Monday 16 September 2019

Diary of a Dub: Paul Curran looks back on his 1990s heyday

From his debut in 1989 to those epic battles against Meath in the 90s and the 1995 All-Ireland win over Tyrone, Paul Curran saw it all

21 June 1998; Paul Curran of Dublin in action during the Leinster Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final replay between Kildare and Dublin at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
21 June 1998; Paul Curran of Dublin in action during the Leinster Senior Football Championship Quarter-Final replay between Kildare and Dublin at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

Paul Curran

I consider the era that I played all my intercounty football in to be the most competitive decade in the history of the championship.

The 1990s produced no fewer than eight different winners in a ten-year stretch. I look back with some regret but also with great satisfaction at what Dublin achieved in that decade.

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My debut season was 1989 and that year, like every other year I played, had some success but ultimately ended without the big prize.

Meath were defending All-Ireland champions and going for three in-a-row and four Leinsters in-a-row, having beaten Dublin in the three previous provincial finals.

We weren't showing great form going into the 1989 Leinster final, having struggled to get over Kildare (my senior debut at corner-back) in the opening game in Newbridge and then a very good Wicklow team in the semi-final.

It was a daunting task facing the best Meath team of all time and as an excited and very nervous 20-year-old walking under the Hogan Stand to the dressing room with Dave Foran, we were both the target of some Meath snipery.

"Ye'll be going home with no medals today boys," is the one line I remember to this day and it would have been nice to see that same gentleman after the game, but I'd guess that he was a good bit down the Navan Road by the time I was exiting the dressing room apres-match.

 

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The game itself was a classic and on a scorching hot day it was difficult to catch breath at times. Charlie Redmond failed a fitness test before the game and was replaced by Kieran Duff. 'Dully', one of Dublin's greatest forwards ever, scored an incredible goal in the first half to give us breathing space and deep in the second half we looked to be heading for a win.

Meath at that time were masters at winning games that they might have lost, and a goal from Mattie McCabe put the Royals back in control. However, the last few minutes were all ours and with a goal from Vinnie Murphy and points from Joe McNally and Mick Galvin ensured a five-point win.

The All-Ireland semi-final against Cork turned out to be a disappointing day but a good year nonetheless to get one's career up and running. Then came the 1990s...

1990

A year that I was looking forward to turned out to be a total disaster as I didn't kick a ball in this year's championship. A nasty eye injury, a result of a street fight outside a chip shop in Terenure, meant surgery for a detached retina and a summer on the sidelines.

The only thing I remember about that year's Leinster SFC final was Colm O'Rourke's dubious goal which turned out to be the difference on the day. In those days a ball in the air was fair game and a player was entitled to go for it. O'Rourke put ball and man (John O'Leary) over the line and that finished us for that season.

1991

I was really looking forward to this championship year, having recovered fully. We won the league, defeating Mick O'Dwyer's Kildare in the final, but the draw for the first round of the championship could have been kinder.

It was the preliminary round of Leinster and our bitter rivals Meath were the opposition. It turned out to be an extraordinary four-game saga that captured the public's imagination.

I still think to this day that we should have closed out the very first game, but Meath were a 'never-say-die' team and a PJ Gillick equaliser at the death had the Croke Park accountants rubbing their hands at the thoughts of another big pay day.

In that first game I was picked at midfield with Paul Clarke but ended up at wing-forward for most of the second half.

The replay a week later again finished level and a further two periods of extra-time failed to separate the teams. I actually don't remember too much about this game, having taken a blow to the head in the opening half, other than Vinnie Murphy's glorious chance to win the game at the end of normal time.

Straight through on goal and only Mickey McQuillan to beat, a simple fisted score would have done the job but Vinnie went for the three-pointer, which was saved and the saga continued into extra-time.

The third instalment produced no winner, again after extra-time, but more of the same in terms of physicality and manly football. Some might argue that the quality of football was poor but for me the forgotten skills of high catching, blocking and shooting were there in abundance.

