Paddy Kelly: The second coming of the thinking man’s footballer

What has happened to Cork? When the last time you could actually trust the county’s footballers to deliver on the big day? Paddy Kelly knows the issues. “We haven’t had a big scalp in the championship the last few years. Even saying that, we sound like of the smaller counties, but this is a huge opportunity to put that right.”

Paddy Kelly: The second coming of the thinking man’s footballer

HE’S football’s great forgotten man.

So much so, that while you observed the decline of Cork the last four or so years, you hardly ever thought of the correlation between their downturn and his injury woes.

And then in Longford the other week, up popped that old, oddly familiar name to save the day: Paddy Kelly, the man who once seemed destined to be the Trevor Giles and Brian McGuigan of this decade, the thinking man’s footballer.

At half-time, Cork looked goosed, four points down, another scalp for the qualifier giant-killing specialists, while Longford seemed set to join Tipperary and Kildare in the ever-increasing list of ignominious defeats Cork football had recently suffered in championship football.

That’s how it looked as if his inter-county career was going to bow out: in Pearse Park, watching helplessly from the dugout, about the one place he was as familiar with over the last few years as the treatment table.

Then he and Colm O’Neill got the nod they were on for the second half and everything changed.

They changed everything.

O’Neill blasted home a goal. Kelly carved out another for Ian Maguire with the most deft, disguised pass which prompted the on-looking Mossy Quinn of these pages to describe it as one of the goals of the year. It was an exceptional play but only in keeping with the rest of Kelly’s contribution. He didn’t just keep the ball, something Cork had struggled to do in the first half; he used it brilliantly, intelligently.

Afterwards team selector Eoin O’Neill could only gush to reporters, “Paddy Kelly is just a super player. This guy’s a genius.” It was one of those uplifting, turn-back- the-clock performances, the kind Kelly used to routinely do for Cork in his mid-20s but which he’d feared he might never serve up again and which the rest of us had long ceased to expect from him.

It wasn’t for one bright half-hour in Longford that he put himself through all that rehab and hardship the last year alone, but while the sun was out, for sure he basked in it that little while.

On the bus down, he treated himself like the rest of the team to a couple of bottles of beer, something you’d hardly imagine the 2010 team doing after they grinded out a qualifier win in Wexford.

“It meant a lot,” he says minutes after emerging from a recovery pool session in the Oriel House Hotel, just down the road from his home in Ballincollig. “There’s nothing like playing in championship, winning in championship. I’ve had so little football the last couple of years, which has been very frustrating. I’d just been waiting for the opportunity.”

The last time this writer interviewed Kelly, it was on the eve of the 2010 national league final. Cork had yet to win their All- Ireland but the 24-year-old Kelly, in his understated but steely, clear-minded way, articulated the ambition of his teammates. “We think there’s All-Irelands in this team,” he said at the time. “It’s a matter of getting the first one out of the way.”

That’s how he thought. He was a winner, out to win whatever was going. In his first four years as a starter on the team, he never failed to win a league medal. The one year Cork didn’t win Munster, they went on and won the All-Ireland. A second Celtic Cross seemed only a matter of time, a league or provincial title something routine.

The last four years all they’ve won is the McGrath Cup.

So when you finally sit down with Kelly again, it begs the obvious question — what happened to him, and what happened to Cork?

Cork first. What happened? People within as well as outside the county underestimated the calibre of people that played for and prepared that team. The cool, steady hand of Conor Counihan. The standards created and demanded by someone like Aidan O’Connell, their S&C coach who was coming from Munster rugby and their winning environment. Alan Quirke in goals, and the pride he’d take in his preparation and foam-rolling, his kick-out stats and the clean sheets he and the rest of the defence use to routinely keep. Nicholas Murphy, Anthony Lynch, Graham Canty: they’d take flak whenever Cork would lose annually to Kerry in Croke Park, yet every winter they’d be back with the same drive, ready to fail better until they’d win it all.

“That was just an incredibly honest group. The current group just doesn’t have the same level of maturity or experience, though the culture is being worked on, and given time, it will come right. But a few years ago there, we lost some very special characters. There was a massive turnover in players. And all of a sudden there was no stability to the thing.

“You look at the best teams the last few years. Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal. You could nearly pick 12 or 13 of their likely starting 15 off the top of your head. With Cork, there was a lot of chopping and changing. And that’s not to say that wasn’t what was needed. But I would like to have seen us get a couple more years out of some of those older lads.

“You see in Kerry, they’re draining every last drop out of [Aidan] O’Mahony and Marc Ó Sé and [Kieran] Donaghy. They can see they’re still fantastic footballers. In Cork, we didn’t look at it like that and there was just this changing of the guard.” With it, he could sense a slip in standards. Nothing glaring, nothing obvious, but it was there.

“It was in the little, everyday things. The basics, the nutrition, in how you stretched before and after training, the honesty as a group in terms of your analysis, the overall buy-in and bond. The quality and standards just weren’t good enough, from players, from everyone.

“The Cork dressing room has always been great craic but sometimes that can mask a real lack of unity or trust. A year like 2014 when we’d the three dual players, that was a poor year; we let ourselves down badly against Kerry in the Munster final. In that stretch from 2008 to 2012, I don’t think we lost a game in either league or championship by more than five points [actually twice they did — up in Monaghan in 2009, by seven, and in a league game against Dublin where they lost by six].

