There are not too many Kerry GAA supporters who have won four All-Ireland medals for Cork, but Shauna Kelly is an exception to that rule. And this weekend she is determined to help the Rebels reach another TG4 All-Ireland Senior Championship final.
In a repeat of last year’s decider, Cork and Dublin clash at Croke Park tomorrow, and Kelly and company know they must be on song against a free-scoring Dubs. Seven years on from her Cork debut, Kelly has amassed countless medals and impressive performances, but she could have been led down a very different path.
A native of Ballydesmond, Kelly grew up a stone’s throw from the Kerry border, while her father, Sean, played his football in Kerry, which meant she naturally supported their men’s team.
When her talent for the ladies game began to flourish, her schoolteacher and Kerry player Mags O’Donoghue tried to tempt Kelly across the border, but thanks to the input of her cousin and former Cork star, Norita Kelly, Shauna chose the Rebels and never looked back.
“I never played for Kerry,” says Kelly. “Mags O’Donoghue was my PE teacher and she was pushing me to go to Kerry trials and my cousin heard that. She pointed me in the other direction. Luckily, the Cork trials were on first, so I made them.”
The 24-year-old defender spent this summer working as a lifeguard in the leisure centre of the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney. And after shouting for Peter Keane’s Kerry men as they booked their place in an All-Ireland final, Kelly is determined to have her sights set on her own big day at GAA HQ.
First off, she will hope to prevent Mick Bohan’s Dublin from reaching another decider, where they could make it three Brendan Martin Cups in a row. Cork won 11 All-Ireland titles between 2005 and 2016 but Dublin have become the dominant side since.
The two heavyweights meet at Croke Park tomorrow in a huge double bill, where Galway and Mayo provide the curtain raiser.
But the main course will be served up at 3.45pm where Cork will be desperate to make amends for last September’s five-point defeat to the Dubs. “They had a good start. We may have panicked a small bit and didn’t play the way we would have liked,” recalls Kelly. “We were chasing it.
“Then there was a bit of hope when Áine (O’Sullivan) got the goal but we were chasing the game and ran out of time. “It is just heartbreaking to lose in Croke Park. But it definitely drives us on.”
Cork have already bounced back from that loss in Croke Park to beat Dublin twice during the Lidl National Football League. Their 1-18 to 2-14 semi-final victory after extra-time at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny on April 21 was a particular highlight. Cork went on to claim the league title.
“We were delighted to win the league but at the end of the day it’s not what you have your eye on,” said Kelly.
Sunday, September 15 is the biggest date in the Ladies Football diary this year but the outlet of a semi-final in Croke Park has added something different. After last year’s record-breaking 50,141 attendance for the treble-header on All-Ireland final day, another big crowd is expected tomorrow.
“I love playing in Croke Park,” said Kelly. “It is an unreal experience. There is a buzz. There are bigger crowds, noise levels increase. It is brilliant that four teams will get to play there in the semi-finals. It is putting the game out there more. Girls will get to see more games in Croke Park and it might inspire them.”
Despite winning the league and Munster Championship, Cork haven’t been flawless and Armagh’s win at O’Connor Park in Tullamore was a setback. But Cork bounced back with an emphatic win over Tyrone to set up a semi-final against Dublin.
“We had a lot of work to do after the Armagh game. We had Tyrone and drove on. We wanted a good performance more than anything. Dublin have always been so close to Cork. We thought we were going to win for years to come but now we are on the hunt again. It’s good to be the underdog.”