Paidí had brought a new edge to the group. Darragh was now a mainstay in midfield, Eamonn Fitzmaurice had arrived on the scene and our fitness was through the roof. I never felt fitter. This time it was Cork in the semis, again at a packed Killarney. So much so that fans were sitting out on the pitch, not sure health and safety would cater for that now! It was one of the most satisfying days of my entire career.
Maurice Fitz scored 1-01, Mike Frank Russell had arrived in the other corner and hit 4pts and I fired 5pts from full forward. All those scores were from play and I picked up the Man of the Match award after. Some day. And the late Dermot O’Callaghan ensured the Champagne flowed into the small hours at the Failté Bar that night.
From the pleasure and glory of ’96 and ’98 to what should have been a great day for myself and my family in the 1999 final in Páirc Úi Chaoimh. It was anything but. We were beaten all over the pitch and never got near to matching the Cork hunger. I had a chance near the end to bury a goal but Anthony Lynch made a superb block. Even then there still would’ve been three points between us, we weren’t at the races. I was captain. I was sickened.
We made amends the year after in the semis back in Killarney. I scored a point after 20seconds and nothing after that! Thankfully Ó’Cinneide had another stormer and his 2-05 was enough to see us into the final where we’d easily overcome Clare. Cork did roar back into that game, and maybe had us on our heels for a while but that was a group that would go on to lift Sam Maguire and there was a steel about us that not even the Rebels could rattle.
2001 was a tough season to swallow for many of us, it was a year before a baby faced Colm Cooper would arrive into camp and we were still reliant on Dara, he clocked 9pts in that Munster final against our old foe. We were cooking as a team and I was feeling as fit, as fast and as strong as ever and kicked 4 points of my own. It was sweet. All the sweeter for being at Páirc Úi Chaoimh. It’s senior football now boy! (Nobody mention Meath…).
8 points each is like a scoreline from the 1920s but that’s what happened in a deluge in Killarney in 2002 semis. The replay back in Cork was the stuff of nightmares. I was flat as hell and had no excuses and Paidí took me out of it. Back on the bench I remember a Cork supporter hitting Aodhán MacGearailt (didn’t tog due to a hand injury) down on the head with a newspaper as we sat in the dugout. ‘Back to Kerry with ye’. Not for the first time in my career we hadn’t matched that Cork desire and we did go home with heads bowed. We played Cork three times that year and after regrouping against Wicklow, Fermanagh and Kildare we bulldozed our neighbours in the All-Ireland semis.
Source: Inpho/Lorraine O'Sullivan
My swansong came in 2004. The mind was willing but the body was out the gap. And there were some talented boys now established and putting serious heat on us veterans. By now Paul Galvin had arrived, Declan O’Sullivan and Tomás and Marc had joined their brother in the first pick 15.
I carried a knock into that Munster final. Bad move. Derek Kavanagh made sure my last appearance against the Rebels ended in another bad day at the office for me, again getting hooked ashore at half-time. I would start just one more game for the Kingdom after that, the final that year against Mayo. Four of our six starting forwards got on the scoreboard and I wasn’t one of them, I knew my time was up.
Even though one Munster title in the last eight years won’t be good enough for those passionate Cork fans, I'm backing our own lads to extend that run when the two meet in Killarney this Sunday. But it is Kerry and Cork and anything could happen, sure it’s senior football now boy.
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