Bad blood ran deep after final tensions exploded
After the dust settled following their notorious brawl in the All-Ireland final replay in 1996, members of the Mayo and Meath football teams returned to Croke Park for a newspaper awards ceremony later in the year. During one of the presentation speeches, a Meath footballer chanced a joke. 'What is the difference between a porn star and Liam McHale,' he began, before delivering the punchline: 'There would be less moaning out of a porn star.'
There were some sniggers from the floor and in some parts there was a more muted response, but the peace that had been brokered remained uneasy. Relations were still delicate. The day after the match in which Colm Coyle and McHale received their marching orders after a dust-up involving the majority of the players, there was a further flashpoint at a banquet held for the teams in Croke Park.
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At the meal, the Meath midfielder John McDermott extended his hand in a gesture of reconciliation to McHale who refused the offering. According to newspaper accounts McDermott was told in unambiguous terms by two other Mayo players to move on. For the GAA, the row which dominated headlines was an embarrassment, a wild melee tarnishing their major football showpiece. A few weeks earlier Wexford had won the All-Ireland hurling title to rapturous scenes only for football to drag spirits back down to the ground.
One loyal Mayo follower then resident in Meath made a point of boycotting all Royal car fuel providers, unless in an emergency. Both counties felt a sense of grievance even though each contributed to the melee. Mayo's beef was that one of their key players had been singled out whereas they regarded Coyle's loss as less severe to Meath. And Meath felt their win was being devalued by heroic levels of Mayo mourning and the widespread sympathy for the county from around the country for their valiant attempts to win a first All-Ireland since 1951.
Much of that frustration was borne by McHale, who tended to wear his heart on his sleeve. McHale spoke the next day openly of his hurt at having been sent off, claiming that the referee Pat McEnaney, then just 33-years-old, had unfairly picked him out. McHale's red card meant he would also miss the county final the following Sunday with Ballina. "I received three haymakers to the jaw. My face was bloodied and for a while I feared I had a broken jaw," McHale told reporters.
He added: "I don't think I will ever get over it." He also predicted that the next meeting of the counties in a football match would "not be a pleasant sight" and forecast grimly that little football would be played. They didn't meet again in the championship until 2009, an All-Ireland quarter-final, when Meath won by a goal. Today's meeting is their first since then.
The Mayo county board chairman Noel Forde weighed in at the time, saying how he couldn't understand why McHale was sent off, even after viewing replays. "McHale was our most valuable player," he said. "Coyle was their worst player."
While Coyle was no saint, the vilification of him was extreme because he was being condemned not purely for discipline, but on perceived ability as well which had nothing to do with the fundamentals of justice. At the time McHale, then 32, was one of Mayo's most influential players. He had been man of the match in the drawn game and instrumental in the county's revival under John Maughan.
By coincidence, Coyle had been keeping a diary of the lead-up to the two matches and wrote of the incidents afterwards in the Sunday Independent. He turned out to be a decidedly fortunate choice of chronicler for the newspaper, being a central figure in the events that transpired. His late score forced the replay. His sending off was one of the main talking points on the second day.
"I didn't go in looking for a fight," he wrote, "and I know for a fact that none of my team-mates did either. I'm also pretty certain that the Mayo lads were not looking for one either.
"Yet the fight that took place today was a disgraceful incident and, if they are honest, any of the players involved would admit that they are ashamed and embarrassed that it happened. But that is how it started. It just happened."
He said every county in the country "has an unofficial 'one in, all in' policy and with so much tension before the game (like any match of this importance) things just spiralled out of control."
Although he was quieter in the aftermath than McHale, he lamented: "After five minutes and one kick of the ball, my All-Ireland final replay was over."
As a result of the row and controversy the GAA decided to end the practice of using the same referee for replays.
"My biggest regret was that I should have sent off four, two from each side, and Meath's John McDermott would have been one of them," McEnaney told Colm Keys in 2009. "When it all settled down my gut instinct was to send off McDermott with McHale. I had my mind made up on that."
But while he had been considering McDermott, an umpire alerted him to Coyle's involvement and how he could not be allowed to escape justice. Ten years ago, McHale was still unhappy with the decision made by McEnaney, who went on to referee more All-Irelands in 2000 and '04. But he made his peace with McDermott at the 1996 All Stars where both men were honoured with midfield places. The two were photographed shaking hands.
Meath won another All-Ireland in 1999, while Mayo's quest continues, the wait now 23 years longer.
When the Meath team returned to Navan in '96, the crowd at the Fair Green was estimated to be around 15,000. The county chairman Fintan Ginnity described it as the greatest gathering since the county won the All-Ireland in 1949. Meath's win had been unexpected; the previous year Dublin beat them in the Leinster final by 10 points. When they arrived back before midnight on the Monday the chairman of the Urban District Council, Frank Carberry, referred to a newspaper cartoon that summed up public opinion: giving the scoreline, it had been captioned, Meath 2-9, the Rest of Ireland 1-11.
But the GAA felt compelled to act, with permissive attitudes prevalent towards players joining melees. It was not uncommon for players and mentors to defend the right of players to come to the aid of colleagues by joining in dust-ups. This naturally raised the risk of larger-scale rows.
Only last year, 22 years on, the referee development chairman Willie Barrett felt the need to reiterate the point that the 18 football referees covering championship matches had been told to crack down on Rule 7.2 (b), Category III (vi) offence, "contributing to a melee".
Barrett said: "This is something we've certainly honed in on. We've seen a number of games where a melee has occurred and we've asked our referees to deal with it very strongly. Where there are two players involved, it's fine, the referee can deal with it, but where more players come in and add to that . . . it then becomes a melee. What's a melee? Making a bad situation worse.
"So, we feel that we need to deal with that and we've given clear instruction to referees that red cards must be issued in those situations where players are coming in and you're eventually seeing five or six or seven players involved."
He said it would be necessary for all seven officials present on the day to work in harmony to spot the chief culprits when melees erupted. At last year's GAA Congress a motion from Tipperary sought to clarify how many participants constituted a melee by agreeing a minimum number and putting it into rule. The motion was defeated.
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