Colm O'Rourke: It wasn't the All-Ireland final, but it did feel like it
The Meath-Dublin saga of 1991 contained enough excitement for an entire championship
Before 1991, Meath and Dublin were kept apart in Leinster, so the sides met in the previous five provincial finals. So when the Leinster Council decided on an open draw for 1991, it was fate that the two old rivals would meet in the preliminary round. The funny thing is that at the time the Leinster Council thought it might be a financial disaster as finals between the two were huge money-spinners.
Meath and Dublin were heading in different directions 25 years ago. We had a hardened group who had been around for over a decade, had won five Leinsters, two All-Irelands, lost a couple more and won leagues when they amounted to something. Quite a few of the team were in their 30s, I was 34 . . . we definitely did not have time on our side.
Dublin were on the way up. They would go on to win the next four Leinsters in a row, so although we had kept our foot on the throat for the previous five years, they were beginning to squirm their way out. A bit like Ali-Frazier in Manila, we met in this series at a time when our paths crossed as equals.
It took a month and four games to sort out this local spat.
The build-up to the first game did not go smoothly in our camp. The humour was not good among a lot of players, which is probably saying something as it was never that good normally. There was plenty of moaning, training was light on numbers and the team had a jaded look about it. Even Seán Boylan was a bit cantankerous. He must have thought the house he had built was beginning to wobble.
I missed a lot of the preparation for the game. I had an operation in the spring on a persistent ankle problem and my return was delayed further as it became infected and was slow to come right. The idea was to pinfire me like the horses to get ligaments to heal; it worked but it was not as simple as first thought.
When I came back I was swanning around, expecting to just get my place without much effort, based on my past form. After a trial match on the Sunday before the Dublin game Liam Hayes, who was captain, was quick to tell me that he was not impressed with my efforts. It was all getting a bit heated but we needed something to get everyone up to speed. Pat Reynolds, who was a selector, rang me wondering if there was anything left in the tank. There was also a doubt about Mick Lyons being selected as he looked as if he was finally being tamed.
In the end both of us started, and Lyons flattened a couple of Dubs early on just to show that the habits of a lifetime were not about to change. I was moved from my usual spot at corner-forward, where I had played alongside Bernard Flynn and Brian Stafford for five years, out to centre-forward. I was sent straight into the arms of Keith Barr and many attempts at grievous bodily harm - on both sides.
The first match was played on a windy day, and only for a penalty from Staff after Hayes was fouled the Dubs would have been out of sight by half-time. Hayes dragged us back into it in the second half but we were one behind with time up. Then Mick Deegan, an ultra-skilful and speedy corner-back, was robbed by 'Jinxy' Beggy as he soloed out of defence and when PJ Gillic put in a high ball into the goalmouth, John O'Leary and Tommy Dowd both missed it and the ball bounced over the bar. The Leinster Council should have bought Deegan a new car, or at least a motor bike.
A week later we were at it again. The weather was typical summer, rain and wind, and Dublin were the better team again but we survived to extra-time with a bit of rope-a-dope tactics. Tommy Howard from Kildare, who was referee for all four games, nearly made a mess of the whole saga by sending off Mick Lyons with a few minutes to go in normal time. All he did was give Vinny Murphy a few short fists into the kidneys and Vinny went down all too easily! Who would go down for something as light as that? We were incensed as nobody told us that anything you did against the Dubs would ever deserve a sending-off. The same applied the other way too. Anyway Murphy missed a great chance at the end when he went for a goal and Mickey McQuillan smothered it. Another motorbike for McQuillan and Murphy. Or at least a push-bike.
The drama was now beginning to generate publicity. The crowds were getting bigger, the numbers of supporters at training were back up and Meath people were busy rearranging holidays, weddings, Christenings and funerals to make sure they would not miss anything. The family of one poor man on the visit to the priest to discuss funeral arrangements immediately ruled out Sunday, the obvious day, for the burial. The priest never asked any questions. The deceased would have understood too. One family decided to sell a bullock to pay for tickets for every game, another decided to do with the old carpet.
The third game was the best. More rain, slipping, sliding and anything went in the physical stakes. The game was being played off the ball at this stage as much as on it. It could not happen now with all the cameras and there would have been nobody on the field with these confounded cards, but nobody complained. If you got a dirty belt you got up, said nothing and waited for your chance.
