It was 30 years ago, but the game remains vivid.
Cork and Galway served up a high-scoring romp in the 1990 All-Ireland hurling final — 43 scores in 70 minutes, including seven goals.
It’s such a well-remembered game that it’s a surprise to recall how both sides struggled the previous season.
Galway had been embroiled in the Tony Keady affair in 1989: their late, lamented centre-back had been suspended for playing in America, seriously unsettling the team.
They lost a bad-tempered All-Ireland semi-final to Tipperary, missing their shot at three titles in a row. A fractious end to a challenging season.
“It drained us mentally more than you’d think,” says Cyril Farrell, then Galway manager.
“It was a disappointing way to go out. Things picked up the following season, though, and we made the All-Ireland.”
Galway had lost to Cork in the 1986 decider, but had beaten them in the 1985 semi-final (a defeat which was more of a driving factor for Cork than might have been expected.) Farrell wasn’t complacent ahead of the game, but he recognised something in the Cork attitude which bolstered confidence in Galway.
“We always felt they wouldn’t go out to stop you, they’d go out to hurl their game and if you could beat them hurling your game, then that was well and good. You could put on a minor against them because his marker wouldn’t bother belting him, he’d just try to outhurl him. Cork had goalscoring forwards, good ones, and if they got a run on you they’d damage you, but you could still play against them.
“In contrast, when we played Kilkenny, we often found it might be tight, low-scoring, and they’d get through by a point or two. Some of those were right mangles of games.
“But in 1990 we were going well. Keady was back at centre-back and the team was experienced. Now, if you took a step back and looked, you’d say that as a team they were coming towards the end, they had a lot of hurling done — but we were confident, absolutely.”
On the surface, Cork looked far more inexperienced, but goalkeeper Ger Cunningham looks beyond the obvious.
“We had seven players in their first Munster final in 1990, a big number.
“We’d been in the ’88 Munster final but after that some fellas weren’t used — Tomás Mulcahy, Kevin Hennessy didn’t play in 1989, John Fitzgibbon wasn’t playing.
“A lot of those lads had won All-Irelands four years before and were still young enough — Tomás and Kevin were in their prime, Fitzgibbon was in his early 20s still.
“After ’89 there were no expectations. But we had a decent enough league leading into 1990 — it was the time you played a few league games before Christmas — though we went out to Wexford in the quarter-final scoring six or seven points. That was unbelievable, given we scored 18 goals in the championship the same year.
“And the Canon had a huge impact. A lot of us knew him already, but he drove down for the first night’s training in a car with a 90 C 27 reg ... I don’t know if it was a fluke, but knowing him, anything was possible.”
O’Brien’s appointment as manager was an energising move, but Galway were an intimidating prospect, and one line of their team was a particular challenge, says Cunningham.
“Their half-backs, Peter Finnerty, Tony Keady, and Gerry McInerney. That was our worry, because in those days they were the best around.
“They won in 1987 and 1988 and then the Tony Keady affair blew up in ’89, but they were still very strong.
“The Canon would still have brought it up, that they hadn’t beaten Cork in a final. To him, that was worth something, and he’d try to use it — he was always playing a mind game with you.”
Not that the mind games always worked out.
“He knew I’d be working away myself, there was no issue there, but we had a bit of an argument on the Tuesday night before the final.”
Cunningham’s knee was sore. The Canon probed. The keeper reacted.
“I’d twisted it and I couldn’t train — I was in no danger of missing the game, but I wasn’t in the form for him, so I walked away that evening. I don’t know if he believed me but he questioned me and ... it wasn’t that big a deal, but I remember the argument.”
The game itself is often reduced to its basic elements, and Joe Cooney’s performance is always the first port of call.
The Galway centre-forward ended the game with 1-7 and rallied his side after Cork had enjoyed a dream start.
“Joe wasn’t pulling guys out of position, but he caused a lot of damage,” says Cunningham.
“In the very first minute, Kevin pulled first-time for a fantastic goal and we added on a few points. It was a brilliant cushion and we held it for 20 minutes or so. Then Galway got a goal out of the blue.”
Cork seemed to have the numbers to defend a dropping ball in the goalmouth but Cooney got to it — Denis Walsh blocked his initial shot before the Galwayman booted the ball to the net.
“That was a huge boost for them, because they added on a couple of points with it,” says Cunningham.
“We had had a cushion, but we left them in for a goal and they were five up at half time. Cooney was very good, in fairness. Cash (Jim Cashman) had been outstanding all year, he was brilliant in the Munster final, and he was hugely important to us.
“When he was having a tough time on Cooney, it had a knock-on effect.”
The wind, however, was a major factor in the game — the television pictures suggest a bright summer day, but both Cunningham and Farrell were cognisant of the breeze’s influence.
“The wind was strong enough,” says Cunningham.
“As we were going in at the break we would have been thinking it was worth three, four points. We knew we weren’t out of the game.”
Farrell says: “At half time we were five up after playing with the wind, 1-13 to 1-8.
