The Kieran Shannon Interview with Tony Davis: ‘We felt it was our time’

Thirty years ago he was part of a daring young Cork team that marched on Killarney to claim one of the county’s most celebrated wins. After a spell on ‘The Sunday Game’, he gladly retreated from the limelight five years ago, feeling it had been too long since he was at the cutting edge of the game. But that doesn’t mean Tony Davis doesn’t have opinions, on everything from Sean Spicer to how youngsters coming into the inter-county system risk becoming automatons.

You could sense a new mood in our dressing room. A few officials looked a bit despondent that we had not won; the fear of this Kerry team was deeply ingrained in Cork souls. As more and more players filed in, optimism began to grow. We were all on a high.

“When is the replay?” someone shouted.

“Play it now!”

“We’ll head for Killarney now!”

“We don’t need to wait a f***in’ week!”

The despair that had followed [Mikey] Sheehy’s goal was replaced by elation. I don’t ever remember a dressing room like it after a game. Everything had changed.

— Teddy Boy: The Teddy McCarthy Autobiography

For his Twitter profile Tony Davis describes himself as someone ‘interested in sports and current affairs’. A quick scroll down will verify that.

His last retweet was a wry observation about the DUP and Tory coalition. A recent tweet of his own bemoaned the departure of Sean Spicer as White House press secretary and about how boring life could become — that is, until the great man assumed the role of new press officer for Dublin football and began fielding questions on behalf of Jim Gavin, as reported by the sardonic Mallow News.

If that’s not Tony Davis as you’d have known him, then maybe it’s because you wouldn’t have exactly known where Tony Davis comes from. He’s lived in the suburb of Douglas the last 20-plus years but home is Skibbereen. O’Donovan Rossa country. O’Donovans’ country. Where land and water and sport, culture, and politics all converge.

“Down in West Cork, you have the likes of Jeremy Irons and David Puttnam who have contributed enormously to the community,” explains a lean and tanned Davis, just back from a 10k run down by Passage on the bank of Cork Harbour, and who, at 52, still retains that irritating capacity to look at least a decade younger than he is.

“Like, the high-speed broadband initiative that’s brought extra employment to Skibbereen, David Puttnam has been the driving force behind that. Fantastic. Jeremy Irons the same with the [Kilcoe] Castle and locals doing the place up. He’s part of the local fabric in Lisheen. Actually, he’s only about a mile and a half from the lads, the O’Donovans [Gary and Paul].

“Their grandfather was Paddy. Paddy O’Donovan never missed a football match in his life. He only died there last year. If you were to walk out of Paddy’s house and look out on Roaringwater Bay, Jeremy Irons’ castle is just over to the right. What a view from their house.”

Looking on from his own vantage point now, Davis gives thanks for when, where, and how he grew up.

As a young fella he had no real ambition of playing for Cork. That was something for lads nearer the city who went to the likes of Coláiste Chríost Rí.

“It was outside our realm altogether. Very few people from where we came from actually played senior for Cork. We just played away with the club, playing against the likes of Bantry, Castlehaven, and Clon [Clonakilty]. But what we didn’t realise was that the games we were playing among ourselves were as good as there was in the rest of the country.”

At St Fachtna’s College, rivals became teammates, the likes of Davis and Mick McCarthy from Skibb combining with Niall Cahalane, John Cleary, and Michael Maguire from Castlehaven. Before they knew it they were beating the city slickers from Chríost Rí, playing minor for Cork, winning an All-Ireland.

At U21 they won more two All-Irelands. For the rest of the decade there was barely a year where Davis wasn’t playing in some All-Ireland final of some sort. And yet he never felt as if football owned him or defined him. He’s not sure if young fellas today can say the same now.

“Guys coming onto a county panel at 17, 18 on, it becomes their life. They get their programmes, they get all their gear and that becomes their identity as a person. I worry a lot of the time that their personalities are stunted by having almost every decision being made for them. They’re part of this huge monster that’s inter-county GAA and it dictates what they eat, how they sleep, whether they can work or not.

“We were footballers, we played with Cork, and we loved it, but we were also part of our club, we were also part of our community. We were able to finish on a Sunday night and go down and have a few drinks with the supporters. We could go training with the club on a Tuesday night with the lads. And you wouldn’t be wearing your Cork gear there.

“As a person, I’d hope I’d be defined first by my family and for the friend that I am, whereas I find now when you look at players, they’re absolutely defined as footballers and hurlers.”

Is that us defining them that way or is that how they identify themselves?

“Both. I think they nearly have to define themselves that way. I know that’s a big broad statement but they’re part of these WhatsApp groups and it’s just there all the time. They become part of a system for so many years and you just hope that when they finish, they’ll be able to properly have an independent life.”