There was very little video analysis back then but between the third and fourth games we sat down after training one night to watch the VHS video of the second replay. I was dropped for the start of that third game and was sitting down the back of the room.

After watching the first 15 minutes manager Paddy Cullen pressed the pause button and started complaining about the lack of support from our half-forwards. He went on and on and then asked me "where were you, Paul, in the play?" at which I replied "sitting beside you, Paddy".

Needless to say laughter broke out and the seriousness of the point was lost for another day.

I did make it back to the starting line-up for the fourth and final game on Saturday, July 6, and played in front of yet another packed Croke Park. Playing on the 40 and being marked by Liam Harnan, I began well.

Harnan, a great presence at the heart of the Meath defence and a physically intimidating player, obviously wasn't too pleased when I got my hands on the ball early in the game. A little jab into my ribcage was a message to stay quiet, but it turned out to be one of my better games.

Unfortunately, we bowed out that afternoon despite being in control with time running out. Kevin Foley and David Beggy got the final two scores to bring the curtain down on a terrific battle between two great rivals.

The physicality in those four games was something that we don't see anymore. It was difficult to breathe and even harder to play any type of open football.

1992

After spending the first three seasons playing in the forwards and the odd run at midfield, this was to be my first chance in the half-back line.

Offaly were first up in Tullamore and after an easy enough win we headed for Portlaoise to face Wexford. Another comfortable win set up a meeting with Kildare.

Meath lost to Laois in the first round in what was a shock result and that cleared the way for us to pick up our first provincial title of the '90s.

However, on the way we very nearly threw it away in the semi-final against Louth. Séamus O'Hanlon was having a field day at midfield until Dave Foran was sprung from the bench and turned the game single-handedly.

Clare were surprise winners in Munster and were very difficult to break down. I remember they had a goal disallowed deep into the second half, which would have probably made the last few minutes very uncomfortable for us, but in the end we got through to the first of three All-Ireland finals in four years.

Donegal were waiting for us in the long grass, with a very talented team and fully deserved their maiden win, but from our point of view we got a lot wrong in the build-up too.

The rot probably set in when we went to see the semi-final between Donegal and Mayo and it turned out to be a poor contest. We came away from Croker thinking that Sam was ours and we were never able to get the minds back to where they should have been.

We had a function the evening after losing the All-Ireland final to Donegal in the Mansion House and Paddy Cullen would effectively lose his job after a throw-away comment he made about "it being only a game" when, in fact, his opinion all year about football was the very opposite to that.

It was an unfortunate slip of the tongue and harmless in its meaning, but players were annoyed and made their feelings known. In the end, Pat O'Neill took over in the hotseat as Dublin attempted to win its first All-Ireland since 1983.

1993

Another league title was secured and a sweet one at that. We got some revenge on Donegal after a replay and that win set us up for another tilt at the provincial title.

Meath were going backwards while Kildare began to show signs of the talented team they would become later in the decade.

We were made to sweat in the opening round against Wexford in Wexford Park, winning by just four points. A club-mate of mine, who will remain nameless, fell through the roof and into the middle of the Wexford dressing room and received a couple of pucks before being escorted through the door!

The Leinster final against Kildare was another close affair but in the end our experience of these types of occasions helped us to get over the line.

In the All-Ireland semi-final we faced a Derry team with legendary figures like Henry Downey, Anthony Tohill, Johnny McGurk and Mr Brolly. They were managed by the late, great Eamonn Coleman and the way football was heading, were destined to win.

We, of course, were doing our best to stop them and led by five points at the break, having played some excellent football. But back Derry came and reeled us in. The final point of the game by John McGurk was as good a point as you will see. That Derry team went on to win that year's All-Ireland, beating Cork in the decider.

We had to settle for another provincial title and a league but one could feel the frustration building in the county as another year ticked by without Sam.

