There’s nothing really like Cork and Kerry. It’s complex, tribal, familiar, everything; nothing. As Colm O’Rourke told us on Sunday, football is well down the pecking order in Cork, particularly back west, but the rivalry with our esteemed neighbours never fails to bring out something primal in us all.
Even pure hurling folk find it impossible not to care about the rivalry, and when Michael Foley ran a Twitter poll to check the pulse of the county on Saturday, its result would have surprised many.
When Cork beat Kerry handily back in 2012, Cork football was in a good place and if you had told any of us about the descent into the abyss that was to follow, even the most naturally pessimistic amongst us would have chuckled such thoughts away.
Would Kerry be back bigger and badder than ever? Of course. Would Cork drop off the edge of the known football world? No chance. But drop we did; the darkness came and there were times when the horror seemed terminal.
It is precisely for this reason that Sunday’s epic victory over the old enemy was as sweet as there has ever been. It was a rare speck of gold amongst the gloom and it provided much needed food for the soul.
There’s something about rain when it comes to Cork’s most memorable days against Kerry in my lifetime.
I was only a toddler when Tadghie Murphy did a Mark Keane, it lashed when I first saw Dinny Allen play in ’88, my memory tells me it rained in 1990, there was Stephen O’Brien’s goal in ’94, it teemed down in ’99 when Ronan McCarthy played a blinder, Michael Cussen turned water into wine in a thunderstorm in 2008 and then there was Sunday.
And then there was Sunday when Cork looked destined for a moral victory but just refused to bow to destiny’s plans.
Everything that went missing, everything that seemed lost was found again as the team embraced core values that always give you a chance.
Cork’s performance was built on a ferocious commitment to compete for every ball in an effort of total honesty that it was impossible not to be enthralled by, impossible not to be seduced by and impossible not to be moved by when the embodiment of that effort, Seán Powter, was interviewed after the game.
Did they ride their luck at times? Absolutely. Kerry’s radar was off in the first quarter and with time running out in both normal and extra-time, their two-point lead seemed to be enough.
But both times Cork found away to stay alive. When the need was greatest, they got the scores they required, they stuck to the plan, they didn’t panic, and they believed in everything that they were doing, fighting bitterly to the very end.
The build up to Mark Keane’s goal of the century was admirable for its patience.
When Kerry had the ball with two minutes to go, I expected them to keep the ball to the end. Thankfully, however, David Moran went for the insurance score and Cork got one more chance. Seán Meehan broke through and turned back, Damien Gore knew the angle was too tight and Luke Connolly did what he had to do.
At first It looked over, and then it looked like it was drifting wide and while disappointed, I was unbelievably proud of the team. And then there was bedlam and euphoria that eventually transubstantiated into pure joy.
History has already proven the decision to bring Keane in to be the correct one, and Ronan McCarthy deserves huge credit for what he has done. He has scoured the county and, as he said himself, developed a squad whose commitment is total, just like his own.
Conditions are a great leveller, but so is death, and the return to knock-out football gives this victory a completely different feeling. Not since that other glorious rainy day in ’99 has a Cork victory over Kerry been decisive. Great days in 2002, 2006, 2008, and 2009 were avenged all too soon.
But this time they are gone. Proper gone. Really gone. The opportunity needs to be exploited to the full and seen as a beginning as opposed to an end. It needs to be enjoyed, parked and to be part of a greater journey. Nobody will be more cognisant of that than the group.
I wrote last year how Kerry want Cork to be good without ever having the temerity to be good enough. They won’t be back to haunt us this year, but the face on Tomás Ó Sé on Sunday night was as telling as it was entertaining. But that’s all for next year, which is still a world away.
As Seán Powter said, the only downside of the day was not being able to celebrate it in the normal way. But while the celebrations were different, they were no less memorable. The stories of babies being woken, heart stents being tested and toddlers wailing due to the ridiculous behaviour of adults will live long in the memory.
It was new type of communal delirium, undiluted by the pull of the pint and elongated by text, phone-calls, social media, and the child-like anticipation of the Sunday Game.
As much as anything, we now have two more weekends to look forward to, the lengthening of the campaign will shorten the winter and, hopefully, bring more light to our days in this season of darkness.
And for these two weeks it’s all about Tipp, Tipp, Tipp.
By John Coleman