Saturday 17 November 2018

Cork v Meath: Latest chapter in an old rivalry

EARLY last year Billy Morgan led a delegation of some of his former Cork players to Headfort golf club just outside Kells where they were hosts for the afternoon of Bernard Flynn.

Morgan, Colman Corrigan, Dinny Allen, Barry Coffey and Jimmy Kerrigan joined Flynn and a couple of his old Meath colleagues around the pristine ‘new 18’ in Headfort, before they adjourned to the local hotel where the Cork contingent were among the guests of honour at a function hosted by one of the clubs in the area.

Flynn’s recall is of the night not anchoring until “seven the next morning” and the visitors being treated like royalty by the locals.

Last week Sean Boylan was quickly in contact with Morgan offering a supply of particular herbal drinks that, he felt, could potentially fast-track James Masters’ recovery from the jaw fracture he sustained against Sligo.

Morgan gratefully accepted the gesture from his old sideline adversary.

All very cordial but all a far cry from darker days in 1988 and beyond when their rivalry was plunged into bitter enmity, perhaps the most bitter in modern times.

Cork and Meath, who meet in Sunday's All-Ireland semi-final, met in four All- Ireland finals between 1987 and ’90 (including one replay) as they grappled for supremacy to fill the vacuum left by a dominant Kerry team.

It was a particularly ferocious power struggle that had its nadir in the ’88 replay as 14- man Meath dug their way to a 0-13 to 0-12 victory after Gerry McEntee’s early dismissal. Meath had won the ’87 final quite convincingly after a bad start but Cork finally avenged those defeats when they won another bad-tempered final in 1990 when, this time, the Rebels were reduced to 14 men after Colm O’Neill’s punch on Mick Lyons.

That ’88 replay is regarded as perhaps the most robust of the modern era. In his autobiography “Final Whistle” Colm O’Rourke recalls how Cork had hit hard in the drawn game.

“Dinny Allen left Mick Lyons semi-concussed, Niall Cahalane did likewise to Brian Stafford and I received one of the worst wallops on the football pitch when Barry Coffey caught me completely open,” wrote O’Rourke, who spent time in hospital suffering from headaches after that particular collision.

For the replay Meath made changes but also adopted a more aggressive attitude. In “Final Whistle” though O’Rourke insists anything that happened in the replay wasn’t pre-meditated.

“Some people think that we sat down and decided that we were going to hit all around us. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he recalled.

When McEntee was sent off for hitting Niall Cahalane six minutes in O’Rourke admitted losing his cool for a few minutes and trying “to savage any Cork man I got near” but once it settled down Meath were the dominant team as Cork struggled with the extra man. Meath held on but the fallout to their win was acrimonious.

Some of the Cork players refused to travel to the traditional Monday banquet in the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham and the GAA president of the day, John Dowling, rowed in with harsh words.

By the following January there was still no thaw in relations when the teams came across each other on respective holidays at the same resort complex in the Canaries. In his memoirs of his playing career Liam Hayes graphically recounted the unease they felt at being in each other’s proximity.

“This afternoon, we hadn’t been lying down on the beach more than 10 minutes when I heard Cork voices in the distance. I hoped they would pass by. Instead, they stopped directly behind us, an arm’s length away. In the next 10 minutes we managed to nod greetings to each other. I wasn’t bothered crossing the tiny divide of sand to chat to them. The entire Cork party are going home tomorrow and it will be good to see the back of them because then, everybody can relax further,” wrote Hayes.

The ice was broken first, however, when Tompkins made contact with Hayes and then by the former Dublin footballer Mick Holden, who happened to be at the same resort.

“Jaysus lads, ye’ll all be dead and there won’t be a football in sight. And if there is one, it’s mine and ye can’t play with it,” quipped Holden.

From then on the tension eased though the 1990 final still had its moments. The teams gradually faded from the limelight but it took the funeral of the Cork goalkeeper of that era, John Kerins, to restore regular contact. Almost the entire Meath team of 1987 and ’88 travelled to the funeral.

“The thing that changed it all was John’s death. Unfortunately it took a death to break the ice between Meath and Cork. That put it all into perspective,” recalled Martin O’Connell in “Boylan”, a biographical account of his management.

“They have lost two of that team, John [Kerins] and Michael McCarthy. It gives a perspective. But we’d be great friends now. Close relationships have formed,” revealed Flynn.

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