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Kerry's Kieran Donaghy scores a goal past Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly and Ger Cafferkey in the epic 2014 All-Ireland football semi-final replay in Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Kerry's Kieran Donaghy scores a goal past Mayo goalkeeper Robert Hennelly and Ger Cafferkey in the epic 2014 All-Ireland football semi-final replay in Limerick. Picture: INPHO/Cathal Noonan
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Kerry produce footballers with nothing in mind other than All-Irelands, in Cork the focus isn't as ruthless

THERE was an interview with Steven Gerrard recently where he was asked what stopped his Liverpool side winning the Premier League as a player.

He spoke about various club failings with managers and wrong players sold or bought but mainly he just said they hadn’t been good enough, that he had happened to play at a time when there was a great Arsenal side, a great Chelsea side and, mostly, a great Man Utd.

We thought about that when we saw the final vote for the RTÉ football team of the Sunday Game era in the last few days. No Cork players (no Tompkins, really?) but more noteworthy, eight Kerry players, and that’s leaving out some crackers to be fair. It came as a reminder that sometimes the most obvious reason can be staring you right in the face.

Yep, there have been plenty times when incompetence and failings have gotten in the way of any ambitions, but spending some time doing look-backs recently and pondering the reasons why Cork have only three All-Ireland senior titles in over 45 years, there’s tended to be one major issue: Kerry’s existence.

In an interview with Second Captains this week Dara Ó Cinnéide spoke about the implications of having only three All-Ireland medals in Kerry and the slightly hesitant line of questioning that follows, this suggests it wasn’t as great a return as it could have been from a career that allowed him be fourth on the list of Kerry’s all-time championship scorers.

Ó Cinnéide himself is aware of the possibility of coming across as overly cute or falsely humble with this — and in fairness he’s always come across as far too decent a fella to actively not like as a Kerry footballer — and he makes the point that he’s had conversations with someone like Diarmuid Lyng, the Wexford hurler, who’d have done anything for one All-Ireland medal. But it’s simply fact in Kerry that this is the level of expectation that exists.

He’s very comfortable with his three All-Irelands but others would see it as a kind of failure. There’s a talent and mentality perfect storm here. Kerry continue to produce some of the most genuinely beautiful footballers in the game — it seems unfair that say Sean O’Shea and David Clifford can come along together in the same way that Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan (below) overlapped — but most importantly, also the most consistently clever technical ballers.

We’ve written before about the difference in ball control and skills and just this knowledge of the right thing to do in game situations seems to be innate to Kerry footballers more than Cork ones. Theories on this? 

Mainly the additional time spent with footballs in their hands from the age of seven or eight and not splitting that time in half or more over the course of 15 years with hurling and soccer — even the second sport of real meaning with kids in Kerry, basketball, lends plenty of itself to the skill development area of football.

The tradition of producing stylish corner-forwards becomes a sort of self-fulfilling tradition obviously, the line from Sheehy to Fitzgerald to Cooper to Clifford is all too easily drawn in. Kids in Cork — depending on their area — might have a rugby player or soccer player or an athlete or a hurler as their sporting hero they want to emulate as easily as a footballer. Kids in Kerry have a footballer. 

That willingness to firstly be a Kerry footballer above all else and then to realise that it had to be a winning Kerry footballer for it to count happens pretty quickly. Ó Cinnéide talked about that period when he came on the team first and the sort of insecurities, verbal abuse and social shunning that can come about from being a footballer in Kerry that’s not winning anything.

Ogie Moran in action against Meath's Liam Hayes, left, Bernard Flynn (15) and Colm O'Rourke. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Ogie Moran in action against Meath's Liam Hayes, left, Bernard Flynn (15) and Colm O'Rourke. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Ogie Moran got abuse as manager of that team before Paidí. An interview with Seamus Darby last week referenced the serious stick that came Tommy Doyle’s way after the 1982 All-Ireland final. Almost every Kerry manager or player could tell a similar story that all come from the same place really. Football in Kerry is what they do. Winning All-Irelands is a big part of that.

We spoke recently with a backroom staff member from that Cork 2010 team and asked was winning that All-Ireland a necessity completely preoccupied that group. The answer was interesting. Yes it was at the time of course, in that moment. But there was this underlying idea that this is what it was like constantly for a footballer in Kerry, to be always chasing numbers and always playing catch-up in the battle against the past. Cork players have one All-Ireland medal as the end game to aim for and plenty have won none; Kerry players are obsessed with winning titles from a very young age, it’s their way of life.

It’s not that Cork players of the last twenty-five years have lacked ambition individually or as a group, but they are coming from a different starting point. There’s a kickback against this, of course, and every Cork team that’s been successful has managed to convince themselves their players are as good and that there’s no reason for Kerry to be superior. Billy Morgan managed this.

Last year’s U20s did it. It’s possible to knock teams off perches but it can take time and strong personalities and if there’s a sense that the team of 2010 underachieved in some ways, there’s an alternative idea that they were always fighting against the reality of numbers and facts that show winning one All-Ireland with Cork is a big deal and winning three in Kerry is seen as a question mark of some sort.

Kerry have always been there in the background, with their tradition of players and winning, and more often than not, that’s been the simple answer to Cork’s doubts.