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Total recall: memories of '91 four-game epic

TWENTY years have passed, but it might well have been yesterday as Sean Boylan and Paddy Cullen delve into the memories of the Meath v Dublin four-match epic of 1991.

June came and went, and the teams were still engaged in a titanic struggle for supremacy -- and this was just the first round of the Leinster championship.

No back door, no second chance. And finally it was settled in game four, on July 6, 1991.

Players and the referee have reflected on the games in our series of articles on the legendary battles. Now it's time for the then managers Sean Boylan of Meath and Dublin's Paddy Cullen to travel down memory lane.


The Dublin dressing-room after game four. Devastation. Disbelief. It's all over. And they have lost.

Paddy Cullen: "At the end everyone felt like they'd been shot in the heart. That's what it was like. Because the effort that was put into it was tremendous. The excitement had been tremendous. Everyone did what they had to do, but it was curtains.

"You played four games plus extra- time in the first round, but what the history books say is: 'Beaten in the first round.'"

Sean Boylan: "My feeling at the end was immense relief for us, but it was almost as if it wasn't fair play to Dublin. That series was so amazing, it didn't deserve to have a loser.

"I went into the Dublin dressing- room and said: 'I'm sorry lads.' And I meant it. But sure you couldn't help them. The pain they must have gone through ... They were some men to come back and keep going until they eventually won an All-Ireland in 1995 after those four matches, because it took us a long time to recover."

PROLOGUE: November, 1990 in Dalgan Park, Meath

Risk number one and how Joan Benoit influenced the Meath approach.

Boylan was concerned about pre-season preparations. Could he put the squad, particularly the older hands such as Colm O'Rourke and Mick Lyons through the grind of relentless stamina training once more?

"The lads had a lot of mileage under their belt. They had reached that Leinster final in '86, they won the All-Ireland in '87 and '88 and were beaten in '90. We won the league as well in '88 and '90.

"And the other thing was that you could only use three subs whereas today you can change a third of your team, which can make an enormous difference.

"The more I thought about the stamina work I wanted to do with them, I decided I couldn't do it because there was a lot of mileage there," said Boylan.

Wily Boylan thought he had an answer. US athlete Joan Benoit had won the Olympic Marathon by using a buoyancy aid to train in water after a knee operation just six weeks before the Games.

The resourceful Meath boss sourced 30 buoyancy suits costing £3,000 from America with the help of Irish Olympians Sonia O'Sullivan and Gerry O'Reilly.

Gormanston College pool was the venue for this novel training approach. Secrecy was paramount. And there was scepticism from some players.

Boylan remembers the reaction of Gerry McEntee.

"So, we head down to Gormanston and go to the swimming pool, not for the pitch. He (McEntee) looks at me. Says nothing. It happens to be the first night we're training in the pool.

"And the lads did all the work in the pool. Afterwards there was a bite to eat.

"We're in the car on the way home and when I say the atmosphere was a bit strained, (with Gerry Mac) it's putting it mildly.

"He was, like, preoccupied. And then Gerry said to me: 'Sean, do you mind me asking you, if you're beaten in the first round against Dublin, and people ask 'how did the training go?' and you'll answer 'we were swimming.' How are you going to face the people of Meath?"

No matter. Meath continued doing the bulk of their training in the pool until three weeks before the June 2 fixture with Dublin.

Cullen recalls his approach to the game as manager of Dublin.

"We weren't worried about the draw. At that time you have to remember that Meath were strong enough, but they were an ageing team as well and you would have been thinking you've a fair chance.

"My first game in charge was a league match against Donegal in Ballybofey. So, we went from there, and we won the league that season (1990/91).

"We had Fran Ryder training us and he was very well qualified.

"The tactical thinking was to reduce the amount of short passing

"What we said was: 'You work yourself out of trouble and then try and play the ball longish. We didn't say 'kick it up in the air.' You kick it intelligently into a space. The man will make the space for you. You knock the ball into it. It's his job to go get it. Very simple. That's what football is about.

