Tuesday 17 September 2019

The incredibles: Dublin and Meath's four-in-a-row saga

1991's Leinster Championship preliminary round enthralled the nation but ended in heartbreak

6 July 1991; Keith Barr, Dublin, attempts a penalty against Michael McQuillan, Meath. Dublin v Meath, Leinster Senior Football Championship, first round, third replay, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
6 July 1991; Keith Barr, Dublin, attempts a penalty against Michael McQuillan, Meath. Dublin v Meath, Leinster Senior Football Championship, first round, third replay, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Niall Scully

BIG Jack. Italia '90. Nessun Dorma. And Toto Schillaci. World Cup fever had captured the nation. The GAA were worried. Then along came Dublin and Meath in 1991.

The draw for the Leinster Football Championship. No seeding. And out of the bowl popped Meath and Dublin. In the preliminary round!

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Two counties with an incredible rivalry at the time, and not always of a sporting variety.

Bar the 1989 Leinster final when Gerry McCaul's Dublin prevailed (2-12 to 1-10), Meath held the upper hand for the previous few years with victories in the Leinster deciders of 1986, '87, '88 and 1990.

The provincial final of 1986 was a turning point for the Royal County. Meath midfielder of that era Liam Hayes in his autobiography, Out Of Our Skins, wrote: "[Liam] Harnan had collided with Rock, and Barney fell to his knees on the soft turf, one hand clutching his left shoulder, begging for help.

"The referee ignored him, and turned his back to keep play going. Rock was in agony. He stayed on his knees, attempted to get to his feet at one stage and fell back down again.

"His collar bone had cracked. He was a pathetic sight, and at half-time the picture of his face stayed with us in our dressing room. It was comforting and most encouraging picture to have."

Paddy Cullen took over as manager in the autumn of 1990. They were the National League champions the following spring and looked ready for the summer.

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Seán Boylan was in charge of Meath. They had just about survived in the top division.

Nobody knew it then, but the clash of the old foes would go down in history. It took four games to finally decide one of the greatest duels of them all. Maybe the greatest.

Five hours and 40 minutes. The game that started on the back page had ended up on page one. And in everybody's living room.

It was a remarkable event. When it was finally over, the Lord Mayor of Dublin hosted a reception for both teams in the Mansion House.

Each match was played with such intensity. It was tough, physical stuff.

Tommy Howard, the postman from Kildare, refereed all four games. And even Tommy was going down with cramp.

1991 Game 1 (2).jpg
2 June 1991; Meath's Bernard Flynn, left, shakes hands with Dublin goalkeeper John O'Leary after the final whistle. Leinster Football Championship, DUblin v Meath, Croke Park, Dublin. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

The games all took place in Croke Park. Crowds of 60,000 and more. The first instalment on June 2, 1991, ended 1-12 each. Mick Galvin got the Dublin goal. Meath were happy to get out with the draw.

In the replay a week later, Meath were ahead. Dublin came back in the rain. Mick Lyons, the hardest of full-backs, was sent off for a foul on Vinnie Murphy.

It went into extra-time. Meath were able to bring on a 15th man. It finished 1-11 apiece. Jack Sheedy scored Dublin's goal.

Meath had their eye in the sky - Gerry McEntee and Joe Cassells, who watched high in the stand, gave their tuppence worth. McEntee had retired, but after the second game, he was back.

The matches began to generate reams of copy. But no journalist had a better view than the Meath captain, Liam Hayes of the Sunday Press.

There was a two-week break before the third helping. Dublin were ahead again. But a late goal from Bernard Flynn and two points from Brian Stafford saved the Royals.

Extra-time once more. McEntee came off the bench. And, incredibly another draw - Meath 2-11; Dublin 1-14. Dublin's goal came from Paul Clarke.

1991 Game 3.png
24 June 1991. David Beggy of Meath in action against Dublin during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

The interest in the games kept growing. There was enormous hype. It was the talk of the country.

Boylan took his players and their partners off to Scotland for a weekend. And that turned out to be the winning of the game!

The last chapter took place on July 6. The afternoon began badly for Meath. While getting changed in the dressing-room, Terry Ferguson injured his back and couldn't play.

Terry, the son of the Dublin legend, Dessie Ferguson. A connection that added even more flavour to the tale.

Once more Dublin held the edge. They led by six points in the second half. They then got a penalty. Keith Barr took it. As he ran up to take it, Mick Lyons went with him. The ball went wide.

As Seán Boylan often joked: "We say that Keith just about beat Mick in the run to the ball!"

Meath forward Colm O'Rourke in recent times reminisced of that surreal four-game saga in the Sunday Independent.

"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. Eamonn 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."

With two minutes left, Meath trailed by three points. Then came the goal of the century. It began with Martin O'Connell on his own end line at the Canal End.

And 11 passes later, Kevin Foley put the ball in the Dublin net from five yards. Boylan later revealed they had worked endlessly on such a passing movement on a little soccer pitch when they were in Scotland.

The teams were level yet again. Extra-time beckoned once more. But Meath won the kick-out. And David Beggy sent over the winning point. Meath 2-10; Dublin 0-15. Jinksy had finally brought the curtain down on a most extraordinary saga.

As Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh declared from the commentary box: "Incredible. Incredible."

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