1994

This was World Cup year and with Jack Charlton and the boys in another big competition there didn't seem to be much of an appetite for Gaelic football.

We got a tough draw against Kildare in the first round and, in front of a small attendance in Croke Park, we were very fortunate to get out with a draw. Charlie Redmond saved our blushes with a very late score.

The replay was a different matter altogether and our heads were firmly focused on getting the performance required.

After beating Louth in the next round, it was Meath again in our way. A very closely fought affair, we managed to win by a single point.

A broken jaw kept me out of the semi-final win over Leitrim but I managed to make it back for another final tilt, this time against Down.

Paul Clarke had done well at right-half-back against Leitrim, so it would have been hard on him if he didn't start the final so I was picked at left corner back and happy to be back in the team.

I was given the unenviable task of marking Mickey Linden, who was on the top of his game at the time and almost unmarkable. My plan was to play him from the front because I knew that the ball would be kicked in early and, sure enough, in the opening exchanges a long ball came hurtling in our direction.

I'd say I was at least 20 yards out in front and ready to win the opening duel, tear up the field and kick the opening score... but the bloody ball bounced over my head and into Linden's lap and he was away!

I chased him for about 15 minutes until I was saved by Pat O'Neill and switched with Paul Clarke. Back out in my usual position, I watched as Clarkey also struggled to hold the great man.

In the end we lost that final but could have snatched it at the death. Charlie Redmond had a penalty saved at the Hill 16 end in the dying minutes when trailing by two points.

A crushing defeat yet again but you can't win All-Irelands unless you get to the final, so going in 1995 there was still plenty of optimism despite being relegated to Division 2 earlier in the year.

1995

The year we eventually got over the line. It started in Navan against a Louth team that knew how to play us. Early in the second half a Stefan White goal rattled us but we were able to see out the game by taking a high percentage of our point-scoring chances.

Jason Sherlock made his debut and had a terrific championship, scoring a goal without his football boot in the next game against Laois.

The Leinster final against Meath was a game that all Dublin supporters will remember. A massive 10-point win against our rivals was a very unusual margin but it was a scoreline that was unfair on them.

Fifteen minutes into the second half, Evan Kelly scored a goal to tie it up and a couple of minutes later Graham Geraghty edged them in front. It was all set up for a nail-biting finish but we produced some magic and ran out comfortable winners.

It was the first time we could actually enjoy the last five minutes of a game against Meath, as all the others that I played in went down to the wire.

Paul Curran 1995.jpg
20 August 1995; Paul Curran, Dublin. All Ireland Senior Football Semi-Final, Dublin v Cork, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

The semi-final was always going to be a difficult one against Cork. You never know what you are going to get when playing the Leesiders and they always have great footballers. We were very happy to just get through this test and get into another All-Ireland final.

Facing us was Tyrone and, to be honest, we were all fed up to the gills with defeats by Ulster teams. We were highly motivated and after a very bad start we played some excellent football for the rest of the first half.

An early three-point deficit was turned into a five-point advantage and all looked good going in at the break. We knew that Tyrone would come at us and, with time almost up on the clock, they equalised only for the score to be ruled out after Peter Canavan had touched the ball along the ground.

It was a harsh call but one that we were delighted with. At last we were champions and the party began. I think that most football people around the country, apart from Tyrone, were pleased to see us get over the line at last.

It bridged a 12-year gap without an All-Ireland SFC title and for the previous four or five years it was a case of 'so near and yet so far'.

The next few days were all a haze but very enjoyable. Now that we had done it the goal for the following year was to go back-to-back.

1996

A controversial start to this season as Pat O'Neill and his successful management team decided to step down. As far as I know Pat wanted two more years, while the county board were only prepared to offer one.

It sounds crazy if true, but Pat walked and Dublin would not win another Leinster title for seven years and not feature in an All-Ireland final for an astonishing 16 years.

Coincidence? I think not.

