PAUL KERRIGAN scored with his first touch in senior championship for Cork.
Cork were playing ‘keep ball’ in the last few minutes of the Munster final of 2008, when Donncha O’Connor launched a Hail Mary towards the goal. It bounced into Kerrigan’s hands, straight through on the Kerry keeper. Kerrigan stopped, stepped inside, then dummied and cut back outside to tap a shot over the bar for the score that finished the game.
It was a little jarring to watch all these years later and think that the explosion of emotion that immediately followed a win over Kerry was only replicated for Kerrigan (2012) before the Mark Keane goal recently.
I watched it back during the week, as I hadn’t been able to quite picture the score, and whether it was the fact there were crowds or if it was the players on the field for both teams, there was something genuinely odd-looking about the game. It was more like a retro, 25-year anniversary it felt from such a different time.
Only Ciarán Sheehan remains from the All-Ireland year now and nobody remains from that team of 2008. It’s hard to look at that game and find any meaningful link with what happened in 2020 and that only emphasises Kerrigan’s role through so much change in football and so many variations of Cork over that time, how he has seen everything in a few eras of Cork football.
In the end, he did more for Cork than Cork did for him.
Cork’s game-changer that day in 2008 was Michael Cussen, flicking what a very decent kickpass from Ger Spillane to the net to alter the flow of the game and causing enough chaos to rattle Kerry under any long ball. It was a fairly basic game-plan. By the end of that summer, Kerry’s twin towers had been shown up by Tyrone.
You could wonder about how, exactly, Cork have gone about developing a way of playing in all the time since then. John Hayes made an interesting point, after the Tipp defeat, about Cork’s historical reliance on the running game, how Cork teams he was played with often reverted to this ball-carrying style that naturally leads to handpassing as the key mover of the ball more than the kickpass.
Finding a balance between powerful runners and ballplayers in the middle third has been an ongoing theme. Kickers like Paddy Kelly have been outside the norm in the last 20 years. Cork have gone through an awful lot of coaches and managers in the meantime, without nailing down a definable way of playing that consistently works.
Kerrigan, as it happened, could do both, which is not surprising for a Nemo forward.
His initial impact might have been mainly that killer burst of speed, but he could open a defence in later years, especially with his use of ball. He came through with the last batch of star U21s from that 2007-09 period, a group of players who, it was felt, would combine with the bulk of Billy Morgan’s 2005-2007 team and dominate for some time.
We recall Jimmy Kerrigan making the point that Paul was lucky to be contesting All-Ireland semi-finals and finals so early in his inter-county career.
That wouldn’t last and there must have been spells in the darker times, and as Cork slipped further away from what the likes of Dublin and Kerry and Mayo and Donegal were doing in preparation, it just can’t have been an enjoyable experience.
His role in 2010 was underplayed, but in the second half of the final he was a key part of Cork upping the tempo on Down. He was excellent through 2011/12, and he stuck with Cork and kept turning up and producing in the tougher times, against Sligo in 2014, Kerry in 2015, Longford in 2016, and Tipp and Mayo in 2017.
That’s a lot of years given over to firefighting and battling for standards, years that could have been spent searching for more titles. Most of Kerrigan’s U21 generation went on to Cork senior, and a lot of them won Munster medals and an All-Ireland. It’s hardly a lost generation, but there’s certainly a feeling that they were let down.
There’s another angle here, too. Kerrigan’s an interesting profile to influence Cork football longer-term with the coaching of teams at Chríost Rí and perhaps beyond — Nemo have a history of ex-players coming back anyway and there’s something that suggests Kerrigan loves the game of football too much not to be involved with teams. Colm O’Neill is already with the U20s.
The 2010 group are only just retired, mostly, but there’s a sense that there are characters there that could shape the next generation or two as well. Conor McCarthy and Sean O’Brien are both players from that time who are on the One Cork committee that was announced last week. Kerry have players from that era involved, people like Marc Ó Sé and Tommy Griffin. Tomás Ó Sé is learning the job in Cork for now.
It follows that the Cork players of the last 15 years or so will have their own ideas from groups they’ve been involved with and that they’re going to be influencing in potentially major ways just what direction Cork football goes in now.
It’s not like there’s an obvious Cork football school that might create a coherent style. Kerrigan’s career was an easy trace to make for 13 seasons, living straight through the ups and downs, with two clear eras either side.
Cork have a decent bunch coming through again now, the class of 2019 (U20s and minors), which ought to be a core part of football here over the next decade and more. It’ll be a reasonable enough test of how Cork GAA has developed its talents to track their progress and measure in 10/15 years’ time the impact Sean Meehan, Maurice Shanley, Cathail O’Mahony, Damien Gore, and all the others have had.