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The son of a Cork GAA legend's unexpected role in ending a 33-year wait

From a junior championship trouncing to a senior county final triumph, John Kerins had a year to remember.
Dec 31st 2018, 8:00 AM 42,505 4

IT WAS AN inauspicious start to a season that John Kerins is unlikely to forget.

A Tuesday evening back in April, and the players on the Ballinlough pitch outnumbered the spectators who turned up to see St Finbarr’s beaten handily by St Michael’s in the first round of the Cork City Division Junior A Football Championship.

With an 11-point loss for his club’s third-string team in his first championship outing of 2018, Kerins couldn’t have been much further away from the dream scenario he found himself in when the year drew to a close. That the 26-year-old goalkeeper is now the owner of a senior county medal is a fact he’s still attempting to process.

John Kerins John Kerins takes a kick-out for St Finbarr's in the 2018 Cork senior football championship final. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

A first Cork senior football championship title in 33 years for one of the county’s most illustrious clubs provided a captivating narrative in itself. John Kerins’ role added another fascinating angle to the tale of how the men from Togher ended a long wait for that elusive triumph. 

“At the start of the year I was probably third or fourth in the choice of goalkeepers in the club,” says Kerins. “I remember we got a bit of a trimming from St Michael’s with the juniors. It definitely wasn’t the most encouraging start to the year. But circumstances ultimately dictated that I ended up having a bit of a crazy rise.”

Going into the 2017 final against Nemo Rangers, St Finbarr’s had eight Cork senior football titles — as well as three All-Irelands — to their name. However, succumbing to their southside city neighbours after a replay meant that the Barrs had fallen short in each of their last eight appearances on county final day.

That run of misfortune extended back to their defeat to Imokilly in 1986, when Kerins’ father — John Senior — was the goalkeeper on a Blues team bidding to retain the Andy Scannell Cup, which they won at Clonakilty’s expense the previous year.

For goalkeepers, patience is a vital virtue in the pursuit of an opportunity to make an impression. John Kerins Junior has had plenty of it for the best part of a decade.

He won two county medals at minor level, restricted to a back-up role in both victories. On the senior panel that was beaten by Nemo in last year’s final, he trailed both Declan Murphy and James McDonnell in the goalkeeping pecking order. 

“As a goalkeeper, something has to happen for you to get into the team,” Kerins explains. “It’s generally a matter of circumstance. You’re just hoping and hoping that things will eventually fall in your favour.  

“I remember being in the gym two weeks after the county final last year. I was doing three days a week and we were back on the field then at the start of January. Maybe fitness isn’t seen as being as important for goalkeepers as it is for the other lads, but I wanted to show that I was putting the work in.

Pre Nemo The St Finbarr's panel, including John Kerins (back row, fifth from right) before their 2017 defeat to Nemo Rangers. Source: INPHO/Bryan Keane

“But was I thinking about being the senior goalkeeper in a county final at that stage? Absolutely not,” he laughs. “A million miles from it. My focus was probably on pushing James [McDonnell] to be second-choice instead of carrying water.

“As the year went on, things sort of worked out well for me. I can’t really claim it was down to form. James had to step away for a couple of months because of work and family commitments, so I played two championship games for the intermediates — the third round and the quarter-final.”

By the time they took on Aghabullogue in the semi-final of the Cork intermediate football championship on 13 October, the Barrs’ second-string side were forced to change their goalkeeper once more. Three weeks earlier, Kerins had been thrown into the deep end.

With just over 10 minutes of the senior quarter-final against Douglas remaining, Declan Murphy was stretchered off with a broken leg. Kerins was subsequently sprung from the bench for his first taste of the top grade, completing the rare treble of playing junior, intermediate and senior championship football for one club in the same season. 

“In all honesty, I was absolute bricking it when I came on,” he admits. “I was more nervous for those few minutes than I was for the county final. Self-doubt creeps in massively. ‘Am I able for this?’ — that sort of thing.

“We went down to 14 men as well so Douglas were dominant. In the back of your mind is the thought that this is going to go wrong and you’re going to be the scapegoat. If me coming on changed that game for Douglas, I’d never be seen again. Good luck!

“Our backs were to the wall, but thankfully we got out of it. Coming through it was huge for me in terms of the mental strength it brought. The semi-final and the final afterwards were a breeze in comparison.”

A 0-15 to 0-12 win over Carbery provided the Barrs with another opportunity to banish their county final hoodoo. That 33-year wait finally ended at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on the last weekend in October, as they came out on the right side of a 3-14 to 2-14 scoreline following a thrilling encounter with Duhallow.

St Finbarrs players celebrate with the trophy Celebrations after the 2018 Cork SFC final victory for St Finbarr's. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Two victories separated by more than three decades, yet inextricably linked by the goalkeeper on each occasion. As was the case in 1985 when the Barrs last reached the summit of Cork football, the number one jersey in 2018 was worn by John Kerins. 