Davis may not have let himself be defined by football but it still couldn’t help becoming a terrific quiz question: Name the only footballer to win an All-Ireland at minor, junior, U21, senior, and club. He’s certain, though, that he’d never have had Sam Maguire to the CV only for the advent of Billy Morgan and two Kildare men.

“We would not have won any All-Ireland without Larry Tompkins and Shea Fahy. Because up to then we were in a world where we thought we were good enough. We could play football with Barcelona but we were too soft and we weren’t fit enough. We thought we were fit. Then one night Larry turned up. Joke.”

Morgan had set up an exercise called ‘the hare’. A cone at each corner of the field in the Páirc, then someone flies off and everyone follows the hare. “He picked Larry as the hare. Good luck. We stuck with him ’til the first cone, then all of a sudden you saw his arse gone around the corner and he was gone. Billy said to us, ‘There you go, lads.’

“I always liked running but after that I pushed myself a lot harder. You didn’t want Larry Tompkins making a donkey out of you.”

15 April 1990; David Beggy, Meath, is tackled by Tony Davis, Cork. Meath v Cork, National League Footall Final, Croke Park, Dublin.

There were other rude awakenings. “The environment in Cork club football was too soft. Referees were blowing for things too easily. I noticed it first playing against Leinster or Ulster teams. We were getting the crap kicked out of us and you’d be looking for a free without ever getting one, so you said to yourself, ‘OK, no point in giving out.’

“We had to get tougher. When you look back on some of the videos of those games back then, they were awful. People are giving out about football now. And it can be hard to watch. But people can have rose-tinted glasses looking back at football. Those kids who are playing now today, they’re there to win. They’d all love to be just able to express themselves and play open football but they can’t because otherwise the other team is going to bang in a couple of goals.

“We were the same. Most of the games weren’t enjoyable to watch. They weren’t enjoyable to play in either. The good games were against the likes of Mayo in ’89 where you could go and play football, have a shootout. But that was very much the exception.”

Davis was exceptional himself that year. Under the old All-Star scheme, the custom was for three players to be nominated for every position but that year they didn’t even bother with two when it came to left half back. Davis was the automatic, unanimous choice. Yet as majestic as he was all through that season, perhaps the abiding memory of him will be rampaging upfield against Kerry in Killarney in ’87. That was the day of days for him. For Cork.

“We just felt it was our time. They drew with us down in Cork but we were convinced that we were going to win the replay regardless.”

Davis as much as anyone exemplified their boldness. On the half-hour mark he came up from corner-back and kicked Cork’s sixth point of the day. Kerry had yet to kick even one, Mikey Sheehy, having literally left his shooting boots at home. His Austin Stacks clubmate, Ger Power, was also out of sync. Davis was 12 years younger than him and it was showing. A few minutes before half-time, Power lashed out.

“I used to like going for one-twos,” says Davis, “and I might have been pissing him off a small bit. So when I went again I got a slap from Ger and the ref sent him off.” The last thing Kerry needed at that point was to be down to 14 men with a dashing, ball-playing corner-back like Davis as the free man: he’d end up kicking a second point, unheard of for a corner-back in those days. For the following decade Munster was red. When Davis looks back on it, the whole of Ireland should have been too. “With the talent and age profile that we had, we probably underachieved with just two All-Irelands.”

If he hadn’t been sent off in the 1993 final, leaving Derry the ones with the spare man, they would likely have won at least a third. But it hardly haunts him. Something else that year was much more profound. A month out from the final, he and his wife Caroline lost their first-born child, Shane, upon complications from his birth a week earlier.

“Should I have played the game? I’m not sure. I suppose I was right to play because I didn’t want to leave anyone down and the group thought it would be good for me to be involved. I got great support from everyone, Billy in particular. It was a very hard time. But look, what happened to us happens to a lot of people.”

Davis seemed to be dismissed more for what Niall Cahalane had done a few moments earlier to Enda Gormley than anything he himself did when bundling an opponent out over the sideline. Later the GAA would completely exonerate Davis and deem referee Tommy Howard had erred. Davis, though, holds no ill will towards Howard or anyone else.

“Look, it’s swings and roundabouts. I probably got away with things other times and should have been sent off. That’s sport. I suppose the worst part of getting sent off was that [his brother] Don was playing. And feck it, Don never got to win his All-Ireland afterwards. That was an ideal chance for him to get his medal. But that’s sport. It doesn’t matter in the grander scheme of things. It really doesn’t. You just move on and get on with it.”