"So, we'd no fear about being drawn with Meath. Not at all. In fact we looked forward to it," said Cullen.

Colm O'Rourke v Mick Lyons

Sean Boylan: "Three weeks before the first match, I remember the very first training session we had on a pitch, down in Walterstown. It was as dead as a duck. It was as if the players all had sea legs.

"I remember going to Colm up in the forwards and saying to him: 'Could you ever do something that'll make me pick you?'

"He looked at me...and he said: 'Do ye think that ye ever have to say anything to me?'

"I said: 'No, but I want you to show me something that the other lads will see how much you're putting into it.'

"I went up the far end to Mick Lyons and I said the same thing to Mick.

"He said: 'Sean, did I ever let you down? I said: 'Mick, I'm not talking about you letting me down.'

"Remember, Mick had missed the All-Ireland the previous year with a broken leg. He said 'Right. Okay.'

"And then they (O'Rourke and Lyons) got dug into each other. And I still remember Paraic Lyons crashing into Brennie Wright with his head. And he split some of his teeth, and it looked awful, but it was the injection we needed.

"We knew we were rusty. Dublin were league champions and were extraordinarily fit, but I suppose it was something you never doubted, the bunch of lads that you had. You always felt they had that something, and the new lads that had come in were learning from the older lads," said Boylan.

Game one: how did

Dublin not win?

Mick Deegan got caught soloing upfield late in the first match when Dublin led by a point and the turnover in possession resulted in Meath's equalising point by PJ Gillic.

It could have been worse. Gillic's amazing high shot, which bounced short of goalie John O'Leary, could have gone in for a goal instead of edging over the bar for an equalising point.

Paddy Cullen: "You can put it down to simple mistakes, human error you might say, but when you look back on it, you can't blame anybody.

"Mick Deegan -- he contributed a savage amount in those matches.

"And in the first game when the ball did hop over the bar, we could always say: 'Well, look, the ball should have been kicked into the Hogan Stand.' It wasn't. That's Gaelic football.

"You make decisions and you have to live with them. But I thought we had played well."

Sean Boylan: "Whatever the run of play, there was going to be that flair in the Dublin team.

"And there were times when they expressed themselves.

"Everything Charlie Redmond touched turned to gold. He gave an exhibition.

"Brian Stafford was fantastic with us as well. There was more of a buzz about them than us, but as things went on, it was very often their mistakes that brought us back into it."

Game two: draw and

extra time

Sean Boylan: "Charlie Redmond was injured and then Barney Rock comes in and gives another exhibition of free taking, but in those matches there were players from both sides giving great performances.

"Sean Kelly was in the middle of the field for us. Sean was fantastic the first day and the second day and he got injured the third day and that pretty well finished his career because of the operation afterwards.

"But that opened the door for young lads like John McDermott. John came in and played a couple of the matches.

"For Dublin, Paul Clarke came in. Paul had such an influence. This great minor suddenly had come on the scene and what an influence he had. The Dubs were very driven men.

"It was like they were playing on the top of the ground. We were kind of grinding out matches."

Paddy Cullen: "The change of personnel didn't worry us, because we were confident that every player was willing and able to take over from anyone else.

"In other words we had as good a player on the line as we had on the pitch. So, we didn't have Charlie, but we did have Barney. And we had other guys who came in and did their job.

"The second match was a bit dogged. It wasn't a pretty match. I think it was then that both teams were kind of saying: 'We can't lose this match.' It was kind of defensive.

"The referee Tommy Howard was saying he could have put off a half dozen (players) in any of the games, but fair dues to him, overall I thought he did a great job.

"The only thing he got was a clock. I can't believe it. He should have been on one of the trips with us. And, in fact, it only struck me when you did the article on the ref that it was something that was overlooked from both teams' points of view.

"We should have included him on our trip and they (Meath) should have included him on their trip just to say 'well done.' And he did a damn good job -- except for the Keith Barr penalty in the last game."

