'I’ll break your f**king two legs if you don’t f***ing perform'

By the summer of 1990, All-Ireland football champions Cork had Kerry’s number. So much so that Rebel fans were yelling ‘lock the gates’ as they dismembered the Kingdom in the provincial decider in Cork. However a bigger challenge loomed for Billy Morgan, Larry Tompkins, & Co — Meath. In his new book on Cork’s historic double season, Adrian Russell reveals how Colm O’Neill turned from peripheral to pivotal figure on the road to GAA history.

16 September 1990; The Cork team that faced Meath in the All-Ireland final, back row from left, Michael Slocum, Teddy McCarthy, Barry Coffey, Danny Culloty, Shay Fahy, John Kerins, Conor Counihan, Colm O’Neill. Front from left, Paul McGrath, Stephen O’Brien, Niall Cahalane, Larry Tompkins, Dave Barry, Tony Nation, and Michael McCarthy. Picture: Ray McManus
16 September 1990; The Cork team that faced Meath in the All-Ireland final, back row from left, Michael Slocum, Teddy McCarthy, Barry Coffey, Danny Culloty, Shay Fahy, John Kerins, Conor Counihan, Colm O’Neill. Front from left, Paul McGrath, Stephen O’Brien, Niall Cahalane, Larry Tompkins, Dave Barry, Tony Nation, and Michael McCarthy. Picture: Ray McManus

Though Cork were fattened by the success of a first senior football All-Ireland in 16 years in 1989 — and they enjoyed the celebrations for the winter — there was no fear they’d lack motivation.

Their breakthrough win didn’t immediately earn them the respect they may have felt they were due. The verdict from Waterville, Navan, and even those in the media was that it was a handy All-Ireland for the Rebels. Come back to us when you beat Meath.

‘I think after the ’89 final, there was a few comments,’ says Billy Morgan of the motivational crumbs he used to lead his panel back into Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 1990.

‘Mick O’Dwyer might have said that it was a Mickey Mouse final. Liam Hayes and I think Colm O’Rourke made comments like it was a soft All-Ireland. So we went into ’90, we were delighted we’d won the All-Ireland, but we hadn’t beaten Meath.’

Castlehaven won the county championship and the small, tight-knit West Cork outfit nominated a blow-in as the Cork skipper: Larry Tompkins. A fitness fanatic, Tompkins was determined to see his side be as prepared as possible as they barrelled down the tracks towards a showdown with Meath.

After the traumatic Easter Weekend loss in the league at Croke Park to the Royals, the camp got back down to work.

Tompkins got in Morgan’s ear, suggesting they up the ante in the run-in to the championship, eschewing the coach’s regular, detail-heavy team meetings.

‘I said to Billy, “This craic of going in and sitting down in a meeting of a Thursday night, fellas looking at each other, getting nothing done. There’s no bite in them.”

‘I said, “You know what we should do: go out on the field for half an hour, do a little bit of a warm-up for 10-15 minutes, nice and easy, and then play backs and forwards all in 10-15 minutes and leave it at that. Walk off the field. Boys would have a fucking bite about them.”’

Training went well as the championship started, but the injuries soon piled up. By the time the Munster final came around, Morgan would ultimately have to pick from a depleted panel.

Dr Con called it the worst injury crisis he’d ever seen as he surveyed the scene at training — in Bandon, unusually — on the Tuesday night before the final with Kerry.

As Christy Ring once said of a depleted Cork hurling team for which he was a selector, ‘They should hope the fixture is played in Lourdes.’ Tony Davis’s ankle had been swallowed by a ‘hole in the pitch’ while playing a challenge game against Roscommon. Barry Coffey had also damaged an ankle but in a club game.

Niall Cahalane, Teddy McCarthy, Colman Corrigan, and John O’Driscoll were out with various maladies and mishaps, and Dinny Allen had, of course, retired for good.

The rest of the walking wounded filed in for the Thursday evening wind-down session, expecting some tactical presentation and bit of a tip around. Instead, it was all in, as Tompkins suggested. “Counihan broke Paul McGrath’s shoulder then,” winces the skipper.

“Of course, Billy blamed me. And of course, that was a bit of friction between Billy and Conor for a good while. But you know what, I know we lost Paul and he was a massive loss but, like, it just congregated the squad into a fighting squad. And things happen like that to turn the corner.” What’s a dislocated shoulder between friends, after all? Nevertheless, Morgan needed to call in the cavalry as his player was stretchered out the Páirc Uí Chaoimh gates.

