An elegant playmaker, Paddy Kelly has retired from Gaelic football with one All-Ireland senior medal. But he wanted more and rather than look back, he is angry about Cork’s future and what he sees as apathy engulfing the county...
And you thought for a while there that he was another one who was going to just slip away quietly.
As the playmaker on the last team to bring an All-Ireland to Leeside in September, Paddy Kelly has earned the right to be termed a Rebel but he could hardly be classified from his playing days as some kind of dissident or troublemaker.
It’s not as if the Cork County Board and its loyalists can accuse or dismiss him as an agitator like those uppity, bolshie hurlers such as Donal Óg and Seán Óg.
They can’t even pass him off as one of those who-do-they-think-they-are footballers who looked both Frank Murphy and Teddy Holland in the eye and told them they would not be playing under Holland; as someone who was only called up to the senior panel days after Conor Counihan succeeded Holland as team manager, Kelly is one of a handful of Cork players in either code this millennium who didn’t personally have to go on strike to win his All-Ireland senior medal.
With his altar-boy face, Kelly is ideal son-in-law material, just as he was the model professional in an amateur game.
Sober, conscientious, considerate.
But it’s precisely because he possesses those qualities that he feels like he needs to rock the boat.
The other week he listened to a podcast in which Eamon Dunphy interviewed Paul Kimmage. In introducing Kimmage and the importance of his journalism, especially his book Rough Ride, Dunphy quoted both Edmund Burke and Martin Luther King.
All it takes for injustice to prevail is for good men to do nothing. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Even though his days in red are now over, Cork GAA still matters to Kelly. So he’s chosen not to remain silent. Too many Cork GAA people have in recent years, he feels, possibly because some had to shout so loud and fight so hard the previous decade. It’s time again people started speaking up. It’s time the thing was shaken up.
So yeah, he’s happy to reflect back with you on a fine if sometimes frustrating playing career, but he also wants to talk about the future — not so much his but Cork’s.
“There’s an apathy now when it comes to Cork GAA, it seems,” he says in that even-toned manner of his. “People are just fed up. They’re emptied, maybe from all the previous disputes with the board. Perhaps they don’t see things changing.
“I was at this club consultation day they had in September up in Eire Óg. They invited all the clubs to bring their chairperson, secretary and a players’ rep, so I went as our [Ballincollig’s] player. It was pathetic. In Cork everyone gives out about the club delegates at county board meetings and why aren’t they questioning the top table on this or that. But you kind of saw it that day up in Éire Óg why it happens.
“It was supposed to be a discussion about the way forward for Cork GAA. We were put into groups of eight to 10 at a table, given a sheet, someone jotted down the key points and then it was handed up and collected by a facilitator who had come from up the country.
“But after the second time we did much the same exercise, we were all saying to the facilitator: ‘Fine, take our views, but we want to open up the debate here in terms of what can be done, what should be done.’ But she just said that the plan for the day was just to gather our thoughts and the board would then assess it and bring it back proposals.
“I’ve been following the reports of county board meetings since and there’s been nothing more about that consultation.
“For all we know they took those pieces of paper and threw them in the bin.
“At our table, we had people who were involved at juvenile level, we had people who were hurling-only, we had some who were football-only, we had people from rural clubs, others from urban clubs. But what every one of us had in common was that we were angry.
“Everyone was pissed off at what Cork GAA has become. But I left at lunchtime. There was another session after lunch but I wasn’t staying because it was a complete waste of time. It was a damp squib. A non-event.
“In any good organisation, you’re going to have debate, you’re going to have some disagreement, people looking to make changes. But Cork GAA people seem to have given up on trying to make things happen, probably because they’ve seen too many times people trying to make something happen but nothing comes from it.
“You look at [county coaching officer] Kevin O’Donovan. He came out in the summer with an unbelievably-detailed proposal, full of great ideas. You would think it was manna from heaven, a blueprint or at least a starting point for the way forward. But nothing from it has been acted upon.”
He contrasts that to what’s happened in Dublin. In 2011, Dublin succeeded Cork as All-Ireland champions but the sense in football at the time was that if there was going to be a team to win several All-Irelands in the subsequent years, it would be Cork, propelled by a couple of All-Ireland winning U21 teams and the most impressive high-performance set-up in the sport, albeit one that had to be won after a few torturous strikes and winters on Leeside.
But a couple of months after Bryan Cullen became the first Dub to lift Sam Maguire in 16 years, his county board issued a document: Unleashing The Blue Wave: A Strategy for Dublin GAA 2011-2017. In that period, Dublin have swept up four All-Irelands — and that timeframe hasn’t expired yet.
