The red and white brigade came in their thousands with quiet intent to defy the pundits and the bookmakers.
There were no wild predictions from the Cork crowd as they calmly supped pre-match pints in the heart of bustling Killarney on Munster football final day. “But we have a chance,” many were heard to say.
Clearly, the war of words during the build-up was to Cork’s advantage as the underdogs put the heat on the All-Ireland champions and hot favourities. It took a contentious penalty and a point as the clock ticked down to snatch a draw for Kerry in a thriller at sun-baked Fitzgerald Stadium before a 35,000-attendance.
Fans from both counties mingled good-humouredly in a carnival atmosphere.
Families and couples with divided loyalties turned out wearing different jerseys, like second-level teachers Diarmuid O’Connell, from Cullen, Mallow, and Niamh Cronin, Killarney, who are engaged to be married.
Diarmuid described himself as an “avid” Cork fan, while Niamh is steadfastly Kerry. Even love itself can’t change some things!
On his way to the grounds, Dan O’Connor, father of Cork goal-scorer Donncha, offered an insider’s hint in keeping with the Cork mood.
“I won’t be surprised if Cork win,” he said. “They’re very fit, there’s no pressure on them, and everyone knows they can play well.”
Dan, who runs a pub with his wife Noreen in Ballydesmond, just on the Cork side of the border between the counties, would have heard plenty from the Kerry crowd last seek. “It never really changes when Cork and Kerry meet,” he said.
Celebrity hairdresser Pat O’Neill hails from Kanturk, Co Cork, and has lived in Killarney for the past 34 years.
But his loyalties haven’t changed and he was looking forward to cheering on his cousin, Colm O’Neill, who figured prominently for Cork.
He thought Kerry might make it by a few points, but was expecting a big show from Cork.
“I just love the Munster final, always a magnificent occasion,” he said. “There’s a unique rivalry between Cork and Kerry — all good fun.” Pat, was accompanied not only by his wife, Geraldine, and children, Luke, 10, Lara, 8, and Finn, 6, but also by three Italian friends who were experiencing their first Munster final.
Cork fans usually travel to Killarney in droves for the Munster final, but they were noticeably absent on Saturday night, as virtually every available bed had been booked for the Ring of Kerry Charity Cycle.
Former All-Ireland winning Kerry captain Ambrose O’Donovan, who lives just a stone’s throw from the stadium, was waiting for Cork to prove they could perform on a big day. He thought Kerry would win, “but only just”, and wasn’t surprised at Cork’s gutsy performance.
Now a member of Radio Kerry’s match commentary team, Ambrose viewed proceedings from a lofty perch, but admitted he would be much happier down on the pitch.
“There’s a special magic in the air when Cork and Kerry meet,” he said. “You can feel it around the town on match mornings. Cork supporters are the best in the world.”
Veteran GAA enthusiast John Kelly, from Coolcaslagh, Killarney, recalled his first time standing on the terrace in the stadium, when Cork and Kerry met in 1945. He was just nine years old and remembers seeing legends such as Jack Lynch, Weeshie Murphy, and Tadhgo Crowley.
“Something else that stands out from that war-time era was the large number of cyclists, thousands of them, on all roads leading to Killarney,” John added.
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