“The funny thing is that if my dad was still around he’d probably have me playing out the field instead of in goal,” John Jr. says of his two-time All-Star father, a legendary figure in Cork GAA, having won six Munster senior titles and two All-Irelands with the Rebels.

In August 2001, three months after being diagnosed with cancer, he passed away at 39, survived by his wife Anne and children Suzanne, Paul and John, who was the eldest of the three children at just nine years of age. A substantial presence from Meath at the funeral revealed to him the esteem in which his father was held. 

“To me at that stage he was just my dad. I can still remember being about four years old and going out on the green in our estate with my brother Paul [also a member of the current St Finbarr's panel]. We used to have my dad’s jerseys and shorts hanging off us, just kicking a ball around. 

“We had all his matches taped so a regular Saturday morning for us would have been getting up out of bed and throwing a video in to watch a couple of his games. We’d have our own little All-Ireland then in the front room. But he was still just dad to us. We didn’t see him as someone who was well-known or anything.”

John Kerins was the goalkeeper on the Cork team that developed a bitter rivalry with Meath in the late 1980s. The Royals were victorious in back-to-back All-Ireland finals in ’87 and ’88. A 16-year wait for Sam Maguire ended when the Rebels beat Mayo in the ’89 final, before they finally exacted sweet revenge over Meath in the 1990 decider.

“After my dad passed away, fellas would often come up and tell me stories about him. It kind of sunk in then how much he was respected. All the Meath lads turning up to the funeral was a big part of that.

“I would have heard plenty about how much bad blood there was between the teams. They actually ended up in the same resort on holiday one year and they wouldn’t speak a word to each other. They couldn’t even be in the same room. That’s how much tension was there.

“Things are much different now. There’s a great relationship between our family and the Meath lads. The funeral just seemed to lift all the tension. After the county final I got lovely messages from fellas on that team like Gerry McEntee and Robbie O’Malley.

“Any time we’re in Dublin, Robbie will come down from Meath just to meet for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. There’s a huge amount of respect there. Again, that’s the kind of thing that hits home about my dad and makes me realise how highly people thought of him.”

The presence of the son of the late John Kerins between the posts for the Barrs added significantly to this year’s emotionally charged county final victory. Also at the forefront of the players’ minds was Kevin McTernan, the club’s goalkeeper in the 2009 and ’10 finals, who too would have savoured the occasion. After a long illness, he died on the eve of the replay defeat to Nemo Rangers in last year’s final.

“The day before the county final this year I was up at my dad’s grave. The morning of the game I was at Kevin McTernan’s,” says Kerins. “Going to my dad’s grave was probably a nervous tension thing as much as anything else. I wouldn’t class myself as a spiritual person at all, but I just asked him to keep me settled, keep me cool.

INPHO:Billy Stickland The Cork team pictured before the 1990 All-Ireland final, with John Kerins in white. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

“When the game had gone beyond the 60 minutes and we were ahead, I turned and looked at the scoreboard. I looked up to the heavens then and just said ‘get us through this, please!’

“When the whistle went, it was just pandemonium. It was just an unreal thing to be a part of with your club. It’s hard to put into words what that club means personally. It’s been a lot more to me during my life than an outlet for sport. It’s everything. To see the elation on the faces of so many people, nothing could top it.

“On the pitch afterwards, someone said to me that my mam was around, which caught me off guard as she didn’t actually go to the game because of the nerves. But it turned out that she had decided to go in for the last 10 minutes. As soon as I saw her, that was me done.

“Seeing her emotion after the game, you just knew right away that it was something special. My sister ran onto the pitch as well, she was one of the first people to hug me. My cousin was with her and I wouldn’t say he’d be the type to cry often, but he was in tears.

“My brother Paul was the same. Just to see what it meant to my family, you’re reminded that it’s more than just a game. Everything comes back to family. That’s what keeps me going. It was a fairly special day, one that will stick with me for a long time.”

He adds: “I still want to achieve more and I believe there’s potentially a Munster or an All-Ireland in this team if we can get fellas switched on. We were well beaten by Dr Crokes in Munster, but I think fellas were completely drained at that stage after getting the weight of having to win a county off the shoulders.

“We’ll all probably be starting with a clean slate in the new year again, so it’ll be a completely new challenge for everyone, especially when you’re the champions and you’re there to be knocked. But it’s a fact now that I’m a county medal winner and that can never be taken away. That’s a very satisfying thing to be able to say.”

After enduring such a long drought, St Finbarr’s will be eager to retain their status as Cork champions beyond 2019, a process for which preparations will soon begin.

For now, John Kerins is savouring some down-time. At the top of his agenda for the festive period is another visit to St Catherine’s cemetery in Kilcully. 

His father has waited long enough to be reunited with the Andy Scannell Cup.

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