We were always behind and looked cooked with time running out but Bernard Flynn scored a brilliant goal to leave us two behind, then we scrambled another point and Staff kicked a brilliant free to equalise from a long way out. I think he told me afterwards that he had said a prayer before he kicked it. I assured him that we all knew he was going to kick it over and passed no remarks but we had the rosary said between the rest of us. The times we look to God. . .
The extra-time was great stuff and we played well in that period - it was 15 minutes a side then. Colm Coyle scored a great goal and almost immediately Jack Sheedy got one for Dublin. It was helter-skelter and was the first time I thought we had these hoors but the long whistle meant another day! The crowd clapped us off, we shook hands, there was more war to come.
Gerry McEntee had come into the mix. He was training in liver surgery in the Mayo Clinic and could not stick it any longer so he decided to help out by making the journey from the US to assist with onfield surgical procedures. Logos came on the jerseys too for the first time. It was Arnotts versus Kepak. We were proud to have Kepak on our chests. Noel Keating did a lot for us and we were glad to carry the company name.
The last match was fixed for a Saturday, a first, and was the first game ever televised on a Saturday. The weather got better and there was a huge crowd and the most wonderful partisan atmosphere of any game I was ever involved in. After a few minutes Staff put a pass into a space for me to run on to. Eamon Heery and Keith Barr measured me up and hit me from both sides. I went down like a sack of spuds, was carried off, never remembered coming back on and only had knowledge of the first half from watching the tape later. My wife Patricia had our young daughter Elaine in the stand. With the bit of commotion going on around me on the ground she enquired off her mother, "Is he dead?" It did feel like it.
The second half seemed as if we were all dead. Heery, Barr and Paul Curran were using their pace to cause all sorts of problems, Niall Guiden was scoring great points and we were at sea. Then we struck for a goal. I was back in at corner-forward and got in behind my old adversary Mick Kennedy and punched the ball across the goal to Brian Stafford. As John O'Leary came out feet first, Staff shot, hit him slightly on the toe of his boot and the ball ended up high in the net. Yet as soon as we thought we were back Dublin reeled off a few points and then got a penalty. This was goodnight Vienna.
Keith Barr took it, hit it low and hard but just outside the post. Commentator Ger Canning even thought it was in on first viewing. Mick Lyons ran alongside Barr to keep him company as he ran up to take the penalty. Typically Barr or the Dubs never complained about this or any aspect of the games. It was not that group's style or indeed manager Paddy Cullen or Pat O'Neill.
Then the goal. Helen of Troy was supposed to have had a face that launched a thousand ships; Kevin Foley scored a goal that broke a hundred thousand hearts in Dublin. It started with the imperious Martin O'Connell stopping the ball going over the end-line at the Canal end. The came a necklace of passes which I nearly messed up by almost kicking the ball over the sideline at the Hogan Stand but it was rescued by David Beggy and off we went again. Eventually two great give-and-go passes from Tommy Dowd opened up the goal and there was Kevin Foley who said he might as well go up front as the stewards were taking up after-match positions.
So the man of few words and still fewer scores made history. I can still see him kicking the ball with his left foot and John O'Leary scrambling across, slipping but nearly getting there. Seán Boylan claimed that we had practised this move when we spent the previous weekend relaxing in Scotland. My memory of that weekend was one of serious drinking and a karaoke session where everyone had to sing. As for the training, we were too sick the following day for much. It showed Boylan at his best. He always knew when to take the hand-brake off.
With the game level, we won the kick-out and Liam Hayes gave a great foot-pass crossfield to PJ Gillic, who handed it off to Jinxy, who kicked a brilliant point. Dublin won the kick-out and were given a free in midfield. Jack Sheedy had the chance to bring it to a fifth game but it drifted wide. After 340 minutes plus stoppages there was only one point in it. The best part was that it was a point in our favour. Boylan became King of Meath that day.
It was a most beautiful summer's evening afterwards and we passed through many towns and villages in Meath with people drinking outside and for that few hours all seemed well with the world. Most of us settled down for a while in Dunboyne to shoot the breeze with the locals and I can remember it as one of the most enjoyable nights of my life in football.
It wasn't the All-Ireland, but it felt like it.
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