Thursday 14 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: With Kerry's eyes on bigger things, Rebels will always have a chance

Éamonn Fitzmaurice will have had one eye on future battles ahead of today’s Munster final. Photo: Sportsfile
Éamonn Fitzmaurice will have had one eye on future battles ahead of today’s Munster final. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Outsiders sometimes think there's no real passion for football in Cork. They look at the paltry attendances for home matches in the qualifiers or the poor turn-out for quarter-finals in Croke Park and declare that the fortunes of the football team are a matter of indifference in the Rebel County.

They're wrong. There is a very passionate Cork footballing public. It's just that their passion is almost entirely focused on one rivalry. To an extent almost unrivalled in any other county, Cork's football year is all about the outcome of a single game. From the moment the season starts every game in the National League is considered in terms of what it says about the team vis-a-vis Kerry. The performance of every Cork player is examined with regard to how he might go against his likely Kerry opponent at championship time.

Only an All-Ireland final victory tops a win over Kerry for the Cork football fan. An appearance in the All-Ireland final doesn't even compare. There is a simple geographical reason for this. The traditional heartlands of Cork football, West Cork and, to a lesser extent, Duhallow and Muskerry, border the Kingdom. On a clear night you can hear the condescending laughter of victorious Kerrymen drift over the mountains.

Sometimes you don't even need to listen. A friend of mine once observed, in the aftermath of another Cork defeat by their old rivals, "Every Kerryman in Skibbereen will be out tonight". He was correct. You don't realise how many of these economic migrants inhabit the average West Cork town till their team has dashed the hopes of the natives. They emerge to say things like 'ye gave us a bit of a fright today' and insist that Cork aren't too far away. Kerrymen do not crow, they condescend. It seems a lot worse somehow and leaves the West Corkman sceptical about the benefits of living in a multi-cultural society.

Kerry have had a lot to be condescending about lately. Cork's failure to win in Killarney since 1995 is something of a hammer blow because victory in Fitzgerald Stadium is the holy grail for Rebels fans. There is a sense of occasion about Munster finals in Killarney which is largely missing from those played in Cork. The latter involves a tramp through a soulless industrial zone terminating at the desolate windswept concrete bowl which was the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The former involves a trip to a town which appears to have been built with the enjoyment of the visitor in mind and where the pitch is not much more than a hop, skip and jump from a plethora of first-class pubs.

There is an almost unique carnival feeling about Killarney on big match day. I know plenty of West Cork people who prefer going there than travelling to the city. Yet it is almost a quarter of a century since their journey home has been victorious as well as picturesque. Cork have come very close on occasion. The drawn games in 2006 and 2009 saw Kerry profit from the, entirely subconscious and inadvertent, love of GAA referees for ensuring parity in tight games. And two years ago Cork seemed to have Kerry beaten up a stick for long periods before Kerry escaped with a draw and made no mistake in the replay.

The Rebels are still harping on about the controversial penalty which they claim cost them victory in 2015. But the truth is that they recovered from that and Colm O'Neill had a scorable free to put them two points clear with time almost up. He missed it and Kerry contrived the most unlikely of equalising scores, defender Fionn Fitzgerald hoisting up an optimistic shot which seemed to be blown over the bar by the winds of historical inevitability. That's the kind of thing Kerry do in Killarney.

Today Cork will travel more in hope than in confidence. They are without a provincial crown since 2012 which makes it their worst fallow spell since the days Mick O'Dwyer was in charge of Kerry.

It is 2008 since they beat Kerry in a Munster final. Yet they always have a chance against Kerry because there is one big difference between the sides.

This is a very one-sided love affair. Beating Kerry is the be all and end all for Cork. But for Kerry a match against Cork is just a staging post on the way to more important destinations. They're judging their players not by how they'll go against Cork but by how they might go against Dublin, Tyrone or Mayo. The fact that Kerry always have one eye on Croke Park gives Cork a chance. In 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2009, Cork were able to win against Kerry sides who regrouped to beat them later in the championship.

We're always told that games are won by the team that 'want it more'. Cork usually want it more at this stage of the season though that's not always enough to bridge the gap in class.

This is Cork football's big day out. They take plenty of pride in the deeds of the Cork hurlers in West Cork and Duhallow yet there's something distant about those victories for the simple reason that they're achieved by players from other parts of a very big county. Today is different. It's the difference between hearing about your cousin winning something and seeing your own kids triumph.

This is the game Cork football fans have talked about and imagined all year and when it's over it will be the game they spend the winter talking about, parsing its details in countless conversations.

Today Peadar Healy's men will be going all in. The only problem is that in Fitzgerald Stadium the house always wins.

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