The following day, Billy picked up the phone to Colm O’Neill, a player he had never trusted on the big days in the past, it seemed, despite the Midleton man’s obvious talent.

O’Neill had featured over the course of the previous seasons without ever nailing down a place. Months previously, on a trip to America’s west coast, the panel were told their tickets from San Francisco to New York would be changed and they were reissued with new ones.

Two members of the travelling party, Mick Slocum and O’Neill, happily ripped up the originals like they were beaten dockets. ‘We thought no more about it,’ says Barr’s wing back Slocum.

When they got to the check-in desk, they found they actually needed the originals and instead the county board arranged new flights.

“They flew us first class from San Fran to New York and we teamed up with the lads there,” says Slocum. ‘But myself and Colm had a good chat on that flight and Colm was just begging for a chance to play full forward. He said if he was given a chance, he’d definitely do it.

‘And that’s the way it turned out. He was fairly disgruntled coming back that day on the plane.’ O’Neill would be justified in thinking he deserved his shot and had been as committed as any panel member. He was working in Clonmel at the time and commuting to Leeside, and beyond to Dunmanway, for training, a few times a week.

“About 100 miles each way,” O’Neill says, “and I just remember putting in a good effort but just feeling like, let’s just say, the votes weren’t going to go in my direction. When you get county champions getting the chair of the selection committee, what you always had was a scenario where when Duhallow won a county they had a selector and they had Duhallow fellows. When Nemo won the county, they had a selector and they had extra fellas. And I saw it in the hurling when Midleton won counties. So there was always that parochial element to it.

“So in 1989 I just felt, well, these fellas aren’t going to pick me no matter what. I remember thinking, ‘Hey I’m playing pretty good.’

“But you had Mick McCarthy, John Cleary, Dinny Allen, John O’Driscoll, I mean Christ Almighty, you had about 10 forwards that could have started on any team.

“So it was a very strong thing. In 1990 I just felt, you know what now, this thing has maybe run its course, because I felt I had done enough to get a chance. But the powers that be were … it just wasn’t working out for me so I felt it was maybe time to go in another direction.

So the National League, I just said, to be honest with you, screw this, I’m not going to be bothering with this any more because these fellas are picking their own fellas. And then someone went down a pothole in Roscommon and another couple clattered into each other a bit too heavily down the Park. And the phone rang.

“Billy called me and said there was some couple of injuries and would I come back,’ says O’Neill. ‘And I came back.”

Over the border,dispatches detailing the Cork casualty list brightened the Kerry disposition.

The glory days were over, they realised at that stage. Cork were aiming for their fourth provincial title on the trot and the star names still remaining in the Kingdom’s galaxy were dimming, if not on the brink of imploding.

But Mick O’Dwyer, observing his first Munster championship from outside the wire in decades, suspected the instability within Billy Morgan’s camp might represent an opportunity.

“Three months ago I didn’t give Kerry much chance of beating Cork, but the situation has changed and I wouldn’t be surprised if they pull it off,” he wrote. “You can’t beat the enthusiasm of young fellows who can run themselves into the ground for the whole time.”

1 July 1990; Cork’s Danny Culloty races clear of Kerry’s Morgan Nix in the Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. above: Kerry’s Pat Spillane is tackled by Cork’s Denis Walsh at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Ray McManus.
1 July 1990; Cork’s Danny Culloty races clear of Kerry’s Morgan Nix in the Munster final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. above: Kerry’s Pat Spillane is tackled by Cork’s Denis Walsh at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Picture: Ray McManus.

After his decision to walk away a week after the 1989 Munster final defeat, O’Dwyer had been replaced by Mickey Ned O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan was captain of the team of bachelors which beat Dublin in 1975.

The victory introduced the world to the rivalry which defined the sport for the next decade.

The Kenmare man wasn’t able to collect the Sam Maguire, having been severely concussed as he tried to jink through a phalanx of Dublin players. He picked up two more Celtic Crosses as a sub in 1978 and 1980, however. Later, O’Sullivan served as a selector to Micko at the fag-end of the glory days, when the signs of decline began to show.

O’Sullivan knew Kerry had amassed nothing for a rainy day during their years of plenty.

A Cassandra in the Kingdom’s boot room, his warnings of a coming footballing crisis were ignored or brushed off by O’Dwyer. Before O’Sullivan ultimately resigned in frustration, O’Dwyer replied to another plea to blood the next generation of Kerry footballers: “Let the next fella worry about that.”

Páidí Ó Sé had impulsively opposed his neighbour and former colleague Mickey Ned as a candidate for manager, but the county board ultimately took the safer pair of hands.