“But the last few years there have been too many hammerings. Kerry in that Munster final. Last year’s league final (against Dublin). Kildare. This year [in the league] we got hockeyed by Donegal and Roscommon. You’d have to question how do you throw in the towel, how does it get to that stage?”

He accepts the validity of the argument that in the wake of the likes of Canty and O’Leary and O’Neill being prematurely culled, there was another generation — his generation — that should have been ready to take the lead. The likes of Colm O’Neill, Cadogan, Goulding, Kerrigan, Shields.

Kelly. Maybe he should have done more. But because he was such an intermittent presence on the field, he didn’t feel he had the necessary authority to be that vocal off it.

Think back to the last time Donegal and Cork clashed in the championship in Croker and that seismic 2012 All-Ireland semi-final. Cork have played 15 championship games since. Kelly has been fit to only start in four of them.

A month or so after winning a fourth consecutive national league title, he felt a pinch around his hip playing an in-house game. Kelly took an injection to help Cork overcome Kerry in that 2012 Munster semi-final. He took a second to see him through that war of attrition against Donegal.

That winter, he underwent an operation in the Santry Sports Clinic.

The following autumn he was undergoing a similar operation, one he’s learned since that the clinic no longer carry out because of its underwhelming success rate. He missed the whole of the 2013 league and didn’t feature in either the Munster final or the All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin.

“I went back playing midfield with the club in the championship the following week against Carbery and I was atrocious. I could barely move.” Even getting out of the car was a struggle. Stretching and foam rolling as diligently as Alan Quirke used to do wasn’t paying dividends, so under the knife he went again.

2014 would bring further frustration. He’d make it back to start the league semi-final against Dublin at centre-back but come the championship, he was back at centre-forward where he was taken off at half-time in that 12-point hammering to Kerry. The next day out against Sligo in the qualifiers, he didn’t even get a run out. When he was thrown in shortly after half-time in the All Ireland quarter-final against Mayo, he wasn’t ready for it.

“My head wasn’t right. I was pissed off about not playing against Sligo and I thought I was nowhere then. I came on against Mayo and gave the ball away a couple of times that led to a goal and a point and that cost us in a one-point game. I remember leaving Croke Park that day thinking that was the last I’d see of it as a player, that this was no longer worth it.”

Then he went back with the club and they won the county. He also married Sarah at the end of that year and at the wedding, a couple of old teammates from 2010 said to him that he’d regret retiring while still in his 20s; he’d be long enough retired like them. At least go back for a few months and see how you feel. So he did. And he stayed. Even though he’d strain his groin four times in 2015, he’d come back for more this year, too.

“Once you get into the group, even when you’re injured and doing rehab, it [a senior inter-county set-up] is a great environment to be in. It’s like a drug.

“I love when you could be doing video analysis and fellas can cut lumps out of each other and it’s taken the right way because fellas know they’re only trying to help us all improve. At other levels, you can’t go that point of honesty.

“I love where we might be having an internal game and one team might be playing the way our next opponents will be set up, and you’re trying to figure out the way to break them down.

“And you still have that dream of winning an All Ireland, no matter how deluded it might seem at times.”

That’s certainly how such an aspiration now seems — delusional.

Last month he was all set to be an impact sub in the first round against Tipperary but the Tuesday before the match he got injured again in training. And so he’d watch on helplessly as Cork would lose to that county for the first time this side of the World War II. It was some fall, for a man who knew the highs of beating Dublin in front of 82,500, to go to losing to Tipp in front of 2,500.

“That was a very few rough days after. Even if you remove the outside noise, there was a lot of criticism within the group. You were there thinking: What are we at? How did we perform so poorly? As players, we let ourselves badly, badly down. There was a lack of workrate, a lack of honesty.”

To reveal that lack of honesty required searing honesty. A five-minute clip of footage from the game was shown for everyone to see. All management had to say was “Keep an eye out for what happens here.” After that, player after player put up their hands. Sorry. Unacceptable.

“I went in there wondering was it that there was no pressure from our forwards? Was it that defensively we were too loose? Was it the kick-outs that cost us? Was it fellas trying to do it on their up in the forwards? And of course it was all of the above. It’s never one thing. It was embarrassing for lads, watching themselves let a runner go or ball-watching. To be fair the lads made a late charge but you shouldn’t get yourself in that position in the first place.”

He has faith in this management though. Peadar Healy was one of the mainstays of the Counihan era, a shrewd, passionate, football man. Paudie Kissane brings the same level of ambition and detail as a coach that he brought as a player. And he can see the magic in Eamonn Ryan and why he won so much. His wisdom, and his love for the skills of the game. All those points Mark Collins fisted over the bar against Limerick; that was straight from a training ground segment taken by Ryan. Even with the ladies footballers, it didn’t happen for him overnight. But it did happen for them. Kelly can see it turning and happening for the men as well.

He’s optimistic about this game against Donegal. Thinks the big, open pitch will suit them. For sure, Donegal are formidable. But that’s precisely the type of team Cork want to play right now.

“We have a lot to prove to ourselves. We haven’t had a big scalp in the championship the last few years. I mean, even saying that, we sound like of the smaller counties, but this is a huge opportunity to put that right.”

The optimist in him thinks they’ll do it. He wouldn’t still be around if he didn’t.

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