Premium Exclusives

CORK V KERRY RIVALRY: Sadly, it's not the end of the world as we know it

June 2nd, 2023 2:39 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Share this article

Often described as a GAA rivalry like no other, these days it lacks an edge. KIERAN McCARTHY examines what has happened to the Cork v Kerry football rivalry, and who is to blame


THE night before Cork’s last triumphant football championship raid in Killarney, Rebels’ supporter Catherine O’Connor wriggled her way through the masses at Slane Castle to inch closer to the stage.

R.E.M. were the headliners on Saturday, July 22nd, 1995. Debutants Oasis, before their world domination, the supporting act. Catherine, from Innishannon, was there with her sister Margaret and two friends. An incredible night, squeezed into the giant swaying mosh pit, but she had one eye on the next day – the Munster senior football final.

‘There was no way we were going to miss the game,’ Catherine recalls. Not even the presence of Johnny Depp at Slane Castle was enough to dissuade this band of Cork fans from travelling through the night to make sure they stood on the terrace at Fitzgerald Stadium. Cork football came first.

They hopped on the 1.30am train from Dublin to The Real Capital. Landed home in Innishannon at 6am, the same time Sunday stretched its arms and woke up, and they were on the road to Killarney for 9am. Little time for sleep, there was a game to be won, and a Kingdom to silence. Catherine, Margaret, their late father, a cousin and half the parish made the trip. 

Munster football final days in Killarney are an experience. More so in the past. Not as much now. 1995 was particularly memorable – that was the last time Cork humbled Kerry in a championship game in their own backyard. Take that, ye Kerry plamásers. And Catherine was there. Brilliant. 0-15 to 1-9. 42,735 packed the ground. The locals were sheepish on the way out, as Cork clinched the provincial three-in-a-row. A few short strides down the Lewis Road and fans were in downtown Killarney, Cork folk singing from the high stools, Kerry’s wondering how to fill the bare months ahead.

‘There was great slagging with Kerry friends and work colleagues,’ Catherine recalls, ‘But it doesn't happen anymore. The games are hardly mentioned now. It’s a shame. They were great days. The games in Killarney especially. Traffic bumper to bumper going down. Searching for tickets that morning if someone was short. It's not the same now for various reasons. The whole build-up is non-existent at present.’

That night before the ’95 final, and for the final song in their encore, R.E.M. blasted out ‘It's the End of the World As We Know It’. Kerry fans could sympathise with the feeling. They didn’t feel fine; their season was over. It really stung. The Cork v Kerry rivalry meant more back then. No back door. No second chance. Survive or die. Jeopardy attached to every championship meeting. The length of the following winter depended on the result. 

Catherine still has the 1995 Munster football final match programme as a reminder of that day. It cost one Irish pound. This was the era before the euro made us all feel we had more money than we actually had. Perhaps it’s nostalgia or maybe it’s the truth, but it all seemed better back in the nineties. A simpler time: no qualifiers or Super 8s or scenic routes or Munster football finals in May.


Cork fan Catherine O'Connor has held on to a copy of the 1995 Munster SFC final match programme.


Ciarán O’Sullivan was one of the Cork heroes in Killarney in 1995. It was one of his finest hours. That was a special day, he recalls, and one of the reasons why it meant so much was the win-or-you-are-out element. The introduction of the back-door system in Gaelic football was still a few years away (2001), and championship games before then were season-defining.

‘I loved that side of it: winner-take-all. Even in training leading up to the game you would see it, fellas knew they had 70 minutes to make a difference, otherwise it was a long season watching other teams. It made it more intense,’ says the Urhan football great, who lives closer to the neighbours than most. Work – he owns Beara Oil – takes him across the county bounds too.

‘We knew if we didn’t win that day (1995) we were gone. It was all the better and all the sweeter because we beat Kerry,’ he says. Motivation to beat the crowd next door was never an issue; it drives standards and is a key layer in any rivalry. 

‘When the championship format changed to a back-door system I think the rivalry has waned since then,’ O’Sullivan feels. ‘Of course Cork want to beat Kerry now and vice versa, but when we were playing we had one shot every season to do it. The rivalry was unbelievable. Nowadays a team can lose in the first round and still win the All-Ireland.

‘To me, it made it extra special: you had to win so you would do everything in your power to win.’

