ON St Patrick’s Day 2003, Colin Corkery found himself taking a free a couple of strides back from the 45-metre line on Croke Park’s Hogan Stand sideline.
The clock was ticking towards full-time and his Nemo Rangers side were deadlocked against Mayo’s Crossmolina in the All-Ireland club football final.
Having fallen agonisingly short in the two previous deciders, the Cork side were back for a third crack at club football’s ultimate prize.
Manager Billy Morgan raced down the touchline, “put it down and put it over”, he instructed his captain.
Corkery was one of the most gifted kickers to ever set foot on a GAA pitch — but he knew his range.
“Billy had a bit of faith in me but it just didn’t feel right. It was way too far out and I was good but the 45s in Croke Park are longer than anywhere else and it was out to the side so it was even longer again so I said to Billy: “I’m going to try and go short”.’
The manager quickly concurred. Corkery took the return pass edging him closer to the 45’ and he “just belted it”.
The monstrous kick landed straight between the posts of Hill 16 in what Morgan would later describe as “the best point I have ever seen, in fact, it was the best score I have ever seen in any sport”.
It edged Nemo ahead and an insurance point by Joe Kavanagh ensured the Capwell side were crowned champions.
That kick epitomised everything brilliant about Colin Corkery. Pressure distinguishes good from greatness; Corkery believed in his abilities but also trusted his instincts.
A tall, strongly built man, Corkery was deadly off both feet, either from the ground or out of his hands and like many sporting prodigies, made his craft look so easy.
A superb fielder, during his teenage years his talents were being closely monitored by another sport. In 1990, at just 18, he accepted an offer to play Australian Rules with Carlton having just won a minor county with Nemo, an U21 All-Ireland with Cork and was a member of the senior squad which brought Sam Maguire to Leeside in 1989.
“I was doing very well with Carlton and was offered another contract but I was home for Christmas after the first year and Billy was saying ‘why don’t you come home?’
“It stuck in my head for a couple of months when I went back for my second season and ‘89 had been a really good experience for me as well. I got injured (in Australia), didn’t play for a while and it was very hard trying to get back into it. I kind of got back, but made a decision one night that I was either going to stay or go and I just decided to come home.”
Corkery burst onto the inter-county scene with a breath-taking debut display against champions Clare in the 1993 Munster SFC quarter-final notching 2-5. His opening goal was a thing of beauty. Collecting a pass out on the wing, he cut in along the end line and drove past his marker with ease. Approaching the edge of the big square he looked to be laying off for a handpass only to readjust and rifle the ball into the far top left-hand corner of the net. Cork trounced Tipperary in the final, marching towards the All-Ireland final only to be beaten controversially by Derry. County and Munster championships followed with Nemo that season, culminating in an All-Ireland club final win in 1994. The Rebels completed a famous Munster three-in-a-row in 1995 but the rest of the decade were a barren spell for both club and county.
“It was but you had Skibbereen, Bantry, Castlehaven, Duhallow, Muskerry, and the Barrs who were all very strong but we were in a lot of semi-finals and finals.”
Corkery saw those years as crucial to his footballing development.
“They were right battles and I was getting belted all over the place, but it was good for me because it hardened me up as well and it gave me that experience to go forward. It creates leadership too when you come through that and I actually found it harder playing with Nemo than I did with Cork.”
Food for thought as Corkery believes the current fixture list has contributed to a drop in the standard of club football, something which he has witnessed first-hand as a selector with Nemo over the past few seasons.
“You could win your first game now and wait six or seven, even 10 weeks before your next game and if Cork are doing well, especially when the Super 8 comes in, you could be looking at three months before you actually play championship. It’s like that at the moment and I think that’s one of the defining factors of the whole thing.
“Guys are not getting to experience regular championship games and when that happens your standards come down. It’s great for the guys playing with Cork, they’re up at that level all the time, but for the fellas coming through, when all they’re getting is one game and then it’s all training, it gets boring and then you’ve guys thinking ‘ah sure I’ll go away to the States’ and they lose that competitiveness. And that’s basically what has happened.”
And he believes that GAA chiefs could also invest in bricks and mortar — and he doesn’t mean the new Páirc: “One thing that’s still missing from Cork sport is a centre of excellence where you’ve all your hurlers and footballers together.”
Looking back on his inter-county career Corkery believes his sides were a bit unlucky at times.
“We had good teams up until I retired, it was just that we didn’t have that extra bit to get over the line. We met some better teams on given days and just didn’t turn up on some occasions. We were unlucky, but that’s sport. I was always conscious of going out to win games and gave 100% when I played with Cork and Nemo and didn’t hold back and I hope people remember that I entertained them as well. A lot of people think of me as just a free taker but if you looked at the stats I’d say I had more from play than I did from frees.”