“I remember thinking at the time of the report that it was a bit fanciful but they’ve become a dominant force since. Now, how much of it you can put down to that document, I don’t know, but they seem as if they’re a county that are making the absolute most of their population and facilities and resources. We’re not as progressive or as ambitious to maximise what we have at our disposal. We certainly have become a county that’s following as opposed to leading. I don’t think we’re operating on a level-playing field with some of the other big counties.
“You look at Dublin and all the sponsorship partners they’re able to attract. You look at Kerry and the fundraising efforts they’ve done, going abroad, getting people involved. You look at Club Tyrone. The Tipperary Supporters Club. All these external bodies who are supplementing the county effort. In Cork we don’t have that.”
He knows how hard Peadar Healy and his management are trying to make the most of things. Last season, the county senior footballers were often left scrambling, begging, for a pitch to train on. This winter they block-booked a field in Fermoy.
Problem solved. Only it created another problem: there was no gym in Fermoy, something of an inconvenience when you’d prefer if a player could get in a field session and a S&C workout on the same day, thus reducing the number of times in a week he has to pack the gearbag and head out the door in the name of Cork.
Again, Healy and his management and players improvised.
They’ve set up a makeshift gym in a previously unused warehouse in the Fermoy area, the players themselves having moved the equipment in there and painted up the place. Such initiative and ingenuity is impressive, but the situation remains hardly ideal.
“You think of the state-of-the-art facilities other counties have developed. Now, I know Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be ready this summer and it will be fantastic, but still, it’s a main pitch and then an all-weather pitch. Derek Kavanagh wrote an excellent article last year in the Irish Examiner where you should really have eight to 10 pitches together, with the county minors and development squads training alongside the senior team, creating a sense that ‘This is Cork.’
“Instead you now have a situation where the Cork senior footballers are tucked away in a warehouse in Fermoy.”
For change to happen, he feels there needs to be change at the top.
“Over the years with the senior football team we would have had the likes of [county chairman] Ger Lane and [vice-chairperson] Tracey Kennedy as our team liaison officers. They’re very friendly, sociable people.
“But how many good people are not going for jobs and roles in Cork GAA? So straightaway Cork GAA is suffering.
“If you look at any organisation, whether it’s Fifa with Sepp Blatter or Pat Hickey with the OCI, the same people running the show for too long is not healthy.
“You need to step aside after a period of time. You need fresh blood.
“You look at Kerry and where everyone seems welcome to chip back in for the greater cause. In Cork, we don’t have that. People are slow to get involved. There’s a distrust there. It might change after the stadium opens. I don’t know. All I know is it doesn’t feel as if Cork GAA is doing all it can for Cork GAA to be successful. It’s as if we’re a sleeping giant.”
One, he feels, that needs to be stirred out of its lethargy.
It seems like only a few years ago the first time you put a recorder in front of Paddy Kelly, though it was 2010, the week of that year’s national league final.
Kelly had been one of the standout newcomers of the previous summer and though Kerry foiled them yet again on that occasion, his confidence and ambition was impervious to such a setback.
“We think there’s All-Irelands in this team,” the 24-year-old primary school teacher said ahead of that league final against Mayo, without a hint of giddiness. “It’s a matter of getting the first one out of the way.”
The following Sunday, Cork would roll over a Mayo team in its final months under John O’Mahony to annex the second of four consecutive national league titles. That September they would win the first of those All-Irelands Kelly had in mind. The future had arrived. The future was theirs. Yet before you know it, the 24-year-old you sat down with is 31 and retired.
And as fresh as he still looks, about to go training with his club after he’s finished talking to you, he’ll open up as to why you’re not the only one at the table who’s wondering where the years went.
KS: So how are you feeling for having made your decision to retire?
PK: I’d say relief is the overriding emotion, which probably confirms that I’ve made the right call. It would have been something I’d have been thinking about the last two years and last summer especially I was constantly asking myself, ‘Am I actually enjoying it? Do I want to go at this again next year?’ It’s no reflection on management; I’ve always got on very well with Peadar. It’s just I would have had to put myself mentally and physically through so much to even get to a level where I could contribute any bit. I suppose if I thought Cork had a realistic chance of winning the 2017 All-Ireland, that would change my thinking and I’d be willing to go back and play some part. But in my mind, that’s not a realistic goal. And I just feel as if the appetite has gone anyway. I gave nine years to it (at senior level). It’s a long time. The enjoyment had gone out of it for me.
KS: Why was it less enjoyable?
PK: I just think the season is too intense for too long. From around this time of year onwards, you barely get a weekend off. You’re either playing or training with the county or you’re back with the club. I think it’s unhealthy.
