LET’S relive that glorious moment. With 15 seconds to go in injury-time at the end of extra-time in November’s Munster SFC semi-final at an empty, cold and wet Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork trailed Kerry by one point, 0-13 to 0-12.
But there was time for one last Cork attack. It was all or nothing.
Pre-match favourites Kerry, hanging on, retreated, dropping plenty of bodies behind the ball. They travelled in a car convoy across the county bounds that Saturday evening fully expecting to fend off the locals on their way to another Munster final as they closed in on an expected eighth provincial title in a row.
Freshly-crowned Division 1 champions, Kerry were held aloft as the team that would knock Dublin off their pedestal – but the men from the Kingdom were about to see their football world come crashing down as an heroic Cork effort was rewarded with the most sensational finish of the season.
Here, we chat to three of the Cork footballers involved in that last-gasp move – centre back Sean Meehan, Nemo hot-shot Luke Connolly and the returning Wizard of Oz himself, goal-scorer Mark Keane, only home on holidays from Australia – to relive that incredible finish.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) November 8, 2020
KIERAN McCARTHY: Sean, when you picked up the ball in midfield, it came from the right and you darted to the left to exploit the space, but there were just 15 seconds left in injury-time, how conscious were you that Cork needed a score from this move?
SEAN MEEHAN: I knew we needed to make something happen. The tiredness had kicked in so much, we were after over 90 minutes, so it was back to basics, try and get on the ball and make something positive happen when you got it.
KIERAN: You certainly made something happen – you drove at the Kerry defence, found a gap and suddenly you found yourself on their 20-metre line. For a split-second did you entertain the thought of shooting for an equalising point?
SEAN: That didn’t go through my mind at all. Luke was to my left on the wing and if the gap didn’t appear in front of me, I would have laid the ball off to him. Once the gap appeared, I was gone, and I had it in my head to get it to a shooter. I gave it to Damien (Gore) thinking he might have a pop. If I went for it, it would have been on my weaker leg. It could have went over but playing the percentages at that stage I thought a forward would be the better bet and more suited than me.
KIERAN: Sean, were you expecting Damien Gore to pop the ball back to you so quickly? Bear in mind too, when you had the ball now there were just three seconds left in injury-time.
SEAN: To be honest, I didn’t think I’d get the ball back so fast! In fairness, Damien is an expert on tight angles and I thought he might have a pop. Looking back on it after it was the right call to give it back. The shot wasn’t on so he was right to recycle it. I was after coming from space so, possibly, I could have gone back there myself but realistically the Kerry lads were probably swarming that area. I think Luke was the best option. Even if he hadn’t shot, I don’t think the ref would have blown it up. I think we had one attack left in us.
KIERAN: Luke, you had come off the bench in the second half, made an impact and had kicked three important scores, and you found yourself the man in possession near the side-line as the seconds counted down.
LUKE CONNOLLY: I was conscious of the time, definitely, and probably a little worried that we mightn’t have the time to get a clean shot off. When Sean broke the line and the shot didn’t materialise, that’s when it set in that we needed to get a shot off quickly. I was trying to stay on the perimeter for a few reasons – one, I was trying to stay open and two, I had chased David Moran back on the previous play when he put the ball high into the sky and we won it back, and I was struggling with both my hamstrings just from chasing. So the reason I was on the wing was because I could barely move at that stage!
KIERAN: As soon as you got the ball, you took a few steps in and went for the shot that ultimately became the greatest assist of your career. Or here’s your chance to tell everyone that this was an inch-perfect pass to Mark Keane …
LUKE: I was definitely going for a score. David Clifford had kicked a similar one on the far side early in extra time; he got it up into the wind and that carried it between the posts. The thinking was that if I got it up with enough trajectory, the wind would do the rest. Looking back now, I was off balance when I kicked it so there was a snap-shot element to it. The reality was very different to how I had pictured it. It went straight up but I didn’t see it come down. After I kicked it, I think it was Jack Sherwood and Paul Murphy who were coming for me and one of them ran over me, so as the ball is in the air – and it was Cian O’Neill on my left shoulder – we were actually calling for a free. But by the time the scream left my mouth, the ball was in the net.
KIERAN: Luke, talk me through the thought process of not even hesitating for a second to fire off a shot from a tight angle when Cork are one point down against Kerry in injury time in a Munster semi-final.
