'Replacing him is impossible': Cork City mourns club stalwart John Kennedy

Hidden away in an invitation for a cuppa was a favour to be requested, some gentle advice, or a new scheme that would help Cork City
'Replacing him is impossible': Cork City mourns club stalwart John Kennedy

John Kennedy pictured with family and friends of Aoife Linehan at a Commemorative Boccia Blitz held in her honour at Mahon Community Centre in March 2019

Always with a smile on his face and a Cork City crest on full view, John Kennedy had a disarming charm. 

Hidden away in an invitation for a cuppa was a favour to be requested, some gentle advice, or a new scheme that would help Cork City or one of many other worthy causes. All the better if he could capture all three for the price of a pot of tea!

It was a sign of the man’s character, impact and passion for the club that tributes poured in this week from across the country and as far as away as Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Norway and the US following his untimely death. 

'JFK', as he was fondly known by many, spoke of family, Cork City FC, and his work with Foróige to everyone he encountered and he was incredible proud of all those strands of his life.

Long before structured community programmes came into being in professional football, JFK knew and recognised the positive role any sports club could have within its community.

A ‘club’ was not only a men’s senior team, it was about every person involved - from players, to management, board members, supporters, parents, volunteers and kids. It also meant the inclusion of women and people of all abilities and nationalities, on and off the field.

Anyone involved in Irish sport will know that’s the right thing on paper but John Kennedy made it his business to put words into action. With the support of then club chairman Brian Lennox, the establishment of the Family Enclosure in 1995 was an important milestone.

Generations of Cork City supporters have joined, sang and graduated from its ranks before returning in time when another generation was ready to become part of the Rebel Army

At the heart of the Family Enclosure were the ideals of inclusion, compassion and friendship. Anyone that arrived up the steps was welcomed and invited in to be part of the fun and madness.

Flowers and scarves on the half way line to remember John Kennedy. Picture: Terry Attridge 
Flowers and scarves on the half way line to remember John Kennedy. Picture: Terry Attridge 

The Family Enclosure was a gentle introduction to Irish football, and John utilised the match-night experience at Turner’s Cross to bring together separated families, to give people under pressure a break, and to welcome groups from Direct Provision centres, youth clubs and community projects - many from outside of Cork - with a big smile and a ‘Welcome to Cork City’. It wasn’t rocket science, it was simply about connecting people with each other.

Cork City captain Gearóid Morrissey hails from Mahon and saw the impact John had on the local community there.

“I know lads that got involved with the club when they were kids. Now they’re adults and they’re still involved, and it’s all because of John bringing them to games.

He roped me into a lot of things over the years, particularly when we had the FAI Cup and League trophy. He was involved with so many different organisations, it’s impossible to list them. He was a completely selfless man.

"Whenever you were going in or out of Turner’s Cross, he always meet you the same - regardless of the result. When you lose and you’re coming out to the fans, you tend to drop the head and feel you’ve let them down.

"John would always give you a way of bouncing back. He’d shake your hand and say: ‘Next week’. It was an island in a storm when you’re walking out having been spanked 3-0. That’s what I’ll always remember... and miss.” 

Someone else that knew John well is Erika Ní Thuama. She managed Cork City’s ‘More than a Club’ programme for 18 months and considers John to have been a close friend and mentor.

“He would always find a way of bringing Cork City into a conversation. He believed the club could be used as an outlet for people. If a Dad only has access to a child on Friday evenings, John would have them come to Turner’s Cross.

"Only a few people ever knew about that side of his work. He had such an impact on so many and I don’t think we’ll ever know the depth of it. He did things quietly and never needed to advertise it.   

“He set up the café in Bishopstown. Making money was an added benefit, but it was about setting up a community within the Academy. For parents to able to come in, sit down and get to know each other and have more of a family feel right up through the Academy and up to the first team.” 

The word omnipresent has been used quite a bit when talking of John in recent days and thoughts are already turning towards honouring the Skibbereen man in an appropriate way.

“From everything said over the past week, we probably only knew 20% of the man but that 20% was this hugely passionate guy who had so much time for people. He saw the best in everyone,” said Éanna Buckley, Cork City’s Operations Manager.

“He did all these different things. He ran the supporter buses, which is incredibly hard work and a significant responsibility, but I don’t think I ever saw the man rushed or stressed. He never cut someone short because he didn’t have the time to stop and chat with them. I can’t wrap my head around how he fitted it all in.

"Replacing him is impossible but I want us to do everything we can to be true to his values. The legacy is there and it’s now up to us to carry it on. He laid down a path for us to follow in terms of the right thing to do. It will be difficult, but I’ll do my level best to influence what we do next.”

No matter who you were – new to City, young, old, or long-time sufferer - you were important to John in the time he was in your company. This world is a poorer place without him.

Niamh O'Mahony is a member of FORAS and a former board member of Cork City FC.

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