Ten games, six wins, one draw, three losses, two half-time substitutions and two Man of the Match awards – days out against Cork were always eventful. There was something about that red jersey that fired the juices in a way that few others could manage. It swings both ways and if my own experience against the Rebels is anything to go by it means anything could happen in this Sunday’s Munster final in Killarney.
My first ever senior final was the 1995 Munster decider against Cork at a packed Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney. We’d beaten Limerick and Tipperary along the way, I’d scored 2-01 against Tipp in Tralee and was coming in off the back helping UCC win the Sigerson Cup, my stock was high. Or so I thought.
Source: Inpho/Lorraine O'Sullivan
We were confident of breaking Cork’s recent stranglehold on the province. We had Maurice Fitz at full forward, Dara Ó’Cinnéide, Seamus Moynihan and a fresh faced Darragh O’Sé was sprung from the bench. A young team, a new breed and on the line two legends pitted their wits – Ogie Moran Vs Billy Morgan. I remember the crowd being crammed into every nook and cranny to get a view, they were above on the scoreboard, the walls, it was like something from a South American football match!
Cork dominated midfield that day. At one stage, our ‘keeper Peter O’Brien tried to switch up the kick-outs to get the Cork boys second guessing themselves. He launched it in my direction at wing forward. Ciaran O’Sullivan was on me and he was in his prime. I never stood a chance with the kick out, Ciaran made a brilliant catch and Ogie hauled me off at half-time. He put me out of my misery. One wise Rebel supporter told me on the way off ‘You’re playing senior now boy’. I was stunned and shocked. And I stayed that way for days.
1996 was a different story, at least on the scoreboard. It was the guts of the same team but Paidí had landed. I saw some action off the bench in the second half, we had three points to spare in the end but it was an average performance. James Horan hit us for 1-01 in the semis before Mayo and Meath fought it out in final – twice.
The loss did bring an end to the decade-long reign of Billy Morgan. Needless to say in Kerry we were happy to see the back of Cork’s most successful manager of all time. 1996 also heralded a new era of Munster success for Kerry that has by and large continued to this day.
Paidí had brought a new edge to the group. Darragh was now a mainstay in midfield, Eamonn Fitzmaurice had arrived on the scene and our fitness was through the roof. I never felt fitter. This time it was Cork in the semis, again at a packed Killarney. So much so that fans were sitting out on the pitch, not sure health and safety would cater for that now! It was one of the most satisfying days of my entire career.
Maurice Fitz scored 1-01, Mike Frank Russell had arrived in the other corner and hit 4pts and I fired 5pts from full forward. All those scores were from play and I picked up the Man of the Match award after. Some day. And the late Dermot O’Callaghan ensured the Champagne flowed into the small hours at the Failté Bar that night.
From the pleasure and glory of ’96 and ’98 to what should have been a great day for myself and my family in the 1999 final in Páirc Úi Chaoimh. It was anything but. We were beaten all over the pitch and never got near to matching the Cork hunger. I had a chance near the end to bury a goal but Anthony Lynch made a superb block. Even then there still would’ve been three points between us, we weren’t at the races. I was captain. I was sickened.
We made amends the year after in the semis back in Killarney. I scored a point after 20seconds and nothing after that! Thankfully Ó’Cinneide had another stormer and his 2-05 was enough to see us into the final where we’d easily overcome Clare. Cork did roar back into that game, and maybe had us on our heels for a while but that was a group that would go on to lift Sam Maguire and there was a steel about us that not even the Rebels could rattle.
2001 was a tough season to swallow for many of us, it was a year before a baby faced Colm Cooper would arrive into camp and we were still reliant on Dara, he clocked 9pts in that Munster final against our old foe. We were cooking as a team and I was feeling as fit, as fast and as strong as ever and kicked 4 points of my own. It was sweet. All the sweeter for being at Páirc Úi Chaoimh. It’s senior football now boy! (Nobody mention Meath…).
8 points each is like a scoreline from the 1920s but that’s what happened in a deluge in Killarney in 2002 semis. The replay back in Cork was the stuff of nightmares. I was flat as hell and had no excuses and Paidí took me out of it. Back on the bench I remember a Cork supporter hitting Aodhán MacGearailt (didn’t tog due to a hand injury) down on the head with a newspaper as we sat in the dugout. ‘Back to Kerry with ye’. Not for the first time in my career we hadn’t matched that Cork desire and we did go home with heads bowed. We played Cork three times that year and after regrouping against Wicklow, Fermanagh and Kildare we bulldozed our neighbours in the All-Ireland semis.
Source: Inpho/Lorraine O'Sullivan
My swansong came in 2004. The mind was willing but the body was out the gap. And there were some talented boys now established and putting serious heat on us veterans. By now Paul Galvin had arrived, Declan O’Sullivan and Tomás and Marc had joined their brother in the first pick 15.
I carried a knock into that Munster final. Bad move. Derek Kavanagh made sure my last appearance against the Rebels ended in another bad day at the office for me, again getting hooked ashore at half-time. I would start just one more game for the Kingdom after that, the final that year against Mayo. Four of our six starting forwards got on the scoreboard and I wasn’t one of them, I knew my time was up.
Even though one Munster title in the last eight years won’t be good enough for those passionate Cork fans, I'm backing our own lads to extend that run when the two meet in Killarney this Sunday. But it is Kerry and Cork and anything could happen, sure it’s senior football now boy.
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