is, he says, worth the many sacrifices. "I have been to so many weddings sober now, and have missed so many stag weekends and things like that, but probably my friends would give their right hand to play in an All-Ireland final."
After winning in 2010 he has carefully preserved memories of sitting on the pitch afterwards and soaking up the moment after they'd completed the lap of honour. He got to bed around 2.0am, exhausted, early compared to many of the rest, and the next morning he was down to breakfast when a lot were lying in bed. Graham Canty came in and they sat there not saying much and not needing to. "Graham was having a fry and I was looking at him – he never has a fry like."
Tomás ó Sé has kept him company when he has played on the wing against Kerry and closer to goal he has had Marc ó Sé to contend with, as well as spells wrestling with Shane Enright and Killian Young. "They'll hit you and they don't mind if you hit them back. I think so anyway (grins). Such good footballers. You'll look back on your career and say, 'I got to test myself against those players'. But on the day they hate Cork."
We are back to that gnawing issue of what Cork might have won. "We played Down in 2010 and they say we won a soft All-Ireland, (in that) we didn't beat Kerry. It drives some fellas. It doesn't drive me."
What does? "(Helping us to be) the best Cork football team that we can be. I firmly believed last year was the year we were going to win it. We were very fit and going very well up to half-time (against Donegal), but maybe that 20 minutes after half-time just killed us. I want to win an All-Ireland with that group of lads again. Getting rid of the underachiever tag is not a major thing for me personally."