BEFORE the latest lockdown, Donagh Wiseman took his kids to the playground in Macroom that’s perched on top of the hill that leads down to the football pitch.
The Castletownbere man, now living in Aherla, knows that particular hill inside out.
‘I used to hate that hill,’ he says.
‘The sand dunes in Inchydoney were nearly as bad, but I hated that hill.’
On his most recent visit, and after the trip to the playground, Wiseman walked down the hill – the spectators’ embankment on the side of the pitch in Macroom – and then back up it, just to see if it’s as steep as he remembers.
‘It’s steep, alright,’ he laughs, but when he was part of Larry Tompkins’ Cork senior football panel, running up that hill was no laughing matter.
He can’t remember how many cold and wet Tuesday nights in the depths of the winter that he spent locked in a battle with that hill, but the work there led to big days out in the summer – like the 2000 Munster senior football semi-final against Kerry in Killarney.
Tompkins’ Cork travelled to the Kingdom on that sweltering June Sunday as reigning Munster kingpins and had been All-Ireland finalists the previous season. The national league hadn’t gone well; Cork finished bottom of Division 1 and were relegated. Still, they were confident heading into the Fitzgerald Stadium cauldron. That was the last year (2000) of knock-out football, as the back-door was introduced the following season.
‘It was pretty straightforward – if you lost, your season was over,’ Wiseman says.
‘It definitely added to the tension and suspense of a big game like that because you knew that if you lost, your season is over in June because there were no second chances back then.’
Wiseman started on the bench in Killarney. It was a sweltering hot day. The heat was brutal and there wasn’t a puff of air. Over 41,000 fans packed into the stadium.
‘They were and are huge occasions,’ he says. ‘The rivalry probably has been diluted over the years, maybe because the back-door took out that must-win factor and maybe because Cork’s football fortunes have dipped too, but back then, in those knock-out days, everything was on the line.’
The Beara man remembers the noise too, but most of it came from the home fans in the first half. He could only look on from the subs bench as Kerry bossed the opening half, helped by two Dara Ó Cinnéide penalties, which manager Larry Tompkins took issue with, especially the awarding of the second penalty in the 31st minute. The referee, Mick Curley, deemed that Cork corner-back Ronan McCarthy had fouled John Crowley, but after the match, Tompkins hit out at the ref: ‘It was a disgraceful decision to award that penalty. Ronan was being dragged back yet he has a penalty awarded against him.’
Cork fans packed into Fitzgerald Stadium felt the same and they booed Curley at half time, as Kerry held a dominant 2-9 to 0-5 lead.
‘To get two penalties in a short space of time is unusual,’ Wiseman says, ‘and Larry obviously wasn’t happy with the decisions.
‘It’s hard to keep your emotions in check when you’re on the line and then you have the Kerry crowd right behind you, baying for you. The fact it was do or die added to it, there is a finality to it, and obviously it was Kerry as well!’
Tompkins and Cork needed a response in the second half – and they got it. Led by Colin Corkery, they fought back. The Nemo man almost took on the Kingdom single-handedly.
‘We didn’t do ourselves justice in the first half but we were far better in the second half and we put Kerry under the cosh and gave them a fright,’ says Wiseman, who came on in the 42nd minute for current Cork boss Ronan McCarthy.
The Castletown man marked John Crowley.
‘I came on in 1998 as well against Mike Frank Russell, and in 2000 it was against Johnny Crowley so it was always tough going,’ he says.
‘I remember the noise. The Cork fans were in full voice behind the goal and the comeback was on. I have heard it said lately that players blot out the crowd noise during a game but in a ground like Killarney, against Kerry, and with it all on the line, you definitely feel the noise coming down off the terraces.’
Early in the second half, Corkery grabbed a goal, followed by a Philip Clifford point – the comeback was on. Fachtna Collins and Nicholas Murphy took charge in midfield and it was wave after wave of Cork attacks. With four minutes left the Rebels had the gap down to two points, 2-12 to 1-3, (at one stage in the first half it was 2-9 to 0-3), but a misplaced pass from Stephen O’Brien led to a Kerry free, converted by Ó Cinnéide. It was the home side who finished the stronger to win 2-15 to 1-13. They advanced, and ultimately won the All-Ireland that year, while Cork’s season was over.
‘I checked the final score again recently and I had thought it was closer than five points,’ Wiseman says.
‘We paid the price for a poor first half, it was too big a gap to come back from but we salvaged some pride with our second-half performance.’
Wiseman didn’t wait around too long after the final whistle. Back at the team hotel, the Castle Heights on the edge of Killarney town, a friend from home collected him and gave him a lift back to Cork. He wanted to get out of Killarney as fast as he could.
‘The game didn’t go the way we wanted and that was very disappointing, but from a Castletownbere view it was a proud day for the club,’ Wiseman says.
‘I was with the seniors, Lorcan Harrington was involved in the primary schools’ game, and Padraig Crowley, Sean Deane and my brother Enda were with the Cork juniors, so it was big for us to have the level of involvement in a marquee day like that.’
The result didn’t go the Rebels’ way in 2000, but Wiseman is hoping the present Cork crop can deliver a knock-out blow to Kerry this Sunday.