There is little peril to Munster championship derbies between the two now. So much has changed since seismic days like 1995 when these two neighbouring counties, shouldering one another in the south west corner of this island, went to war. The format of the championship is still evolving, scuffing the last layer of lustre off provincial competitions. The split-season hasn’t helped either, insists Kerry sports journalist Murt Murphy, who wastes no time in listing off his Cork credentials – he studied in UCC for four years and was the college’s representative to the Cork County Board for three of those years. 

‘There was a saying in Kerry: The hay saved and Cork beat, that was a good summer’, Murphy says. ‘There is no-one saving hay in Kerry in April or May when we now meet in the Munster championship.

‘The set-up of the present GAA calendar means the games are on earlier in the season, whereas the first weekend of July was usually Munster final day, and the rivalry built up before that. There used to be great banter in the lead-in, Cork fans down in Banna in June in the weeks before the game, but when they travel now, the inter-county season is almost over, or it is over.’

The format introduced in the noughties did see Cork and Kerry battle more than ever. Munster finals. All-Ireland semi-finals. Even an All-Ireland final. Between 2001 and 2010 there were 20 championship meetings. In ‘02, ’06, '08 and ’09 they collided three times in the same championship campaign. The rivalry was intense during that period. Epic, but bitter. So many subplots and talking points. Noel O’Leary v Paul Galvin, two cult heroes that brought a new dimension; those characters are also missing from rivalry’s current guise. It’s a world away from where it drifts now. The dynamic has changed. Who’s to blame for that? Cork needs to look inward.


Former Cork footballer Ciáran O'Sullivan loved the cut-and-thrust of Cork v Kerry battles before introduction of the back door.


Time to burst a bubble. One of the battle cries in the press release when Cork GAA launched its #2024 – A Five-Year Plan for Cork Football in January 2019 was that ‘Cork will be regular All-Ireland contenders in all grades of inter-county football, including club championships, within three to five years.’ The reality is different. By March 2019, months after the launch of the ambitious plan, Cork were relegated to Division 3 of the national football league for the first time. A new, depressing low. The county that won three Division 1 titles in a row (2010-12) spent the 2020 season traipsing around the third tier instead of trading jabs with the big boys. Four years on from that launch, Cork are a top-four Division 2 team, while Kerry are current All-Ireland champions; the latter are moving in different circles.

One of the main reasons why the Cork v Kerry rivalry – once described by former Cork shot-stopper Ken O’Halloran as akin to Celtic v Rangers – has diluted rests firmly with the Rebels’ drop in standards.

It’s now eight seasons outside Division 1 since Cork’s relegation in 2016. That’s eight years of no league games against Kerry. There’s little familiarity now, and little needle. Cork haven’t won a Munster senior football title since 2012, while Kerry have hoovered up ten in 11 years. Cork haven’t beaten Kerry in a Munster SFC final since 2008. On the pitch this has become too one-sided, and that seeps into the terraces too. 

From sold-out stadiums, numbers attending have dropped. At the 2019 Munster final there were just over 18,000 at the redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh that can hold 45,000; the ’19 attendance was already a significant drop from the 27,764 who watched the provincial decider between the two at the same venue 12 months earlier. Interest is waning. Cork have beaten Kerry once in their last ten championship meetings – Mark Keane’s glorious last-gasp goal in the 2020 Munster SFC semi-final, played in an empty Páirc Uí Chaoimh during Covid times. There was the horror show of the 4-22 to 1-9 final mauling in 2021; a record 22-point defeat against the old enemy. Each setback fueling the growing apathy towards the rivalry. Perhaps the border towns are different; think Knocknagree, Rathmore and Gneeveguilla. Perhaps not.

‘In order for there to be a rivalry between two teams there needs to be competition. In the last decade, apart from Mark Keane’s goal, Kerry have been the better side and in contention for All-Irelands whereas Cork haven’t,’ Murt Murphy explains. 

‘Cork are always capable of ambushing Kerry, but in the last ten years it’s been very one-sided. Cork’s big moments are fleeting – there was 2020 and in 2015 when Fionn Fitzgerald saved Kerry with a late point in Killarney. It doesn’t help that Cork are in Division 2 so Kerry don’t play them in the league either. That Cork football is struggling to get back to the top is a factor because they’re not one of the top teams.

‘As a fan, if you’re not worried or have nerves when Cork come to Kerry, it says a lot about where this rivalry is now.’ 

This rivalry that has lost its mojo needs a competitive Cork; it’s the oxygen that could fire it back into life. Right now, across the border Kerry has its sights set on Dublin, Mayo, Galway, Tyrone. The landscape has changed. Expectations in both counties differ.

‘To be honest, it means very little in Kerry except that Kerry have lost a game,’ says Tralee-based journalist Murphy. Ouch.


