CORK DOUBLE 1990: Remembering football stars John Kerins and Michael McCarthy 

Nothing or nobody lasts forever, but the premature taking of John Kerins and Michael McCarthy left a void their colleagues and family inevitably struggle with. But talking about them helps.

CORK DOUBLE 1990: Remembering football stars John Kerins and Michael McCarthy 

IN February 1998 Cork woke to shocking news.

Michael McCarthy of Skibbereen, one of the forwards on the All-Ireland-winning football side of 1990, had died suddenly.

His old team-mate John Cleary can recall the moment exactly: he was at home when the phone rang at half-six in the morning.

“It was unusual to get a call that time, and I was told about the accident. A bolt from the blue. An awful shock.

“It was so early in the morning that I wasn’t even sure it was happening.”

McCarthy and some friends were coming back from the National Coursing Meeting in Clonmel, where they were cheering a Skibbereen dog.

They were driving through the then-unfinished Dunkettle interchange on their way back west when there was a crash, and McCarthy and Jack Patrick Collins, his friend, were killed.

“It was a shock to the country, to Cork, but particularly to west Cork, obviously,” says Cleary. “Don’t forget there were two funerals, because Jack was being buried as well.

“It was an awful blow to the town, a small place to lose two men in their prime.”

Cleary and McCarthy were vying for the same position on the team, but it didn’t stop them forging a friendship.

“We were close - there were times I was in and times he was in. At times we probably felt we should both be on the team!

“It didn’t come between us, certainly. There were times when Mick was there and doing well, and I had no complaints about him playing, and the same for myself.

“We’d come up together in school and so on, we’d been on the same minor teams with Cork, so it wasn’t that we met each other when we fell in with the seniors.”

Cleary and McCarthy often roomed together when Cork travelled. A shared love of horse racing drew them closer still.

“If there was an outing or anything he liked to be in the middle of it, but if he felt there was an issue he’d address it, too.

“Certainly if he felt he was being wronged he’d speak up, and I think people respected him for that.”

“He was the one fella on the panel who always felt he could get fit in two weeks,” recalls another west Cork man, Niall Cahalane.

“And he was right, too - a fortnight and he could get to his fighting weight.”

McCarthy was going well in 1990 and impressed in the semi-final against Roscommon.

Injury forced him off in the final against Meath, but Cleary points to the significance of his contribution the previous season: “He came on against Mayo in 1989 and hit points that proved vital as the game wound down.

“I suppose his best year was when Skibb won the All-Ireland in 1992-93, when they won the All-Ireland club, he was very impressive for them in that run.”

When Colman Corrigan went up to Cork minor trials in 1979, he was a country kid looking for a friendly face.

“I sat down next to Kerinsy and from then on we were best friends, basically.”

People remember Kerins’ quick thinking when Mikey Sheehy nudged Kerry ahead in the 1987 Munster final: the keeper restarted the game while some Cork players were prostrate in shock.

Corrigan says most people don’t notice something about that kick-out.

“What they don’t know is that he actually took that kick-out with his left leg to restart the play.

“John was a great keeper - very good to read the runs of Teddy (McCarthy) and Shea (Fahy) for his kick-outs, and Barry Coffey and the other half-forwards further up the field.

He always found them with his kick-outs, but his bravery, to me, was his stand-out quality.

“The number of huge saves he made for us by going down at a forward’s feet was incredible. He wasn’t afraid to get hurt.

“He ended up with two All-Stars. He could have had four or five. He was the Cluxton of yesterday, really.”

“A cool character,” says Cahalane. “A man of very few words.

“He was 30 years ahead of his time in terms of placing his kick-outs. When I see keepers coming upfield now to take 45’s and frees I’d often think of Kerinsy, who’d have been well able for that job. Not that we hadn’t a good enough option on our frees that time anyway.”

Not every aspect of the modern game would have agreed with Kerins, says Corrigan.

“Now kick-outs can be very short and you can have the odd pass-back.

“One time I was facing our goal with the ball, and because Billy (Morgan) always told us not to be afraid to kick the ball in the direction we were facing, I hit it back to John, and he wasn’t tuned in . . . I got a rollicking after that. He was a quiet man off the field, but on the field he could make himself heard, no problem.

“He could sweep out and that meant the full-back could take a chance the odd time and step out in front of his man to go for the ball. If it didn’t work out you always knew that behind you was Kerinsy, covering.”

