Rolling Down Memory Lane – Ep. 1

These are strange times. I don’t mind admitting to being confused, frustrated, upset and worried by this COVID-19 situation. Of course there’s cognisance of the health risks involved. Not only for my elderly parents, but also for myself. That said, no attempt will be made to even try and dilute the sense of emptiness felt at so much of the world, of my world, grinding to a halt. Now read on…

The local RehabCare is closed. Pub doors are locked. Admittedly, not a lot can be said about the latter as I haven’t had a pint in months, because I need to get my ass in gear and get back in the game, so to speak. Farm yards are seemingly off limits too, so just when the confidence had finally been summoned to go visit the neighbours up the road, that option has to be parked up as well.

Hardly surprisingly, though, it’s the dearth of sport that’s hitting the occupant of this seat hardest. No doubt some will see such a stance as curious at best, selfish and reckless at worst. However, many will know that sport means so much more to me than what actually goes on between the lines.

So, with a hiatus now in place until God knows when, something has to be done to fill to void. What better, then, than to look back at some of the greatest sporting occasions the one seeing eye has taken in – both in person and on television – over the last three decades. My intention at this juncture is to make into a series of posts to keep myself and our very valued readership afloat while sport (with the exception of horse racing) remains in dry dock.

MEATH v. DUBLIN LEINSTER SFC 1991

The only place this journey could possibly begin. Nearly three decades on it remains one of the greatest ever occurrences in Irish sport. From the perspective of the GAA at large, it could not have come at a better time. Just the previous summer, the country had been swept away in a tidal wave of euphoria owing to the odyssey undertaken by Jack Charlton and his players at Italia ’90.

Seemingly, there were fears among the Association’s hierarchy that their standing within society could be usurped by the ground-based game. However, such was the manner in which the series of games captivated the entire country, not just the two counties involved, such fears proved groundless. In so doing, putting Gaelic games on a platform from which, thankfully, it has never moved.

From a personal perspective, they were the series of games which got me hooked on GAA. Which in a way has opened a world full of other doors along the way. Now, I had been been in Croke Park three times the previous year, for the National League semi finals, final and Meath’s Leinster semi final against Laois.

Later that year, St Peter’s Dunboyne qualified for the Meath IFC final, where they unfortunately succumbed to Dunderry. Something about that day implanted the ‘bug’ in me. If any further conversion was required, the epic goings on of that one summer set me on the path which has defined the entirety of my life to date.

Of course, even before Kildare referee Tommy Howard had thrown in the ball in what turned out to be only the first encounter, it was a hot topic of conversation. Firstly because they had already met in the March of that year in the league. More significantly, mind you, as it was the first year the pairings for the Leinster SFC were decided via an open draw.

Being honest, I’m actually not sure how the competition was structured prior to that. But what is recalled is that before the open draw, the two great old rivals seemed to meet in the Leinster Final every season.

Referee Tommy ‘Hopper’ Howard is treated for cramp by Meath physio Ann Bourton during the second game

An interesting aside from that from that league encounter. My late uncle, Tom Boylan, was laid to rest the day before the game. While sympathising with da at the funeral, Sean Boylan’s wife, Tina, apologised that the man himself was unable to attend as he had a trial match previously organised. As look would have it, the two Seans met the following morning getting the paper. Perhaps understandably, him indoors wasn’t that keen on going to the match, given the weekend that was in it.

John McDermott (right) with Liam McHale of Mayo

However, as An Bainisteoir rightly pointed out, the man who had left us would want nothing more than to be there himself. So, most fittingly, him indoors here did indeed make the trip in. Apart from the fact that he ended up sitting beside Noel Meade, who would, years later be such a big part of my life, something else of huge significance happened on the pitch that day.

Entering the final quarter of the game, Sean Boylan made a substitution. Introducing a No. 23 who nobody knew. He wasn’t even on the match programme. The long, gangly youngster turned out to be one J. McDermott! Not only did he look nothing like the physical man mountain he would become. But he was only a shell of what he was to become – the greatest midfielder of his generation.

So to D-Day, June 2nd 1991. Wasn’t it nearly always on the cards that it was going to end up in a draw. It was as if the thought of either of them being out of the running that early couldn’t be countenanced. The March meeting was obviously a portent for things to come, as it too ended in stalemate.