The ambitious Ventry icon’s time would come, but patience wasn’t one of his many virtues. Ó Sé fumed at the snub. So, by 1990 O’Sullivan was the next fella and he set about trying to modernise the set-up and derail a four-in-a-row Munster championship-chasing Cork. Top of his to-do list was the topic of Patrick Gerard Spillane.

A few days after the 1989 Kerry Intermediate final, which his club Templenoe lost to Dingle, Pat Spillane took a call during his 11am break at St Gobán’s College, Bantry. O’Sullivan informed him that the selectors had reluctantly decided that he wouldn’t be part of Kerry’s league campaign.

A stunned Spillane retreated to his PE room, where he sobbed amongst the cones and basketballs. He quickly resolved to force his way back into the reckoning, however, and was ultimately welcomed back before the championship.

He soon realised the new manager’s training sessions could last up to two and half hours. In another innovation, O’Sullivan, known for his deep thinking about the game, took the Kerry panel on a bonding session to Cappanalea.

After a weekend of sleeping in dormitory bunk beds, taking on obstacle courses and the Bomber Liston drying the dishes, each player left with an envelope from the management.

The message given to Spillane was threefold: do not talk to the press; pass the ball; do not give out. He’d try his best.

Amongst a raft of changes to Kerry’s championship preparation, O’Sullivan insisted the panel travel to Cork the night before the 1990 Munster final. Previously, they’d arrived in a convoy of cars over the border on the morning of the game, regrouping in the Imperial Hotel on the South Mall for tea and sandwiches.

From there they headed down the Marina. The routine worked for them. This time the Kingdom’s footballers arrived the previous evening to an unfamiliar hotel on the edge of the city.

A wedding reception and a vociferous crowd watching the Ireland–Italy World Cup quarter- final conspired to keep them awake half the night. The players could hear chants of ‘Jacko is a wanker’ — in reference to Kerry’s Jack O’Shea — as well as the Abba megamix from the dance floor as they stared at the ceiling from their beds.

Across town, Larry Tompkins considered the mad house around him and decided he’d choose another. His bar opposite Kent Station on the Lower Glanmire Road was heaving with patrons Olé-Olé-ing their way through Ireland’s game with Italy.

Some of his colleagues watched the match with minerals in bars on the Glasheen Road and elsewhere with friends, and others at home.

With soccer supporters swinging off the rafters of his popular pub, however, Tompkins realised this was no place for Cork’s skipper to rest up the night before a Munster final and, with boots, he travelled to Jury’s Hotel on the Western Road, where the panel’s West Cork contingent traditionally converged.

The following morning, along the River Lee, BillyMorgan checked in with his lieutenant. “He says, ‘Fuck it, what’ll we do?’!” recalls Tompkins of his Sunday morning chat with Morgan.

“‘Who will we put corner forward?’

“And I said, ‘Fuck it, play Colm O’Neill.’

Billy had this thing about Colm that maybe he couldn’t do it on the big day. And I got on well with Colm. A hell of a player. I said, ‘Fuck it, play Colm. I’ll have a word with him.’

“They decided to play Colm anyway; sure they had no other option. What team would do without six lads? In the days of no back door, from the previous All-Ireland final to be missing six players. Six!” Tompkins did have a word with him.

“Colm was as cool a customer as you’d ever see in your life. Colm might be coming into a Munster final or an All-Ireland and you’d think he was only playing in the backyard. You know what I mean? He comes in and he didn’t even realise he was going to be on the 21, not a mind to say the team.

“I’ll never forget, I put him up against the corner [in the team hotel] and I said, ‘Colm, you’re fucking playing today.’ He says, ‘Wha’?’ I says, ‘I’ll break your fucking two legs if you don’t fucking perform.’ I said, ‘You’re the fucking best player in this fucking team. I see you scoring three goals against Kerry. I see you in training and there’s not a player in this squad has your ability. And now’s your day. Fucking prove it.’”

For the 25th year on the trot, the Munster football final was contested by the duopoly of Kerry and Cork.

A well-known Rebels supporter, John Corcoran, had sat through many, many merciless performances from the great Kingdom teams against Cork down through those summers. In this case, however, he watched as his county got stuck into a team that was merely an echo of those great green-and-gold sides.

'I’ll break your f**king two legs if you don’t f***ing perform'

Kerry supporters filed down the steps and headed for the Páirc Uí Chaoimh tunnel and then west. But on the day in 1990 when Nelson Mandela was welcomed to Dublin as ‘Ooh-aah Paul McGrath’s Da’, Corcoran would not let the Kerry supporters’ long walk to freedom go unnoticed. “Lock the fucking gates and make them watch!” he roared as he stood up amongst the crowd in the stand.