That public misperception is borne from Corkery’s unerring accuracy and consistency from the dead ball. Frees in or around the 45m line equated to certain scores for the imposing sharpshooter, who incorporated a kicking method born and cultivated throughout his tenure at Colaiste Chríost Rí secondary school.
“I was kind of forced into it with Brother Colm (Taft), I had to do left and right and he told me I had to work out my own steps. So what I used to do was seven steps back and two to the side with the nipple of the ball always facing up and the lines across. It makes a difference because you get extra distance and it just focuses the mind about striking the ball.”
Curiously, Corkery would never practice 45-metre kicks at training. “I’d always turn up 15 minutes before training and stay 15 minutes after to practice. I would start around the 13-metre mark and work my way back but I never went beyond the 30’”.
It was the reason for Corkery’s nonchalant, almost slow motion striking technique — never forced, never altered. Boot manufacturer Adidas donned him with personally embroidered, coloured “predator” boots as part of their marketing campaign to crack the GAA sportswear market. Superstitious Cork supporters pleaded with him to desist, fearful the footballing gods wouldn’t look kindly on the unnecessary attention. “They were all the same to me, whether they were pink, yellow or green.”
Growing naturally broader into his late 20s made the towering six-foot four-incher instantly recognisable on a football pitch. Ostensibly incongruous to the modern demands of Gaelic football, his appearance often became a public sticking point for unwarranted insults and critique. Truth be told, it only added another layer to the absorbing enigma as his performances continued to silence the doubters, believing his singling out was a compliment to his footballing skills while opponents were duped into thinking his large frame made him slow — Corkery was in fact, deceptively quick.
“Well that was always my secret, as they say, a lot of fellas thought I was slow but once I got the ball I was quick enough to get around. Probably the most defining thing for me was when we were doing laps of the field one day and all that kind of stuff, Billy turned to me and said, ‘Colin, you can’t do that!’ So Billy got Eddie Kirwin (Nemo Coach) to do short exercise drills with me and in fairness to Eddie it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“I always felt that I had to get to a level where once I was match fit I was ok and match fitness is different to the other fitness. Match fitness, I could do what I wanted to do basically and that was the difference because I can tell you I did all the hard training and lost the weight but it wasn’t worth a shit after.”
While Corkery was never a poster boy for strict diets and rigid strength and conditioning programmes, he is, however, a shining example of knowing one’s strengths and exploiting them — it’s not always a one-stop solution for every player.
“You have to start working on the individuals. For instance, Colm O’Neill doesn’t need to be doing laps and heavy training or whatever, instead it should be all short sprints and stuff because once he gets the ball in his hands there’s only one thing he needs to do and give him the confidence to do it, show him the way.
“There was bonding too. A lot of the players now are living a monk’s life — you have to go and do all this other stuff with personal trainers. There is the thinking that you go to training and it’s all about fitness. It’s not. Yes, it’s part of it but the camraderie is important also — you’ve to go away and have a few pints to relax as well. Go out and socialise but make sure you’re all trying to do it together. It makes a huge difference… you’re not being an individual and trying to be something that you’re not. You should all be doing it together. That’s what a team is all about and if you’re going into the trenches, you want everyone behind you.
Perhaps Corkery’s greatest attribute was his cast iron resilience.
A heart scare at the turn of the century fed into the aforementioned public persona he was drastically unfit, casting more doubts on his ability to perform. The true diagnosis was an infection in the wall of his heart which threatened more than his footballing career. Yet he returned, better than ever.
Terrorising the old enemy Kerry in the 2000 Munster semi-final, he notched 1-8 with a further eight points in the following year’s clash. Although Cork were beaten on both occasions, Corkery returned as captain in 2002 and led the way with inspirational performances as the Rebels dispatched the Kingdom on their way to reclaiming the Munster title. Kerry were to exact revenge in the All-Ireland semi-final and unfortunately for Corkery, he would never get his hands on that coveted All-Ireland medal (he doesn’t count 1989).
A penchant for the unbelievable, he had proven himself to be one of the most gifted kicker Cork has ever produced even in the face of persistent criticism. How those same protestors would yearn for a purist kicker like Corkery in today’s tactically saturated game.
Captaining Nemo in 2003 was however, his crowning glory and proudest moment, and it was only fitting he stole the show. “There was a lot of heartache but a lot of determination among the group to get back there which was unreal. I always remember being in the Mountain Bar after being beaten in the second one and someone singing ‘We’re on the road again’. Billy stood up and said it was hopefully going to be our year but I don’t think anyone was going to beat us that year.”