Thursday 27 June 2019

Terrifying crushes and a stabbing on Hill 16: Infamous 12 Apostles clash between Dublin and Galway could have been GAA's Hillsborough

Old rivals meet in championship for the first time since that 1983 All-Ireland final

Brian Mullins is sent off by referee John Gough, with Brian Talty prostrate on the ground. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Brian Mullins is sent off by referee John Gough, with Brian Talty prostrate on the ground. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Brian Mullins is sent off by referee John Gough, with Brian Talty prostrate on the ground. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The story of those '12 apostles' tumbles from the pages of old newsprint now, reeking of almost monstrous folly and denial.

Not Dublin's, even if their innocent-as-cherubs-on-the-Cistine-ceiling act fooled no-one. Not Galway's, even if they were all too keen to lose themselves in piety rather than confront a personal embarrassment. But the GAA's for whom the barbed-wired, black-walled grot of Croke Park almost became the story.

Because that '83 final could have been their Hillsborough.

The Association wasn't alone in its complacency towards paying customers back then as the horrors of Sheffield six years later would reveal. But they were blessed that that Dublin-Galway final took its infamy from the ugliness on the field rather than a dark Dickensian nightmare unfolding off it.

The Hill and Canal-end terraces could be accessed through payment at the turnstiles that day and over-crowding led to a terrifying crush on both. Newspaper reports record fleets of ambulances ferrying the injured to hospital, one of whom was a 15-year-old boy stabbed on Hill 16.

This would be the day that then director-general Liam Mulvihill recognised the stadium had become a dangerous anachronism. The Hogan Stand, after all, dated back to the 1950s, the Cusack to the 1930s.

Dublin manager Kevin Heffernan. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Kevin Heffernan. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

On a wet day, like that infamous Sunday, access to either terrace required negotiating a steep and slippy bank.

One German visitor described aborting his efforts to watch the final after being "pushed around like an animal" on the Hill, where his £3 payment left him caught in "a stampede" after gates, locked at 1.30pm, were broken down one hour later.

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Multiple cars were either stolen or vandalised in the Croke Park area, buses carrying Galway supporters were stoned and a special "incident room" had to be set up in Fitzgibbon Street garda station.

So the day had a raw, anarchic edge long before Antrim referee John Gough even threw the ball in.

And then? Outrage registered at the very ends of the earth afterwards at what unspooled, Dublin somehow edging home by two points despite spending half an hour playing into a strong wind with 12 men against 14.

Few of the conventional courtesies would survive after, the teams largely keeping their own company at that Monday's lunch in the Burlington before going their separate ways.

Galway officials made clear a belief that their team had been mugged, essentially. And the Dubs? Kevin Heffernan's view was they'd have won by 10 points with a full complement of players.

In short, Dublin's Brian Mullins and Ray Hazley as well as Galway's Tomas Tierney were ordered off in a bad-tempered opening half. Five minutes after the resumption, Dublin's Kieran Duff was shown the line for swinging his boot at a prostate Pat O'Neill.

In between, there was a tunnel incident that reputedly left Galway midfielder Brian Talty unable to resume for the second period.

And the critical score of the final, Barney (Dean's dad) Rock's 12th-minute goal, was scored at a time when Dublin manager Heffernan, was on the field and - in Galway eyes at least - interfering with play.

Almost a quarter of a century later, a Scannal TV documentary 'Game of Shame' would revisit the day through the eyes of two players from either side. At that remove, recrimination had softened.

But, in the immediate aftermath, Dublin and Galway found themselves vast oceans apart. John 'Tull' Dunne, Galway's county board president, would announce a little grandiosely in the beaten dressing-room: "There is only one loser after an exhibition such as this and that is the Association I have given my life's blood for!"

Their football board chairman, Mattie Potter, castigated Dublin as a team wanting "to win by hook or by crook". Galway's veteran substitute, Willie Joyce, even called on the GAA to take future All-Ireland finals involving Dublin out of Croke Park.

Galway captain Tom Naughton, who missed the game through injury, asked afterwards: "How can I go home and say to juvenile teams 'Now lads, this is how it should be done!' as they are bound to have this final etched in their minds? Does this mean that victory in the future can be justified even if five players from one side end up in hospital so that the other can have the ultimate prize?

"If that is sport, then Dublin can have it?"

But Dublin's Tony Hanahoe likened the 12 surviving city players to "lions" while Anton O'Toole's view was: "It was possibly the worst All-Ireland final ever seen and undoubtedly the worst I have ever played in but, from a Dublin point of view, it was one of the greatest victories of all time."

Media coverage proved equally polarised.

Across a single two-page spread in the 'Irish Press', Peadar O'Brien's match report was headlined: "The Magnificent Dozen" next to an analysis piece from Martin Breheny headed "A Day of Shame".

How the Irish Press reported the game in 1983
How the Irish Press reported the game in 1983

Yet, that week's Tuam Herald wasn't inclined to dance to the expected parochial drumbeat.

Francis Farragher's report opened with the words: "An unmitigated disaster for Galway! A pitiful humiliation at the hands of Dublin in this wash-out of an All-Ireland football final at Croke Park which dragged the game into the gutter."

Farragher's editor Jarlath Burke wrote of Galway being "damn near disgraced".

If there was a paradox to the day, that was it. Even those Galway men and women who cried foul at the more unscrupulous elements of Dublin's play couldn't escape the conclusion that a team failing to take advantage of two extra players on the field for half an hour maybe did not deserve to win the Sam Maguire.

Quite where all of that day's spite sprang from is difficult to say.

There was little history of poison between the counties even if Galway might have felt they'd left the '74 final behind them and a tight semi-final meeting in '76 hadn't been entirely friendly.

In 'Back to the Hill', the official biography of his career, Dublin goalkeeper John O'Leary offered the opinion that Galway "felt they hadn't stood up to Dublin physically in either '74 or '76 and were determined to show that they were no softies in '83." O'Leary suggested that the Connacht champions set that day's "agenda on toughness".

Yet, the weight of official sanction would, clearly, identify Dublin as chief aggressors, Duff suspended for 12 months afterwards, Mullins for five, Heffernan for three and Hazley for one. Galway's grand total of suspensions would be two months, one each for Tierney and Peter Lee.


Much focus centred too on the relative lack of big-game experience of referee Gough, who had conducted both an RTÉ radio and 'Sunday Press' newspaper interview for the day of the final.

Remarkably, Dublin and Galway have not met in championship since and, if anything, the 35-year cushion of time bequeaths that '83 game an oddly disembodied status in the context of GAA rivalries.

Duff after all, just starting out on an inter-county career, would never be sent off again during another decade of wearing the Dublin jersey.

He admitted some years ago that that Monday in The Burlington, his wife had approached Galway's O'Neill to say that, if it was true her husband had kicked him, he'd get no sympathy from her irrespective of the sanction now coming his way.

And there was a slightly furtive picture taken that day too of injured Galway midfielder Talty shaking hands with Heffo "under a table".

It all seems so quaint and unrecognisable in today's zipped-up environment of multi camera-angles, stultifyingly dull communication practices.

Not to mention spectator facilities catering for paying customers as distinct from human livestock.

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