The Kingdom, the power and the story
By Michael Moynihan
Weary and running out of gas, the Kerry footballers and Cork hurlers met their Waterloo in the summer of ’87
Twenty-five years ago, two empires came to an end. Kerry had dominated football in Munster from 1975 with a brief interregnum in 1983, while Cork had won every Munster hurling championship from 1975 with the exception of 1980 and 1981. Two drawn provincial finals a quarter-century ago saw power shift, however.
In the Kerry dressing room, Pat Spillane had been 13 years without experiencing a defeat to Cork.
“I missed 1983. In 1974 I was a sub with Pat Griffin and Mick O’Connell on either side of me, and when Andy Molyneaux, the county secretary at the time, came over to ask Mick O’Connell to come on, Mick said, ‘give the young lads a chance’.
“In 1987, though, we were running on empty. And we knew it. You looked around the dressing room and you knew fellas were struggling. You know it, but nobody wants to say it.”
It was understandable, says Spillane. They’d been to the brink so often and done the business, there was an unspoken sense they’d produce it again when needed.
“It’s the million-dollar question in sport, in politics: when do you go?” he says. “We were regarded as the greatest team and Mick O’Dwyer was viewed as the greatest trainer, but we still got it wrong and we still stayed on too long.
“And there’s something worse than staying on too long, that’s going too early! That’s worse, I think. There’s no such thing as a perfect time to go, but it’d be terrible to come out of the Páirc after Cork winning and some fella saying, ‘there was another year in you, you should have been out there’.”
Cork and Nemo star Jimmy Kerrigan had suffered at Kerry’s hands since 1978 but he could see the writing on the wall facing into 1987.
“Kerry were a great team, you nearly had to beat them twice to get over them, to finish them off. You saw that in 1987 — we were better than them but they still nearly caught us the first day in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.”
Nearly doesn’t quite cover it. Cork had been in front for most of the game but with time almost up and Kerry trailing, 0-10 to 2-6, Mikey Sheehy danced down the end line and squeezed the ball past the late John Kerins in the Cork goal.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw it go in,” says Kerrigan. “But fair due to John Kerins, he thought of getting out quick with the kick-out and we got the equaliser when Larry (Tompkins) put the ball over from a free.
“We deserved that much out of the game, I thought. We played a lot of good football in the game and deserved another crack at them.”
Cork’s equaliser was telling, says Spillane: “Mikey’s goal only delayed the inevitable. Mike McAuliffe was involved and Mikey got it over the line somehow, but we conceded a free in the next attack, though the game was practically over. That tells you something about where we were at.”
Kerrigan gives one man huge credit for the regime change in ‘87. “You couldn’t overstate Billy Morgan’s importance. He was in the States for a few years coming up to that, and I think if he’d been around in 1983, for instance, he’d have made a huge difference when we got to the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
“In the run-up to the replay, Billy was very good — very good with video analysis of the game, which wouldn’t have been a big thing at that time. He showed us plenty of bits from the first game that proved we were the better team — he didn’t show the goal, the way I remember it — and he had us in the perfect frame of mind going to Killarney.
“We were confident, we really felt like we were going down to finish the job we started in Cork. Billy was very good at that, at making you believe you were better than your opponent and that you’d get the better of him.”
Cork closed the deal in Fitzgerald Stadium. As Kerrigan puts it, the replay “went the way you’d want it to go” after the drawn game.
“We went into a lead and though they came back a bit in the second half, the last quarter was a runaround, basically. The game was well over as a contest at that stage, which was great for the likes of me, fellas who’d been on the wrong end of a few hammerings.”
They had five points to spare at the end, 0-13 to 1-5, though it felt like more. Spillane says the delete button was applied to the game quickly: “Apart from the fact that we lost, I don’t remember anything about the replay. Nothing at all. If I’d played well, I might remember it, so I must have erased it from the memory. Maybe it’s a good thing.
“It was palpable, the sense of an ending. I remember that. Lads knew they wouldn’t all be together in a dressing room again. I was captain the next year so Dwyer stayed on, we all went for one more go and it didn’t work out that year either.
“It’s hard to dismantle a team — even Mickey Harte should have dismantled Tyrone two years ago after Cork beat them but he didn’t do so until the winter just gone. You always think there’s one last kick, but the mistake Dwyer made the last year was he killed us in training to get the last bit out of us, and old lads with lots of mileage need less training, not more, to keep them fresh.”
The general view, that Cork were coming strong with their outstanding U21s, isn’t shared by Spillane.
“No. Cork always have good minor and U21 teams but the bottom line is what won it for Cork were Tompkins and Fahy, the two imports. They were the two missing pieces of the jigsaw.”
“Well, I’d disagree,” says Kerrigan. “Larry and Shea were great players and were a huge addition, but I think we’d have beaten them anyway in 1987. To be honest, I thought we should have won in 1985 and 1986: they were definitely slipping. Now, having said that they were still a great team. They knew how to win games — how to close games out.
“You only had to see how they’d won All-Ireland finals in 1986, for instance, when Tyrone had the upper hand — if they got a smell of a chance, they’d put it away, or they’d size up immediately where the weak link was on the opposing team.
“We wanted to make sure they didn’t get a smell of a chance when we got on top in 1987.”
Kerrigan was planning to extend the celebrations the next day in Cork when he had to face some searching questions.