“He was after having a few drinks in the Beamish Room and he didn’t need a microphone, I can tell you,” recalls Tompkins, whose brother sat nearby. The injured Teddy McCarthy, his ankle still wrapped in plaster, was next to Billy Morgan in the dugout and showed similar bloodlust. He roared for goals, right up until the whistle put Kerry out of their misery. Cork were piecing together arguably their best performance under Morgan, as they dismantled their arch-rivals.

It would be the Bomber Liston’s last outing, having been coaxed back after injury. “We got a right hiding,” admits Liston. Colm O’Neill, who’d started his day thinking he was coming along for the free gear, would end it with his name in large typeface. The Midleton man took the ball from Tompkins for the first

free of the afternoon and kicked it over the bar. He then kicked a phenomenal 10 more points.

“Eleven points. And people don’t even remember it,” shrugs Tompkins. Though winning the club All-Ireland with Midleton two years previously was a career-high watermark, the double- digit denouement to O’Neill’s comeback story has to be up there. It was down to O’Neill’s work ethic and huge natural talent and also, he says, the circumstances.

There was an element of being fresh and not having trained in months and just having a bit of an appetite. So when I showed up then, I was a bit enthusiastic to give it a go. Yeah, it was just one of those things. If one was to be brutally honest, Kerry were not good. And Cork were as good as they’ve ever been. So it all just came together for it being a good day for a lot of people.

“A lot of people” included Mick Slocum, Paddy Hayes, and Danny Culloty, who stepped in and made light work of Kerry in front of an unbelieving 40,065 spectators.

After Cork had run out 2–23 to 1–11 winners, a bewildered Kerry supporter walked under the stand and whispered an epitaph: “We have seen better days.” Pat Spillane had got on and scored a couple of points, while the likes of Jack O’Shea and Liston were made to toil throughout the humiliation. More than anything, however, it exposed the disastrous results of Kerry’s succession planning during the showtime years.

“The young lads we used weren’t able to cope mentally, physically, or in football terms with Cork, who were the best team in the country,” Spillane surmised. Billy Morgan had little sympathy for a footballing empire that was now in ruins. “This makes up for all of the defeats I endured as a player down in Killarney,” he said. “We’re on top now.” Cork had not only survived an historically bad injury crisis — partly of their own making — but they’d also broken the will of a Kerry side who had begun to fancy their chances earlier in the week.

“It proved that Cork had a serious squad of players,” says Tompkins. “And wasn’t it brilliant to see the likes of Danny Culloty, Mick Slocum, Paddy Hayes, John O’Driscoll, Colm O’Neill in particular — they were hidden talent in a lot of ways and then all of a sudden they were out there? It was a brilliant day and it just proved this Cork team were serious.” But so too were Meath, who, just as Jack Charlton and his squad touched down in Dublin for a wild homecoming party, wrapped up their demolition of Laois in Leinster by a score of 4–14 to 0–6.

Cork’s Conor Counihan tries to wrestle possession from Meath’s Bernard Flynn in the 1990 All-Ireland football final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus.
Cork’s Conor Counihan tries to wrestle possession from Meath’s Bernard Flynn in the 1990 All-Ireland football final at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus.

“Jesus, I remember they caused us a lot of problems,” says Mick Slocum of the semi-final (against Roscommon). “I suppose there might have been a bit of complacency there on our behalf. I suppose everyone would have expected us to get over Roscommon.” The Rossies’ Tony McManus slipped the ball into John Kerins’ net in the first half, but it was disallowed harshly.

“I thought it was a good goal,” said Dinny Allen, “and I was worried.” Niall Cahalane was brilliant at the back and his West Cork neighbour Mick McCarthy impressed in the forwards, scoring three points after coming off the bench. Cork won by seven points in the end as Roscommon’s inexperience told, but Morgan would have plenty to dissect.

That there was plenty to work on, was underlined a week later when Meath romped past Donegal, scoring three goals in the process. “It was the ideal semi-final,” argues Tompkins. “This was Roscommon, we should have been beating them off the field. But you know what, glossy semi-finals and winning by 10 or 15 points is not the ideal way to go into a final.

“And I suppose our eyes were on the other semi-final. Meath. We wanted them to win. And it happened.”

This is an edited extract from The Double: How Cork Made GAA History, by AdrianRussell, which is published now by Mercier Press (€17.99).

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