With Mickey Whelan in charge, we attacked the season. I felt that Mickey got a lot of blame for the team's demise over the following two seasons, but for me the players took liberties and never really bought into his playing philosophy.

Eamonn Heery and Joe McNally were brought back into the squad after missing out on 1995, along with a host of new players. We did manage to get to another provincial decider and very nearly won it but a disallowed Ciarán Whelan goal in the final minute robbed us of Leinster five in-a-row.

Meath went on to win the All-Ireland, beating Mayo in a replay, so looking back one wonders if O'Neill had of stayed we might just have achieved something great.

1997

Another change of manager after Mickey stepped away after a defeat to Offaly in the league. It was a game that neither I nor Finbarr Cullen will forget in a hurry, but thankfully there is no bad blood between us and we have met on a couple of occasions since.

We were really starting to struggle as the poor performances and defeats racked up. Former player who not long retired, Tommy Carr, was handed the job but must have been cursing his luck when the draw for the Leinster Championship paired us against Meath.

With time almost up and three points down we were awarded a penalty at the Canal End.

Paul Curran 1997 v Meath.jpg
Dublin's Paul Curran is tackled by Meath's Colm Coyle during their Leinster Championship clash at Croke Park. 15/6/97. Photograph: David Maher SPORTSFILE.

I made my way up the field quickly and approached Paul Bealin as he was getting ready to put the ball on the spot. The only piece of advice to him was to keep the ball low. Bealo nearly broke the crossbar with his shot and our chance of winning was gone again.

We both had words in the dressing room afterwards and it very nearly developed into a bit more, but thankfully for Paul common sense prevailed. I won't say which Paul!

1998

1995 was now a distant memory and the team had changed completely, with only seven of the All-Ireland winning team starting against Kildare in the first round.

Another defeat after a replay left us with nowhere to go, while Kildare went all the way to the All-Ireland final. The Kildare supporters were fantastic and always brought great enthusiasm and no little noise to every championship game.

It was disappointing for manager Tommy Carr, who put a lot of work into it to try and get us back to being competitive, but two first-round knockouts never looks good on your CV.

Leinster was different back then, with a lot of very good teams, and it was an achievement to get out of the province.

Meath, Kildare, Offaly and Dublin were the big four, while Wexford, Louth, Westmeath and Laois would all give you a right game, particularly if you had to face them in a provincial ground.

1999

Let's party like it's 1999. Well, not on the football field, but we did manage to get back into a Leinster final, where we would face our old friends Meath.

I had to watch this one from the sideline after breaking my collarbone in the drawn semi-final against Laois.

A ball dropped between myself and Hughie Emerson and I decided to go shoulder-to-shoulder with the big man. We met each other fair and square but, unfortunately, I came out worse and suffered a season-ending break.

That meant the 1990s for me were book-ended with two injuries that kept me from finishing the championship season.

We did, however, manage to win the replay although it took a couple of late Ian Robertson points to get us through.

The final against Meath was a sobering experience. A five-point defeat didn't tell the full story because we had a late rally to take the really bad look off the final scoreline.

Meath would go on to win another All-Ireland while our team struggled to find any real improvement.

It was now four years without a provincial title and that would stretch out to seven before the comeback season came in 2002.

The 1990s was an extremely competitive decade and Leinster was a very competitive province.

We had great success in the first half of the '90s but the well ran very dry and as a county we never really recovered until the mid-noughties, when we started to dominate the province again.

I certainly enjoyed playing all my football in this decade. Every game was competitive and you had to be able to look after yourself. It was no-nonsense football with a lot of long kicking and that's something that I'd like to see more of in the modern game.

We'll probably never see the likes of the 1990s ever again, with Cork (1990), Down (1991, 1994), Donegal (1992), Derry (1993), Dublin (1995), Meath (1996, 1999), Kerry (1997) and Galway (1998) all lifting the Sam Maguire.

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