“I was supposed to meet Dave Barry to head out to the Muskerry Arms but a few of the lads from Nemo had stayed on in Killarney and their wives and girlfriends were looking for them. The girls had been ringing hospitals and so on to see were the lads there and they thought I’d know. I might have known back then, but I forget now.”
In hurling, Cork had dominated for over a decade, but Tipperary were hard on their heels, with promising youngsters and a charismatic manager. One of the youngsters remembers a “hairy” start to the championship, though.
“The team didn’t go well in the league,” says then-keeper Ken Hogan. “And we didn’t have a great start to the championship.
“In the first round we played Kerry, for example, and that game was hairy enough until Pat Fox got the vital scores in the second half. People forget that. He hadn’t been involved for the previous couple of years, and before that he’d been a back man, but he was some asset up front.”
There were other assets. Their manager was certainly one.
“Babs (Keating) was what we needed,” says Hogan. “He was good for us and good for Tipp. He was into fundraising and raising lads’ confidence. We were the first team with suits going to a match — that you’d look at lads now going into a stadium in suits and wonder what they were at — but that was a huge boost to us that time.
“And confidence was what was needed. I was too young to go to the All-Ireland final win in 1971 but I went with my father from then on, and for 10 years, 1973 to 1983, we didn’t win a game. Not a game. Those lads were still my heroes, they were giants to me, but that was how things were with Tipperary that time. You talk about tradition, but that was the tradition we had then.
“To give you an example, the night before the game in Killarney we stayed in the Aghadoe Heights Hotel. That was Babs — nothing but the best.”
The drawn Munster final in Thurles saw current Cork selector Kieran Kingston hit a late goal which looked a match-winner but Tipp fought back to level with two late Fox frees: 1-18 each. Another Cork selector, Johnny Crowley, feels the Leesiders lost some momentum after that.
“When we drew in Thurles, there was a discussion as to where the replay should be held,” he says. “I’d have felt that if the replay couldn’t be played in Cork that we should have gone back to Thurles. That would have put a bit more pressure on Tipp at that stage.”
Cork had chances in Killarney before extra time, as Crowley recalls. Tony O’Sullivan had a goal ruled out which might have won it.
“We didn’t get the rub of the green with a couple of things — for instance, Tony O’Sullivan’s effort was over the line — but a few of us were on the wrong side of 30, Cash got injured, so did John Fenton...”
Tipperary still needed Nicky English to grab a late equaliser, but the Premier support smelled victory with the game going to extra-time.
“I don’t know if they were confident,” says Hogan. “I don’t know if they could be, but there was certainly a huge goodwill towards us. You could sense that. In the games themselves one thing I was very conscious of was John Fenton’s striking. He had scored that wonder goal against Limerick in the Munster semi-final, a rocket from 50 yards, and I was a bit nervous every time he went near the ball that he’d do the same. In the replay he was injured so he was in near goal late on in the game, I was keeping a fair eye on him.”
Tipp added the goals in extra time to dethrone Cork and it ended 4-22 to 1-22. Hogan’s celebrations were muted.
“When we won, there was huge relief, huge joy. I went off to work, oddly enough. I was chatting to my mother and said, ‘I’ve work tonight’ and she said, ‘head to work, that’s the best thing you could do’.
“And she was right. I was stationed in Dublin that time and the shift started at 10 — I turned on the television in the station and they were parading through Borrisoleigh on the news, having won, and I remember thinking that was a bit over the top. It probably didn’t help, come the All-Ireland semi-final.
“But we were 16 years without it. You have to expect that kind of reaction after a famine like that ends — which reminds me of how good Richard Stakelum was as captain. Without question, he was the best captain I ever played under, bar none.”
Cork’s John Crowley had other issues. Colm Bonnar was hurtling down the wing when he ran into Crowley: the impact left a mark on the Bishopstown man.
“Well, it was more his hurley ran into me than he did,” laughs Crowley. “I ended up with 27 stitches and a broken nose.
“In fairness to him, I slipped going into the tackle and he had the hurley out to protect himself and I ran into it. I was slightly concussed and Dr Con (Murphy) took me off.
“A lot of us were coming to the end anyway. We’d won in 1986 and if we’d lost that final, a lot of us would probably have packed in. We wouldn’t have had complaints — a lot of us had had a good innings since coming together in the 70s.
“And Tipp were coming. That team was well balanced compared to other Tipp teams. They had Richie Stakelum at wing-back, Donie O’Connell at centre-forward, Ken was a good keeper, Fox and English. And they had Babs, who was getting the most out of them.
“To be fair, we knew going down to Killarney we’d be up against it, but we also felt we were in with a shot.
“Fair dues to them, they won it and they’d been 16 years without a trophy. We expected them to dominate for a while, and they did.”
It was Crowley’s last game with Cork, but his bad luck didn’t end there. “On the way home it went from bad to worse when the taxi I was in ploughed into the back of the car in front.”
He couldn’t be operated on in Cork because a plastic surgeon wasn’t available, so he had to go back for surgery the following day and ended up with 13 stitches inside his mouth and 14 outside.
“Someone said it improved me,” says Crowley. “When Dr Con was treating me on the sideline I was a bit dazed, but I saw some fella from Tipperary run away with my hurley.
“A guy from Piarsaigh appeared next to me and said, ‘Johnny, did he take your hurley?’
“‘He did, you’d never get it back off him?’ I said, and he chased the Tipp guy down to the 14-metre line and clocked him and got the hurley back.
“And I still have it.”
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