Private business: Cork targeting a loftier place in football’s changing world

Once a championship showstopper, the meeting with Kerry is just another fixture this weekend

A week ago, Cork footballers won a tough match against Louth in Navan. They saw off the challenge late in the match and pocketed a valuable win, which should see them qualify for the All-Ireland knockout stages. á í

Afterwards it was noticeable that the celebrations were on a more intimate scale than usual for such occasions. In the words of one observer: “It wasn’t a pitch invasion, autograph hunting. Players on field with club-mates and family and girlfriends – like a private event on the field afterwards.”

It has ever been thus for the county’s big ball community. Forever in the shadow of the hurlers, whose season has just ended in honourable defeat so they won’t be joining the last eight in the MacCarthy Cup. The footballers are likely to be in at least the last 12 in the field for Sam Maguire.

Not an immense disparity on the face of it although the hurlers were genuinely competitive against the All-Ireland champions – something by no means guaranteed this weekend when Kerry arrive in Páirc Uí Chaoimh this Saturday.


On this historic weekend with all counties, for the first time, playing championship football, there is irony that half-lost in the fixtures’ deluge is one that in its heyday commanded national attention all by itself.

Cork and Kerry have lost that ability to absorb the gaze of the nation partly because of the relentlessly frequent nature of the pairing – this afternoon is the 33rd since 2000 – but also for the past decade, the one-sided outcomes.

There was unrelenting heartache of the 2000s for Cork when three times they beat Kerry in Munster only to lose to them in the latter stages of the All-Ireland, two semi-finals and a final and throw in another two semi-finals and a final, when they weren’t provincial champions.

Apart from the winter championship of 2020 when a famous last-minute goal by Mark Keane beat Kerry – and by the Covid protocols of knock-out football, eliminated them – Cork have known only the mitigation of the 2015 draw in a decade’s football.

It is now 10 years since Cork came into this fixture as Munster champions, a status they haven’t regained since and now the county is just three years from equalling the record drought of 15 without a senior provincial title, set between 1928 and ‘43.

These current doldrums have been extensive, though. Most of the team that will line out against Kerry have never played in Division One of the football league. Relegated seven years ago despite being locked on six points with two other counties and clear of the bottom, Cork never bounced back and even spent time in Division Three.

The seismic defeat of Kerry in a pandemic-cleared Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 2020 created a warm glow that hardly lasted eight months. In the following championship, Kerry administered a 22-point punishment beating in Killarney.

Far from inching back towards their neighbours, Cork are now competing with the counties they formerly used as whetting stones for their duel with Kerry. Three years ago, having beaten Kerry for the first time in eight years, they lost the provincial final to Tipperary.

They exited this year’s Munster championship at the hands of Clare for the first time in 26 years but the seven weeks at least gave manager John Cleary and coach Kevin Walsh some space to work intensively with the team in the absence of any matches.

Cork finished mid-table in Division Two and will hope to push for promotion next year and secure a league schedule against the top teams in the country.

Des Cullinane was a selector last year and has managed under-age Cork teams as well as UCC. He believes that returning to Division One should be a priority.

“We’re playing at a level that’s not conducive to good championship performance. The team needs progression and at least is in a good position to contest the knockout stages of the All-Ireland.”

How does it get to this stage when the under-age vital signs give no indication of the senior crisis. Including this year’s, Cork share the last 11 under-20 Munster titles with Kerry – Tipperary have one.

On Friday night, the county lost the provincial minor final to Kerry, having already beaten them in the group stages.

The transition process isn’t working though. As Cullinane says: “The gap between under-17 and senior, we’re not really addressing but there’s a lot of work going on and you’d hope that will pay off in the future.”

These days, minors are asked to choose between football or hurling. It’s not universally popular, as the footballers lose the contributions of talented dual players but in an age when playing both at senior has become all but extinct, there are advantages.

Individual matches and maybe even titles might be won by pressing hurlers into action, from a long-term developmental perspective it makes sense to stick with those who want to play senior football rather than those who in all likelihood will never again pull on a county football jersey.

The balance of sports in the county isn’t enormously skewed and both football and hurling have a strong presence, maybe 60-40 hurling to football but the balance of affections is more like 90-10.

They may exist under the radar for much of the time but when something bad happens Cork footballers are never too low-profile not to get a kicking.

Cullinane says that has an impact on players. “The public don’t trust them and that sort of seeps through. Graham Canty [2010 All-Ireland winning captain] always spoke about the mentality that what was in the room was all that matters. They didn’t focus on anything else. Then, when they win the All-Ireland, people say, ‘you only beat Down’. I used to reply that no one had beaten Down before in an All-Ireland.”

Before the first Kerry-Cork All-Ireland final in 2007, captain Derek Kavanagh spoke bluntly at the pre-match press call about the disparity in public recognition.

“I don’t think it bothers us anymore. We’re just a close-knit bunch and we’re well used to walking out into a half-empty stadium. It doesn’t bother us; we’re playing for ourselves. It might sound selfish but we’re not trying to play for the supporters. We’re playing for ourselves and we want to win for ourselves. Simple as that.”

Recalling the 2010 All-Ireland win over Down, the team’s captain Graham Canty told the Southern Star podcast last year about the homecoming to Bantry and the sense of sharing the triumph with a small circle.

“People who had done so much for me – in the town, the club whatever – and I wanted to say ‘thanks for all the support down the years – here are all the lads and here’s the cup . . .’ You win it for all the people who are close to you and special to you and where you’re from.”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when Kerry were in all their Golden Years affluence, they would squeeze through in Munster and Mick O’Dwyer would bound into the Cork dressing-room and declare – “lads, ye’re the second-best team in Ireland”. They bristled. Now, they wish.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times