You can see how much beating Kerry in the 2020 Munster SFC semi-final meant to Kevin O’Driscoll, celebrating with Ian Maguire.


Not the sympathy line. Please, no.

In the last Cork v Kerry championship clash at Páirc Uí Chaoimh Cork football supporter John O'Dowd winced inside when the Kerry fan – not the worst example of a Kerry supporter, to be fair – next to him rolled out the line that stings: Kerry need a strong Cork. 

‘What I get from Kerry lads now is sympathy, which is nearly worse,’ quips O'Dowd, originally from Clonakilty and now living in Gort in Galway. He’s an outlier: a football fan in hurling country. Perhaps not too dissimilar to some areas of Cork.

His father Seamus is a Kerryman from Castlegregory who set up life in Clonakilty with his wife, Mary from Dunmore in Galway. John recalls summers spent up and down the road to his grandfather's house on the Dingle peninsula. Great memories beyond enemy lines. He concedes he enjoys spending time in the Kingdom, but when it comes to the football team of his father’s county, the barrier comes up. 

‘My childhood was shaped by those harrowing trips to Killarney and Croke Park over the years with my father, who 99 times out of 100 had the last laugh. You could call it character building!’ John says. 

Life as a Cork football fan this past decade is akin to an endurance sport without the high of crossing the line. More downs than ups. More lows than highs. A struggle. For some supporters, enough is enough. They have spoken with their feet.

‘The dynamic changes when you are going out against Kerry looking for a good performance and to avoid a hammering, as opposed to going there to compete and challenge for the win,’ John muses.

‘Some of it also has to do with the Cork support not being there to the same extent anymore. The crowds were what used to make those clashes what they were. Summer days in Killarney with massive Cork crowds coming down on the train. Or even the days in Páirc Uí Chaoimh with a sea of red in the Blackrock End making it very hostile for Kerry. That gave the games an extra edge. But not competing on the pitch has not only affected crowd size but that vigour and atmosphere that would be there on match days. It's not the same now.’

One of the aims in the county’s five-year football plan was for ‘support for Cork football and the profile of our inter-county footballers will grow significantly within one to two years’. That target hasn’t been reached. One feeds the other: a successful Cork team will bring the fans back, but the team also needs to feel the support.

It was unfortunate that one of Cork’s rare recent highs against Kerry – Mark Keane’s goal in dying embers of extra time in the 2020 Munster SFC semi-final – was played in an empty stadium because of Covid restrictions. John O’Dowd watched that game in a one-bed apartment in Dublin, testing his fiance’s patience as he celebrated. Former Cork PRO Joseph Blake was one of the lucky ones in Páirc Uí Chaoimh that November night. 

‘In the last 15 years at U20/21 level, Cork have beaten Kerry nine times while Kerry have beaten Cork six times. During the same time at senior level in the Munster championship, Kerry have defeated Cork ten times, while Cork have beaten Kerry three times and there have been two draws,’ the Adrigole man notes.

Kerry have bossed the Munster minor football championship over the same period, though Cork wins the last two seasons have clipped their wings. The Corn Uí Mhuiri (Munster colleges senior A football) hasn’t been a happy hunting ground either with no Cork winner since 2011; Kerry schools have won it every year since. All parts of a jigsaw that see Cork football lagging behind Kerry at senior level, as one of the great GAA rivalries dims in importance. 

‘They are a strong unit right now,’ Ciarán O’Sullivan says.

‘We are coming up against a superior Kerry team with scoring forwards. We caught them with the Mark Keane goal but that seldom happens; they just seem to be that bit above us. They have the forwards that can punish you, whereas we don't have enough of them.’

Back to the 2020 Munster championship when the high of knocking Kerry out was followed by a loss to Tipperary in the final. The chance to build on a famous win was missed, spectacularly. Another head-in-the-hands moment. 

‘They say it's the hope that kills but in a way it's what makes it all so special,’ John O’Dowd adds. He will make the trek to Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday for the latest installment of Cork v Kerry, hopeful of an upset. Fans from all over the county will join him, hoping and praying to silence that lot. Kerry fans will travel too, taking advantage of the new Macroom bypass for a quicker journey and a faster way to escort them back to their own territory afterwards, but not in the numbers of times past. Back in 1995, when R.E.M. rocked Slane, they treated fans to ‘Everybody Hurts’. But in this one sided local rivalry now, it’s only Cork fans that hurt, and this needs to change to breathe life into this derby. 

Share this article

Related content