“But that early goal was vital for Cork because it held them in the game when they needed to be in the game. People didn’t realise how strong the wind was if they weren’t there, and we knew they’d have it in the second half.”
At half time, Cunningham got his instructions: “The Canon saying to use the long puck-out in the second half, to get the Galway half-backs turning — our half-forwards were to pull out a bit to draw them out too, then the puck-out was to land beyond them.
“That would mean the Galway half-backs would have to turn and go back towards their own goals, and in the end they were defending very deep, on their own 20-metre line.”
When the game restarted, another consequence of the wind was to kill the supply to Joe Cooney, he adds.
“In the second half Galway couldn’t get the ball to Cooney as much, so he had to drop deeper. And that meant Cash came into it, and he was crucial in the last quarter — he made some huge blocks. The selectors stuck with him, but they were right. They had huge confidence in him — rightly so given his displays all year — and he got to grips with Cooney in the second half.”
Cork came into the game on the resumption, but the contest still hinged on a Martin Naughton run 10 minutes into the second half. The Galway forward was foiled by a brave save from Cunningham, but the Tribesmen were denied a clear 65 when the ball shot off the Cork ’keeper’s head.
“That was a vital sequence of play,” says Farrell.
“Naughton had huge pace, he was a great man to carry the ball, and when he went through, Ger came out and smothered his shot — a great save.
“The umpire missed the save somehow, and when Ger restarted the game Cork got a point — when we thought Keady might have been fouled as well. So there was a huge swing.
“In fairness to Ger, it was a great save — but it was also a 65.”
Cunningham met the umpire years later.
“He explained to me what had happened from his point of view,” he says.
“He saw Naughton break through the cover, clean through on goal, and he stepped back beside the post, and then he saw the ball hit the net by his foot - the outside of the net. He never saw it (my touch).
“We had brought it back to four, they had that chance of a goal, but they didn’t even get a chance for a 65 to get a point. When I pucked it out, we got a point from it. Tony Keady caught the puck-out but the ball went loose and Tony O’Sullivan pointed.
“So from potentially being seven down, we were back within three. One-score game.”
By now, Galway were struggling with the elements, Farrell recalls.
“You could see it was hard for Cork to get past our half-backs in the first half, but the wind was a big factor.
“Cooney was so good in the first half, but it was quite simple in the second half — we just couldn’t get the ball up to him. And Jim Cashman was a classy hurler too, in fairness.
“Cork used the wind well. Ger (Cunningham) would have had a huge puckout at any stage, but in the second half I think he could probably have put the ball wide at our end if he’d wanted to.
“We were still six up in the second half, but while we knew Cork were always going to come, when those goals came, they came in a rush. That was no surprise, because they were goal-scorers.
“We scored well ourselves — we ended with 2-21, which was a scoreline that would have won a lot of games then and now, but Cork had forwards who’d score. Mark Foley, Hennessy, John Fitzgibbon ... He didn’t last too long, but what a forward he was.”
The man who faced those forwards all year in training wasn’t surprised when they hit four goals in that second half.
“We’d been getting them all year,” says Cunningham. “We got three in the first game against Kerry, four against Waterford, four in the Munster final, two in the semi-final and five in the All-Ireland.
“Fitzy, Tony, Ger, Hennessy, Tomás, Foley — and Fitzy, in particular, took off that year. With him, it was a case of anything goes, he was so unpredictable.
“Most forwards, you knew what to expect — but without doubt, he was the best I ever faced for a shot off the ground. He lived for goals and every chance he got ... He knew the impact of a goal. He was brilliant to train against because he was always going to go for goal. Up in the air, on the ground: goal. That was different because other forwards weren’t like that.
If the game were played now it would be radically different, adds Cunningham. Both sides would have addressed the wind, for instance.
“If there was ever a time to go short with your puck-outs, it was that match. I was pucking the ball down on top of the best half-back line in the game, Michael Coleman would stand in front of them as well, so it was a very difficult line to pass.
“In the second half, we were lucky enough in that we got them turning and they ended up defending their 20-metre line.
“But the short puck-out just wasn’t done. It just wasn’t an option at all back then. When you had a long puck-out, you were to use it.”
“It wasn’t a runner at all,” he says.
“If you saw the goalkeeper tapping it out to the cornerback? As a manager you’d get a weakness. And the cornerback would definitely get a weakness.”
Was it as good as expected?
“It was,” says Cunningham.
“Because ’89 was so bad, you didn’t think you’d be back within 12 months, after being written off ... it’s very special, those couple of minutes as it sinks in.
“Later on there was talk about the double. It hadn’t really been mentioned up to then. But the few minutes out on the field, after winning ....
“Yeah, it was a sweet one.”
Irish Examiner GAA correspondent John Fogarty will live-tweet the 1990 All-Ireland hurling final between Cork and Galway on the @ExaminerSport Twitter account tomorrow. The game throws-in on TG4’s All-Ireland Gold (2pm)
You can follow John’s ‘live’ updates and join the conversation atwww.twitter.com/ExaminerSport.