LUKE: At no stage was I thinking I won’t take the shot and the thought process was to get into a position to shoot. The reason I was brought on was to change the game or get the scores we needed to win the game. At no stage was I second guessing taking the shot. I had missed a few already but I was kicking well so I felt I had a bit of a hot-hand. In my career I have been in that position before and taken the shot, and more often than not they don’t come off, but as a forward you have to back yourself. That’s something we spoke about last season, about backing ourselves in those positions and backing ourselves to make a difference. Johnny Holland (performance nutritionist with Cork) said it was probably the most important miss I ever kicked!
KIERAN: And one man who certainly made a difference that night is Mark Keane. You were home from Australia where you play in the AFL with Collingwood and it caught us all by surprise to see you named on the bench for the game.
MARK KEANE: I was home on my holidays and I got this chance to play for Cork. I only had four training sessions before the Kerry game. Speaking to Cian O’Neill in the build-up I knew I was going to come on against Kerry. He gave me a call the day before too, to make sure I was ready, but I didn’t think I would make as much of an impact!
KIERAN: When you were sent on in the second half, what were the instructions?
MARK: They just said go in full forward and come out for some of our kick-outs, but I found I didn’t get a chance to go out that much and I stayed inside. Thankfully it worked out. I had Jason Foley on me, Kerry brought back their sweeper too to sit in front of me so that meant that we had an extra man out the field.
KIERAN: As that move was developing and you saw Sean Meehan bursting through, you were hanging around the penalty spot with your hand in the air, did you think the ball would be sent in?
MARK: Initially I was in midfield and then I heard Cian O’Neill shouting from the sideline, telling me to get into the square. As I was going in I remember Peter Crowley was telling Tommy Walsh to go back in full back instead of him. When I saw Sean Meehan coming through I was telling him to kick it over the bar. Then when Damien Gore had the ball, I said the same thing, to kick it over the bar. Then when Luke got it, he took the shot. I saw it go up in the air.
KIERAN: The ball seemed to hang in the air before it landed into your arms just a few yards out from goal. You didn’t even have to jump to collect the ball.
MARK: In Australia, it’s all aerial, it’s all high balls coming in. It was more that I guarded the space so Tommy Walsh wouldn’t be able to go into it. I judged that the ball would land there so I was guarding that space. From learning over in Australia I just wanted to get in behind Tommy Walsh and use my body work to catch it for a mark. I thought he was going to get a fist to it or the goalkeeper was going to come out and take it. I was shocked that none of them got to it.
KIERAN: And it all worked out pretty well for you in the end …
MARK: The second I caught it, I went for goal. I’m not a goal-scorer, I never have been all the way up, but I didn’t think twice about going for it, I went for the shot. The next thing I remember is Paul Kerrigan running towards me. I just ran back out to midfield for the kick-out but there was no kick-out because the ref blew the whistle.
KIERAN: It was an incredible finish to the game. From one down Cork were now two ahead. Sean, as soon as the ball hit the net, what went through your head?
SEAN: The first thing I thought is that I’m a wing back standing in the corner forward’s position so my first instinct is we need to get set up. Anything could happen. I went running back, looking to get set up. When it went in, the cheers were deafening, it was like the stadium was full. It was a class moment that we will all remember for years.
KIERAN: The final whistle went almost immediately. A Cork win. 1-12 to 0-13. And the first win against a top-tier team in eight seasons. You could see how much this result meant to everyone. Okay, the final against Tipperary two weeks’ later was very disappointing, but did you see enough in the performance against Kerry to build on going into 2021?
LUKE: The reason we beat Kerry isn’t because of Covid or the knock-out scenario, we believe that we beat Kerry because we were a better team. We don’t want this to be a one-off. We flirted with that form in the Super 8s in 2019 and had a lot of moral wins, but we want actual victories. Winning is a habit and, okay, it didn’t materialise in the Munster final, but I would look at that game in isolation and not in context of the whole year. There have been steps and strides made, and there is a lot of excitement in the group.
SEAN: We want that feeling again and again. That is a massive incentive for us to drive on and we are going in the right direction. Please God, we will get that feeling again. We’re not satisfied with the way things turned out after, but we have to move on. It was a nice moment, but beating Kerry can’t be the be-all and end-all.