Not for the first (or last) time it was the boys in blue who settled quicker. Opening up quite a lead in the process. Back then, though, not an eyelid would have been batted at such an occurrence. In fact, there was a school of thought – to which this corner was wholly subscribed – which operated on the premise that Meath were actually better coming from behind.

Thus, once a Brian Stafford penalty had narrowed the deficit to two before the interval, there was no cause for alarm. That Meath team didn’t do panic. Unlike those of blessed to share their journey with them. For whom the possibility of hearts jumping from one side of the body to the other was very real!

If there was every a time when the Munster Rugby motto ‘To The Brave And The Faithful Nothing Is Impossible’ ever applied to that Meath team, it was during that unforgettable summer. Something symbolised by the score which saved their bacon on that very first day.

PJ Gillic front row, far left, rescued Meath on June 2nd 1991.

It can only be assumed that PJ Gillic was going for a point when lobbing a long range missile towards the Canal End goal before it bounced over John O’Leary’s crossbar. Indeed, Tommy Dowd was only inches from consigning it to the onion bag and ending the GAA’s greatest ever series of games

ACT II

June 9th, 1991

At the outset here an admission, the second game was the only one of the four matches I wasn’t at. Back then, I was a member of the First Meath Dunboyne scout troop. As it happened, the Sports Day for all the local scout groups was taking place in Ashbourne. The Sliotar Throw was one of the few things that a go could be had it. Thankfully, though, the Walkman was the ‘In’ gizmo at the time meaning that every second of the game was followed via the dulcet tones of Micheal O’Muircheartaigh.

Mick Lyons: King of Full Backs

Now, for most teams losing a man, any man, let alone one of their main catalysts, it would result in a quick and complete capitulation. Again, however, Sean Boylan’s side did things their way. When Mick Lyons was sent for an early shower having reminded Vinny Murphy of the perils of entering his den, the rest of the lads did as they always did. Set about retrieving the seemingly impossible.

Barney Rock was a key man for Dublin during the saga.

My most vivid recollection of the second game, that is to say, the highlights thereof, is the crucial roll Barney Rock’s free taking played therein. That, and David Beggy scoring a brilliant goal for our lads in what I think was early in the first period of extra time.

ACT III

June 23rd, 1991

The following may appear strange, Sacrilege even, given how the epic series eventually concluded, the third installment thereof will always be my favourite. For a couple of reasons. Firstly because Brian Stafford’s free taking was mesmeric, also due to recollections of a wonderful goal, constructed by Gerry McEntee and finished brilliantly by Colm Coyle. And, of course, it was also the first time the iconic KEPAK jerseys were seen in public after the O’REILLY TRANSPORT gear was retired.

The Flying Doc – Gerry McEntee

It would have been fairly widely accepted that Dublin were the better team in most if not all of the encounters. Yet they could never put Meath away. They weren’t alone in that at the time. For all that, our lads at no stage looked like they were going to win it either – except when it mattered most!

‘Stafford from The ‘Wood’ – An exhausted hero with teammates Ian Kearney (left) and PJ Gillic (In Dublin jerseys)

Almost immediately after Coyler had drilled low past O’Leary, Paddy Cullen’s team went upfield, culminating in Paul Clarke finishing a splendid move past Mickey McQuillan. That season’s league champions were definitely in the ascendancy that day thereafter. For the umpteenth time during his career, Stafford’s ice-like nerves and arrow-like accuracy ensured The Royals lived to fight another day. It was the occasion on which he racked up his best ever tally against The Dubs, 0-10.

Paul Clarke tackles Meath’s Liam Hayes in the 2nd game

ACT IV

July 6th, 1991

Until 23 months ago, the above date took absolute precedence as the happiest day of my life. It was also a historic day, on two counts. Being the first Championship game played on a Saturday and the first ‘normal’ match shown live on TV. Back then, the only games shown live were the All Ireland semi finals and finals in both football and hurling.

Over the course of five weeks, the two remarkable bunches of players, their managers and their deeds became so much more than just a game of football. Looking back, even though I was only 10 at the time, I think it was then that the realisation first dawned that Gaelic games meant so much more than the results of what transpired on the pitch.