KS: You mean that you can’t even get away for a weekend with your wife, that sort of thing?
PK: Even stags or weddings, they’re out of bounds, or when you do get to go, you’ve to sip away on the water and head off early. Look, it’s not as if you want to go boozing; if you’re an inter-county player, you look after yourself and you want to live a certain lifestyle. But that sense of constantly being on, it’s such a drain, mentally. It was different when we were winning. When you’re young and injury-free, these things are great. Weekends away going up to play Tyrone: the bus up, maybe a team meeting or two, then a bit of craic in the evening together, then the game and the bus home with the lads; it’s great fun. But it’s different when you’re older and when you’re losing and you constantly have to be critical of each other. How are we losing a game like this? How are we losing by 12 points? It’s just so intense. Reviewing games is a great place to be when you’re right in the shake-up for All-Irelands but at this point I’ve had my fill of it.
KS: Last summer you came on at half-time in a qualifier against Longford and turned the game and you spoke afterwards about savouring the moment, even something like enjoying a beer or two on the bus down. It was like ‘I can still do this, this is why I still do this.’ Peadar Healy obviously wanted you back. Was there a part of you that did think about coming back for one more year?
PK: There was. Daniel Goulding and Fintan Goold both got married this winter so I was on both stags and at both weddings and you’d be talking to lads who’d be saying: ‘Ah sure, go off for a few months, do your own thing, and you’ll get the hunger back.’ But you mention Longford. That’s one day out of eight months. If you look at all the other ones... I was injured again for the game against Tipp. I came on for only a couple of minutes against Limerick...
KS: So now that it’s over, how do you look back on your career with Cork?
PK: It’s too easy that I could define my career into two parts: Breaking onto the panel in 2008 right through to 2012, and then from 2013 onwards. But that’s nearly how it was. I was injury-free up to 2012 and then I felt a pinch in my groin a few weeks before we played Kerry in Munster that year and then after we lost to Donegal I got the operation. Everything changed after that. I didn’t get back to anywhere near the level I had been at on any consistent basis while the team itself had probably peaked and was entering transition.
If either myself or the team was going a bit better it would have been more tolerable. But more often than not I was injured while the team was going through its own difficulties which probably led to me getting incredibly cranky inside there at times.
KS: How would you be cranky?
PK: I would be critical enough as a player and as a team-mate, and that’s fine when I’m on the pitch and I can say coming off it to the lads: ‘This isn’t good enough.’ But when you’re in a tracksuit and sitting on the bench, being that critical is tricky, especially when there’s a new, younger group. You’re trying to get the balance right in terms of encouraging them and not being too heavy on them, but making it clear what the standard is. That’s something I struggled with over the last three years or so.
KS: So you were biting your lip when you maybe shouldn’t have?
PK: Sometimes. And then there’d be other times where I probably spoke too harshly. I think something the group probably lacked was maturity. The best teams are very self-critical. They’d be extremely honest and open.
KS: Was it that the younger lads could take offence a little too easily?
PK: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I mean, the team I was lucky enough to come onto and be successful with, they were... men; you know, fellas who were in their late 20s, early 30s. I would say the crop that I came through with — Daniel, Fintan, Paul [Kerrigan] — were all fairly solid lads. And we were lucky then that the lads who were already there still hadn’t been massively successful but were doing everything right to get there.
At 22 or so, I wouldn’t have been the most dedicated but once I got in there I just hoovered up the whole atmosphere. The standards the leaders demanded just appealed to me and very soon we were very pally with the older lads; the bond was massive. Whereas with the current Cork team, because we’ve had a few really heavy defeats, it’s probably disrupted the team truly bonding. The dressing room certainly isn’t where it was six years ago in terms of maturity. There are still brilliant characters in there but there’s been so much chopping and changing the last few years that the kind of standards and structures Conor [Counihan] had put in place just slipped.
Around the time we were getting close to an All-Ireland with Conor, our set-up was so good, you were looking for only small things. It was the extra bit of tactical stuff or psychological work to give us that extra percent or two. Whereas in recent years, it’s been huge things we’ve been trying to fix, be it honesty within the group, standards, culture. Peadar and the management are now very big into trying to get the culture right again. But it’s a difficult thing to get back up to that level and it’s probably going to take a few years.
KS: At the time you were routinely winning leagues, did you appreciate what you had? Like that league final against Dublin in 2011. It was one of your finest games. You kicked three points and set up a pile more. Cork were seven points down in the second half yet ye came back to win by one without scoring a goal. What was it like being out there that day?
