The day Kerry football came of age

Forty years ago this week, Kerry caused a major upset by beating overwhelming favourites Dublin in the All-Ireland Final. Helped by Mikey Sheey’s famous goal, it kick-started the four-in-a row drive. Ryle Dwyer looks back at that great day

Tony Hanahoe, Dublin captain leads his team during the pre match parade in the 1978 All- Ireland Football Final, Croke Park. Photo by Connolly Collection / Sportsfile
Tony Hanahoe, Dublin captain leads his team during the pre match parade in the 1978 All- Ireland Football Final, Croke Park. Photo by Connolly Collection / Sportsfile
24 September 1978; The Kerry team. Back row,from left, Jack O’Shea, Eoin Liston, John O’Keeffe, Charlie Nelligan, Tim Kennelly, Sean Walsh and Pat Spillane. Front row,from left, Mikey Sheehy, Paudie O’Shea, Paudie Lynch, Denis Ogie Moran, John Egan, Ger Power, Mick Spillane, Jimmy Deenihan. All Ireland Senior Football Championship Final, Kerry v Dublin, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Connolly Collection / Sportsfile

September 24th will be the fortieth anniversary of one of the great upsets in Gaelic Football. Many Kerry people were not surprised, but the rest of the country gave Kerry little or no chance of beating Dublin on that day.

It was the fourth consecutive year that Kerry met Dublin in the championship. The young Kerry team had caused a major surprise by winning in 1975, but they were too young to cope with the win.

Dr Con Murphy - the current doctor with the Cork team -was working at St Catherine's Hospital in Tralee at the time. He told the young Kerry players that they would be beaten in the 1976 final, because they did not appreciate to extent to which their 1975 win had roused determination of the Dublin team.

"We'll tar 'em!" one the players replied, but Dublin won that final comfortably. Thus the Kerry players were not overconfident when the two teams met in the semi-final in 1977. That game was considered by many people to be "the greatest game of Gaelic football ever," according to Tom O'Riordan of the Sunday Independent.

After winning the 1977 championship, the Dublin players were called "the Super Dubs," and even "the team of the century" in some newspapers. "Their superb football skill and their sheer talent has made them the team of the decade," the Fermanagh Herald noted. "Indeed one could say, the team of the century. They have dominated the Gaelic world".

By the time of the 1978 final, the Kerry players had had their noses rubbed in it so much that they had become as determined as the Dublin team in 1976. Privately they were confident, but they were under instructions to play this down with the media, which was generally predicting a Dublin victory.

Mitchel Cogley of the Irish Independent singled out Jimmy Keaveney as the likely "match-winner" for Dublin. Even Tom O'Riordan, an ardent Kerry man, suggested in the Sunday Independent that Dublin would win.

Dublin was leading by six points to one after twenty-five minutes. During this period there was an incident when Paddy Cullen, the Dublin goalkeeper, cut the feet from under Ger Power in an off-the-ball incident. The crowd booed.

The referee, Seamus Aldrich looking back as Power was rising. Thereafter each time Cullen approached the ball he was roundly booed.

As the Kerry forwards were being virtually starved of the ball, Eoin "Bomber" Liston drifted from full-forward into mid-field, where he fielded a high ball in the 26th minute. He fisted it to Jack O'Shea, who fisted it on to Pat Spillane, who hand-passed it to John Egan, who fisted from over fourteen-yards out over the head of the approaching Cullen into an empty net.

Five minutes later, with Dublin still leading by 0-7 to 1-3, a Kerry attack broke down and Cullen came out of his goals to collect the ball. The crowd again booed him. As Power approached him, Cullen hand-passed the ball to Robbie Kelleher.

I watched Cullen and Power, expecting that there might be trouble. Power turned and seemed to back gently into Cullen, as if to suggest, he was not afraid of him.

When the referee blew the whistle, Kelleher was convinced that it was a free to Dublin. "I couldn't believe it when it went the other way," Kelleher said.

After the game I mentioned privately to Power that if there was an infraction, it was he who fouled Cullen, not the other way around. He was definite, nevertheless, that Cullen had fouled him by kicking him in the ankle as he backed into him. On seeing television coverage of the incident later, however, he admitted that their legs had just got tangled up and there was no intent on Cullen's part.

"I was so convinced I had been fouled," Cullen told reporters after the game, "that it was almost a spontaneous reaction that I seek a free."

"Paddy put on a show of righteous indignation that would get him a card from Equity, throwing up his hands to heaven as the referee kept pointing towards goal," Con Houlihan famously wrote in the Evening Press next day. "While all this was going, Mick Sheehy was running up to take the kick - and suddenly Paddy dashed back towards his goal like a woman who smells a cake burning."

"The ball won the race and it curled inside the near post as Paddy crashed into the outside of the net and lay against it like a fireman who had returned to find his station ablaze. Sometime, Noel Pearson might make a musical of this amazing final and as the green flag goes up for that crazy goal he will have a banshee's voice crooning: 'And that was the end of poor Molly Malone'," Houlihan added.

The goal was "the greatest freak of all time," according to Micheál Ó Hehir's live commentary on RTÉ. The goal was generally considered to have had a crucial impact on the outcome of the game.

"Nightmare score the unmaking of those Super Dubs," the Irish Independent proclaimed in a front page headline over Donal Carroll's article next day. "A priceless piece of opportunism by Kerry's Mikey Sheehy sparked of the greatest 'conflagration' since Mrs O'Leary's cow burned down Chicago," Carroll wrote in a burst of sheer hyperbole.

"Sheehy, of the cool head and wonderfully alert football brain, lit the fuse a mere two-and-a-half minutes before the break with as cheeky a goal as one would want to see," Carroll added. "And the effect was only devastating, as a 'cold' Kerry ignited to register the biggest victory margin in a showdown since they, themselves, trounced Monaghan by 3-11 to 0-2 in September 1930."

In the second half Liston added three goals, and Kerry won by 5-11 to 0-9. Nineteen teams scored three goals, or more, in all-Ireland senior football finals, but Liston was the first - and still the only person - to score a hattrick of goals in a final. He was also the player who won the ball and initiated the sequence that led to the first goal that day, yet when people recall that game, it is usually Sheehy's opportunist goal that is remembered.

Some twenty years later, at a Kerryman golf outing in Ballybunion, Micheál Ó Muirchteartaigh and others were waxing lyrically about the Sheehy goal in the '78 final. I thought it strange that they went on for so long without mentioning Liston in Ballybunion, his hometown. "The Bomber" was sitting quietly at the table.

"Eoin, I think it is a fright," I said, "They have been on for the last ten minutes about Mikey's goal; you scored three goals that day and they have not even mentioned them." He broke into a broad smile and jumped up.

"What will you have to drink?" he asked me.

One of my fondest memories of 1978 was of the day after the final. Dublin followers seemed shocked as they had expected the game to be a mere coronation. Joe O'Shea - one of three Tralee lads sharing a house in Dublin with Ger Power - enjoyed himself at work next day in the Justice Department. He asked various colleagues if they heard about the Garda who stopped the four Dublin lads climbing over the wall of Croke Park.

"No," of course, they had not heard the story. "Well," Joe said, "He made them climb back in and watch the end of the game!"