His widow Anne remembers 1990 not just for the double. She and John were organising their wedding that summer also.

“John was quiet, so he certainly wouldn’t have been ranting and raving,” she says. “But it was an All-Ireland final at the same time. There was pressure.

“When the hurlers won it was a huge boost to them, but it put the pressure on too. And the fact that it was Meath . . . ”

There was no great interaction between the teams. Anne remembers the infamous trip to the Canaries, when a small island wasn’t quite big enough for the Cork and Meath teams which landed there at the same time: “If they were on one side of the street, we were on the other. It was that bad at the time.”

Cork beat Meath, 0-11 to 0-9.

There was a funeral in Macroom in 2001 and Corrigan met Kerins in Brown’s bar in the town. The goalkeeper didn’t feel well and eventually an appointment was made with an old foe, Gerry McEntee of Meath, one of the top surgeons in the country.

“I told McEntee, ‘knowing the man coming up, give it to him straight, no beating around the bush’. And McEntee said, ‘do you think I’d have it any other way?’

“We drove up in the dead of night. He talked about his teammates, about his family. There were tears on the way up and tears on the way down.”

That was May 10, 2001. Kerins passed away that August from cancer, but he insisted on going to the Munster final first. It wasn’t a comfortable trip, says Corrigan, but the goalkeeper insisted on going.

“He had three kids under nine when he died, but he left them in great hands with Anne, his wife. He’d be hugely proud of the way they’ve turned out and there’s huge credit due to her. They’re super kids.

“They adored their dad, even though they didn’t have that much time with him.”

The funeral was huge, with a strong deputation from Leinster.

“We all grew up a bit,” says Cahalane. “The fact that Meath is so far away compared to Kerry, say, meant that you wouldn’t be meeting those players and maybe getting to know them.

“To their credit, they all came down. All of them.”

Anne Kerins remembers that Meath deputation.

“I think it brought things home to everyone, that it was just a game. There was no love lost but they all came.

“I came out of the funeral home and I saw them lining up... it was unreal.”

Corrigan can still recall the silence as the cortege went to the church in the Lough.

“You could have heard a pin drop. The entire Meath panel lined the way, and tough men that they were, there were tears there too.

“In fairness, the Kerry players of that era travelled in numbers as well. It was a great show of respect and was hugely appreciated.”

“We came out of the Lough church,” says Anne Kerins. “Colman said, ‘the Meath lads are in the Lough Tavern’, and I went over and thanked them for coming down.”

They still stay in touch: “Robbie O’Malley was only on the phone the other day,” she adds. “We went to his wedding a few years ago.”

The team that McCarthy and Kerins adorned has never forgotten them.

“What made us a half-decent team, or a good team, was the camaraderie,” says Corrigan. “We’ve always gotten together at Christmas, for instance, and we all get on.

“We’d be very conscious of including everyone.”

Stephen McCarthy, Michael’s son, is a case in point.

“He wouldn’t have known a lot of us,” says Corrigan.

“He went to England to play soccer for Sunderland at a young age, but we wanted to make sure he was at a Mass we had last year for the two lads before an anniversary dinner.

“We asked him to do one of the readings, which can be daunting, particularly when you don’t really know the people in front of you, but he was outstanding.

“Remember, he was only two when he lost his father. Helen was left to rear him on her own. What a job she did.”

Anne Kerins says talk of the double reminds her of a great summer.

“It’s sad, of course. Sad that he’s not here to reminisce, but I can deal with it, though it’s lonely going to the events without him.

“It’s nice for the kids - they represented him last year at the 25th anniversary in Croke Park, for instance, and now that they’re older - John is nearly 23, Paul nearly 22 - now they’re grown up it’s nice for them to meet the lads and hear the stories.

“The tournament (the annual John Kerins underage football tournament) helps, too. We look forward to that hugely every year.”

“We miss him terribly,” says Corrigan. “We’d meet up on holidays in Derrynane, a few of us off the team, and we’d often say it when we’re there - Kerinsy would have loved this, he’d be in the middle of it all, slagging me, no doubt, and enjoying the company.

“He was 39 that year. That’s no age.

“He and Mick would be very proud of how their families have turned out, though. That’s the most important thing. Medals and All-Stars are nothing compared to that.”

He pauses.

“It’s still emotional. It is. There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think about him, to be honest.”

“It’s good to remember them,” says John Cleary. “They were a huge part of it, after all.”

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