PK: It’s a strange thing to say now, but you’d almost have been dismissive of the Dubs back then because they had yet to win or reach an All-Ireland. Even though they should probably have beaten us that day and in the [All -Ireland] semi-final the previous year, we believed we had the mental edge on them. There was just an extreme confidence in our set-up. You felt we had good players in every position. We had a very strong squad, a very strong bench. We had savage respect for Conor and the management team he had put around him. Like, [Munster rugby S&C coach] Aidan O’Connell was a massive influence; it felt as if we had the best guy in the game at the time. [Sport psychologist] Kevin Clancy felt to us like he was the best in the game at that time. Peadar was an excellent coach. We were ticking every box. Everything was in place to challenge every year.
KS: When it’s thrown back at that team that it underachieved, winning only the one All-Ireland, does it rankle with you or do you view that as just pub and paper talk? Do you think that team gets enough credit?
PK: Do I look back and regret not having at least a second All-Ireland medal? Yes. Do I think we could have won a second? Yes.
But when you look at it, the previous decade was dominated by Kerry and Tyrone, two great teams. And we got in there before the Dublin juggernaut came along. So I suppose in a way we were fortunate...
KS: But Cork were supposed to be the juggernaut...
PK: Yes, we were. You would have thought we were well set up at the time given the age profile and the set-up we had. You certainly could not have foreseen that there wouldn’t be another All-Ireland there. But the game was starting to change massively around then. We probably came in at the point it was just starting to tilt and maybe we didn’t get with the times. Maybe we got left behind.
There was a time there for five years or so where we were constantly in the top three in the country and it was a great feeling, constantly having thoughts of winning the All-Ireland. But those days seemed to fade very quickly.
KS: Looking at your own game, for a while there you were one of the best playmaking half-forwards in the game, admired for your intelligent decision-making and kick-passing. How did you develop into that kind of player?
PK: I suppose pace was never a forte of mine, so when I got the ball, my first option always was to look up. It was probably more knowing my limitations that made me or allowed me to kick the ball more than anything. Whereas if you are a speedster like Paul Kerrigan or Darran O’Sullivan, the first thing you go to is to take a fella on at speed.
KS: So when you got on the ball, what were you looking for?
PK: You knew certain fellas like certain type of movements. You knew that when Donncha O’Connor was pointing left, he was probably going to check back and go right; he was just playing mind games with his marker. So for me, it was nearly about developing the ability to get comfortable taking a hop and a solo while still having your body shape ready to kick something inside.
That’s probably something though we didn’t do enough in Cork. We were either a running team or a long-ball team. We weren’t really so much into playing that dink ball into the D and then having runners come off it, whereas Kerry are masters of it.
KS: Peadar Healy has spoken recently about this as well, how Cork are traditionally a running team. In that sense, you weren’t a typical Cork footballer. Is that something Cork have to cultivate more?
PK: It’s difficult, given the amount of stats that have come into the thing. I remember back in 2009 or 2010, we’d get a summary sent out with every player’s stats: Your number of possessions, handpasses given, handpasses completed, kickpasses attempted, kickpasses completed, percentages of kickpasses completed. And it’s a fine line between playing to the stats in terms of keeping possession and then using that possession well. For me, it’s realising that if you’re a forward, you can take the chance of kicking the ball because even if you lose it within 30 metres of the opposition’s goal, you can surely still defend it. It’s about trying to create a mindset where you’re not afraid to give the ball away and you’re not constrained by stats.
KS: Did you feel you had that licence?
PK: I did, but at times maybe if the confidence was knocked at some stage in a game, I might play it safer then. And I think that’s the thing about the really top players; they stick to their guns no matter what and do what they believe in. I remember the home game against Kerry down in the Páirc in the 2014 Munster final. It was a horror show, and looking back, I contributed to it.
Anytime I got the ball, I just popped it off. That was such an easy out. I would have touched the ball less than 10 times in that first half and all I did was play it safe instead of progressing things. That’s probably from being under pressure collectively and individually. And that’s a bad place to be. You’ll achieve nothing by keeping it that simple, especially up front. You have to try things.
KS: Finally, a lot of players struggle after retiring, being a county player has become so much of their identity. How do you feel you’re ready for life outside the bubble?
PK: It does consume your life. You become very close to the lads in there; you see them more than your friends, your club-mates, even your family sometimes. Daniel and Fintan are gone too so at least I have them to fall back on; our three wives would be good friends as well. I feel I’m happy to move on from the group. The group has changed. There’s very few of our vintage left so it doesn’t feel as bad [to leave]. It feels natural. Now, will I miss it? At times I definitely will, but I’m confident enough I’ll be able to manage without it.
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