Recollections of that Saturday are as fresh today as the rolls that were just consumed for lunch. Everything about the day felt surreal. From knowing my brother was gone working, as normal, with our farming neighbour while we were all gone to the match, to hearing that Meath’s Liam Harnan actually turned hay on the morning of the game. Or going to Mass (being made go would be a more accurate description) to find the church festooned with delirious green and gold clad townspeople and a Meath flag on the altar!

Meath colossus Liam Harnan

The strange thing is, very little is recalled by yours truly of the vast majority of the game itself. Undoubtedly, that was at least partly down to some of what was going on around the game. As in, Meath’s Terry Ferguson pulling a disk in his back taking off his trousers. Finian Murtagh, who had came on for the already injured Bernard Flynn, having to go off himself.

That said, those closing moments will be ingrained in me as long as these wheels turn. And, it has to be said, what was utter confusion around the Dublin penalty. Remember, at that time, the wheelchair section in Croke Park – such as it was – was down in front of the Nally Stand. So, the whole incident – at the Canal End – was literally a blur until the highlights were shown that evening.

Keith Barr and Colm O’Rourke were central figures in the drama.

Highlights of a game being shown on a Saturday was also ground breaking at the time. Apart from the scarcely credible conclusion, the two incidents that one most wanted to see were the penalty – specifically Mick Lyons keeping Keith Barr ‘company’ on his run up. And, what can only be described as the ‘sandwich’ tackle in which Rourky was the ‘meat’ between Barr and Eamon Heery.

In all the years that have passed since, a few priceless nuggets of information pertaining to the seminal occasion have been garnered. Such as one of our defenders’ (no names shall be divulged) ‘advice’ to the affable Barr as he addressed the kick. And that the only occasion the Erin’s Isle clubman ventured up the pitch – which he was renowned for throughout his career – during the entire series was when the Meath talisman was on the sideline seeing more stars than a photographer on Oscars night!

In my opinion though, the greatest story of all relating to the phenomenon that the matches became revolves around the gap week between the third and fourth games. Sean whisked the lads away for the weekend to either Scotland or Wales (I honestly can’t remember which) where, on a soccer pitch, they spent two solid hours rehearsing the move which, a week later, would play out to be the greatest goal Croke Park has ever seen.

The Quiet Man: Kevin Foley was the most unlikely of heroes

That goal has attained such status that it could justifiably have a whole other article all to itself. Think about it. The fact that he of the famous blue knee bandage didn’t fancy being sandwich filler and almost miraculously re-entered the fray. Which would have been remarkable enough in itself let alone considering the pivotal role the Skryne man played in the unforgettable score.

Even now to watch it – which of course I had to do before commencement of this labour of love – is to leave me somewhere between elated and a heart attack. That goal. Which has been my greatest therapy, and will forever be, when the dark clouds hover lowest.

That goal. Picture it. Martin O’Connell being almost out over the end line when starting the move. Liam Harnan and Vinny Murphy colliding like an earthquake. The returned warrior manufacturing, shall we say, a free after tangling – and I use the term very loosely – with Dublin sub Ray Holland. Thereafter spraying a pass in the direction of the Hogan Stand which, when he collected it, David Beggy didn’t appear to have a clue what to do with.

The electrifying, always entertaining ‘Jinksy’ Beggy

Blessedly, memories of the far away training must have been fresh because his keeping the move going paved the way for a mesmerising web of passes which culminated in Foley ghosting all the way to within inches of John O’Leary and into immortality.

All that can be recalled about the immediate aftermath of the goal is the absolutely deafening roar, which scared the human waste out of me. To the extent that, the move leading to ‘Jinksy’ essaying over the concluding score in one of the greatest chapters in Irish sporting history was missed by yours truly apart from seeing the ball fly over the bar at the very last second.

Those closing couple of minutes will forever remain a glorious haze. A blur I will be eternally grateful to have witnessed and be able to recall.

FOGRA: If you’ve never heard Micheal O’Muircheartaigh’s commentary on those frenetic last moments, it’s something I highly recommend you do. Your life will be better for it.

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