Risk number two: Meath

go to Scotland

After the third game -- which again Meath could have lost if Dublin's Vinny Murphy had taken a point instead of going for goal -- Sean Boylan took up an offer by the County Board to bring the players away for a weekend.

Boylan, accompanied by the late Noel Keating of team sponsors Kepak and Scotland-based David Beggy, discovered a suitable hotel near Loch Lomond.

Before setting out, he had canvassed the views of the Meath wives and girlfriends.

Sean Boylan: "I rang all the wives and girlfriends. I asked: 'Would you mind if I took the lads away for a few days?

"Look Seanie, anything that'll beat Dublin, you have to do," was the response.

As events transpired, the hotel was able to accommodate a large party so Boylan brought players, wives and girlfriends along. It was a good bonding weekend, and on the Sunday, Meath worked on a drill of moving the ball the length of the pitch.

"For 40 minutes, we did nothing else but movement, almost the same as what happened at the end of the fourth match for Kevin Foley's goal.

"It was starting from the back, with opponents, tight space, ball movement all the time. Forty minutes is a long time for that concentration.

"Remember, I was talking about the flair that was in Dublin, and them being National League champions. That carried through the way they played.

"But I wanted to get ourselves throwing the ball around again. Get rid of the negativity. Let's be positive, let's have a go at it."

Colm O'Rourke, Keith Barr, Mick Lyons and 'That goal'

Paddy Cullen: "When O'Rourke got clattered that time, I thought he was dead and buried."

Sean Boylan: "He realised himself what was going to happen, that he was going to get a dunt. It's the one, whether it's in boxing or whatever, that you don't see coming that knocks you out.

"Colm was stunned, but never unconscious. If he had been knocked out we couldn't have let him play on."

Paddy Cullen: "Mick Lyons ran in as Keith Barr was taking the penalty. The decision not to order a re-take was extraordinary. Disgraceful, I have to say.

"The issue is that the rule was broken. And it was too crucial of a thing to let go. Everyone of the 60,000 that were looking at it said: 'What is he (Lyons) doing?

"Who's to say second time around, the penalty wouldn't have gone in?"

Sean Boylan: "When Dublin got the penalty, I found myself round at the Hogan Stand, where the dugouts are now.

"And I went on the field to Liam Hayes and I said: 'Will you get the lads to start throwing the ball around like they did last Sunday.

'If they do score (the penalty), we'll still beat them.' Those were my words.

"And everything went quiet, because of the penalty. And out of the Hogan Stand, because I was still talking to Liam, came a Dublin voice: 'Go way ye bleedin' witch-doctor!'"

Paddy Cullen: "What can you say about the last 15 minutes? We're coasting along, but you could never presume anything against Meath.

"But for Kevin Foley to come and get a goal...If you bet on that with Paddy Power, you would have got 1,000/1 on it.

"That's the way Gaelic football is. It's just unpredictable. When you get two teams that are fighting for something and both of them are good, then it's a toss of a coin isn't it?

"And that's why you have to put it on the back burner. Because you torture yourself with it, particularly on the losing side.

"And then Meath, unfortunately for them, didn't win the All-Ireland against Down.

"By the time they got to the final they were on their knees and still maybe could have plucked it, but our series definitely took its toll on them."

Final reflections

Paddy Cullen: "If you said to me 'would you like to go out the way we went out?' or 'would you like to reach the final and lose?' I'd say 'I'm glad we went out the way we went out.

"I would have hated to go through all that and lose the final."

Sean Boylan: "Coming into that final, there were a couple of things. Bobby (O'Malley) had broken his leg and he was out.

"Then Colm O'Rourke got very sick the week of the All-Ireland and lost nearly a stone in weight. Mick Lyons got injured just before half-time.

"It would have been lovely to have won the All-Ireland, but, on the day, Down were the better team.

"When you stop and think of the pain the Dublin lads went through, you just have to be thankful for what you had."

Irish Independent