A year later Davis and Cork got back to Croke Park but early on in their semi-final against Down, himself and Danny Culloty clashed heads, leaving Davis with a bandaged head and bloodied jersey and Culloty with a drooping eye. “He still has it to this day,” smiles Davis. “If Danny gets tired or has a few pints in him, the eye falls down. We have fierce craic over it.”

Davis would never play for Cork again, though he was only 29. “I just had enough of it. I think the club winning the All-Ireland [in 1993] capped it off for me. If I’m doing something, I’m 110%, but if I’m not all in, I’d rather close the door, say thank you very much, and then move on to another phase in my life.”

Davis pretty much walked straight off the field and into The Sunday Game studio, bringing with him among other things a fashion awareness that’s probably only been matched in recent years by the younger brigade.

“Tomás [Ó Sé] and the boys have certainly upped it,” he smiles, “but you know, it’s good for them; it’s a good time in your life. Like, I got to learn so much more about the game and I was in a privileged position to witness some amazing moments.”

Colm O’Rourke he found manly and honourable to deal with, typical of any Meath player of that generation; whenever any member of Davis’s Cork team have needed a medical opinion or checkup, Gerry McEntee has been an obvious port of call.

“I remember a league game in Navan when Colm and myself were sent off, swinging punches at each other and it on the Nine O’Clock News. But once I sat down in the studio with him, Colm extended a huge decency to me.”

He enjoyed Pat Spillane and Joe Brolly too, though if we were to pick his ultimate panel, they wouldn’t be the Kerry and Derry men he’d have on it.

“The most talented group of pundits I was with were Anthony Tohill and Dara Ó Cinnéide. Dara was just this brilliantly intellectual football analyst. Anthony had no agenda whatsoever either.”

As for Spillane and Brolly? “Look, Pat is Pat and Joe is Joe. I don’t think Joe believes some of the stuff he says. I mean, the flip-flopping he does on Tyrone alone! But he’s inimitably brilliant, intellectually, and he’s very entertaining.”

He admires their audacity and longevity too. This is Brolly’s 17th summer in the gig. It’s Spillane’s 26th. Davis left after 18 years. Like playing itself, it was time to move on.

“I’d had enough of it. I was missing matches that my own [sons] were playing. And I hadn’t played or managed a team for years and felt [any criticism] I hadn’t backed it up. You have to be current, otherwise I don’t think it’s fair on the kids that are playing now and giving it everything.”

Tony Davis on putting punditry behind him: ‘You have to be current, otherwise I don’t think it’s fair on the kids that are playing now and giving it everything.’

He’s still with An Garda Síochána though, 34 years now. From both his job as a crime prevention community officer and his house up in Frankfield overlooking Cork, he often wonders at just how big a sporting town it is yet how small a place it is too.

“Cork is sports mad. Like, we used to all go to the basketball games in the ’80s. I remember going up to Cork Con when Con and Dolphin were playing and there’d be 10,000 at it. David Barry and the boys in Turners Cross, playing Bayern Munich, we were all there, just like Cork City are getting huge crowds now. I’m sure if someone came up with drones as a sport and Cork had someone going well in it, we’d be all out watching it. But it’s still only a village really because it’s the same people and families involved in certain sports.

“Unfortunately, it’s the same with crime. For all the interventions and structures we try to put in place, I’m still dealing with families that I’d have known 30 years ago. In this job you’re dealing with people at their lowest ebb that need help. A lot of the time that’s the victims. But you get to know the perpetrators as well.

“Back when I was playing I’d be walking down the South Mall and they’d go, ‘Well, are you going to win on Sunday, Tone?’ ‘We have a right chance, yeah.’ And then they’d head into Cashman’s to put on a few quid. That was the banter at the time.”

Today he’ll still bump into some of them. All that’s changed is he can no longer say he fancies Cork.

Still, he’ll head to Killarney tomorrow. For one, he thinks this group of Cork players deserve it (“They’re putting their whole lives into this”) while it marks another anniversary — 30 years since ’87.

Two years ago it was the silver jubilee of the 1990 All-Ireland win. He’d love to say all the lads were there in Croke Park for it but, of course, they weren’t; just the other week Davis and some friends ran the 14th John Kerins Memorial U11 tournament while Mick McCarthy, who started school in the same class as Davis, was tragically killed in 1998. But both were represented by family members on the day while everyone else was able to make it.

“And you know what, not a lot had changed,” smiles Davis. Teddy getting hassle going in, having given his tickets to the lads who drove him up and the eastern European doorman having no idea of the legend in his midst. Danny Culloty and his drooping eye. Billy, though he was their manager, mixing and drinking with them all as he did back in the day.

And Davis, of course, looking like he could still run around and play on that field.

Only, not for the first time, he was happy to just give a wave and then step back.

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