KIERAN SHANNON: When Cork searched for a leader, Paul Kerrigan stepped up

Cork's Paul Kerrigan. Picture: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

It can’t be easy being a Cork footballer in recent years and had they lost last weekend, it would have been a whole lot worse, writes Kieran Shannon.

Imagine for a second if Luke Connolly hadn’t scored that goal against Tipperary last Sunday.

Would the Cork County Board still have come out on Monday and confessed that Pairc Uí Chaoimh wouldn’t have been ready for July 2 anyway? What do you think? Outside of September and Croke Park, no fixture on this year’s GAA calendar had been more anticipated and linked with a venue than the Munster football final on July 2.

That was the day we were all led to believe – especially by the county board pushing its premium tickets – that the grand opening would take place. All hinging on the footballers taking care of their business, of course, as opposed to the board and its various contractors and builders.

Other than possibly a Mayo football team getting back to an All-Ireland final or a Galway side contesting the hurling final, no team in this year’s championship would have been under more external pressure to win one game as Peadar Healy’s side were entering that game against Tipp and it could be argued that in the first half it showed. Had they lost, you can just imagine what the talk would have been on Leeside and around the country. The flippin’ (Cork) footballers. Forget about winning All-Irelands or even Munster finals; they couldn’t even give us the big day out in the new Park.

Instead they staved off that embarrassment, leaving the board to take the hit.

For that, they can thank Paul Kerrigan in particular. It’s become almost an article of faith to say about the Cork footballers that they have no leaders but as much as they could always do with more it’s wrong to say they have none. In Kerrigan, their captain, they unmistakably have one.

Back when Cork were routinely winning leagues and Munsters and contesting All-Ireland semi-finals, you would have been well down the list before you’d ever come to think of Kerrigan as one of their leaders. That side had the likes of Canty, Lynch, Quirke, Kissane, O’Leary, O’Neill, Miskella, Nicholas Murphy (no one called him simply by his surname), Derek Kavanagh. Big men, big characters.

Kavanagh though for one has pinpointed a particular pivotal moment in those campaigns when it was Kerrigan who provided the leadership just when the team needed it.

With 20 minutes to go in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, Cork trailed Dublin by five points. Everything seemed to be with Pat Gilroy’s team – the Hill, the force, the momentum – when Kerrigan got on the ball underneath the Hogan Stand. Nothing seemed on; the Cork inside-forwards were all tied up, just like it seemed like they had been all day.

“That’s when you need someone just take the ball and run,” Kavanagh would note sometime later, “Paul sensed that and just took off along the wing, drawing a free [from Kevin Nolan for Daniel Goulding to slot over].

“It was something simple but it was just as big as the penalty Donncha [O’Connor] put away a couple of minutes later.”

Kerrigan didn’t just provide leadership by winning that free; he provided leadership and a spark, a shift in energy, in how he reacted to it. Back when he was helping Newtownshandrum to All-Ireland finals, the hurling coach Ger Cunningham used to talk about the importance of having someone to give what he termed “the Lion’s Roar”; to maybe give a hit or win a free and swing the momentum from the other team by maybe giving a little fist pump to let the moment register with everyone: we’re still in this. By punching his fist and skipping off the ground, Kerrigan gave the Lion’s Roar that day.

“It really spurred the whole thing on,” Kavanagh would observe. “The Cork crowd. The team itself.”

Last Saturday, Kerrigan again demonstrated the same air of defiance, in the points he kicked and in how he not so much celebrated as marked them. Everything about him screamed that we’re still in this, we’re doing this, and a reminder that as rough as these last few years have been, this is still Cork, a county and a team with men like him who have been to the summit.

Every team, including – especially – teams that have been to the mountaintop need someone who provides that link to better days and the promise of more to come. In this season’s series of Laochra Gael

, Dara Ó Cinnéide observed that Stevie McDonnell’s greatness was elevated not diluted by the consistency and majesty of his performances when Armagh were past their peak. Padraic Joyce would have endured something similar in the second half of his career.

Kerrigan, while not quite in the category of those two players, similarly carries the flag for Cork now. So too Donncha O’Connor, who at 36, still manfully raging against the dying of the light, or more so, he would feel, that he’s helping rekindle a flame that will burn on for Cork long after he finally hangs them up.

The pair of them could have hung them up by now. With all they’ve won in the game, you could understand it if they felt they didn’t need all the stick and the flack Cork have endured the last four or so years. But evidently they still feel it’s worth it. They still have enough of a love of a game and of their county to keep going and drag the team out of the spots they found themselves in down in Dungarvan and against the Tipp the last day.

And so, on July 2 they’ll cross the county bounds and make their way into Killarney.

They’ve had their moments there before. In 2009 Kerrigan skinned Tomás Ó Sé to fire past Diarmuid Murphy. O’Connor has scored a couple of goals down there. They’ve never actually won down there though and very few people envisage this year being the one where that changes.

Then again, no-one envisaged them being down in Killarney this year either. And yet they’ll be there. It’ll still be a Munster final, and because of their spirit of resistance, there’ll be moments, however fleeting, when Kerrigan and O’Connor will remind us that it isn’t just anyone Kerry are playing in that Munster final either. It’s still Kerry and Cork.

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