'The harder the belts, the greater the friendships afterwards'

AS another instalment of Gaelic football's greatest rivalry is played out in Croke Park tomorrow, stars of the seventies Kerry's Mickey Ned O'Sullivan and Cork's Kevin Jer O'Sullivan recall some of the magical days from their playing careers.

Diarmuid O'Flynn listened in.

DOF: When that Kerry team were trying to break through, Cork were dominant, won their third Munster title in four years in 1974, their first All-Ireland in 28 years in 1973. But what happened Cork after that?

KJ: It was definitely the best Cork team of all time, there isn't a question about it. I played in a lot of good teams, I've seen a lot of good football played, but it was like the Kerry team that came through that time, when that Cork team got it together, the teamwork, the foot-passing and the movement was incredible. Everyone on that team was able to score, and goals as well. Look at that year, '73, there was something like 15 goals in four championship games. I mean that's unheard of, before or since, but that was the kind of football that team was capable of. I'll always remember '74, it was only the All-Ireland was in the head, and don't ever let anyone tell you different. We beat Kerry in Killarney easily and headed for the All-Ireland semi-final. The selectors went off to see Dublin playing Wexford. Wexford scored four or five goals that day and the lads told us Dublin had nothing.

MN: I saw that match, and Dublin WERE cat, desperate. The only man who impressed me was David Hickey.

KJ: That was the mistake. Look at what they came up with afterwards.

MN: They brought in Keaveney and a few others.

KJ: If we'd beaten Dublin, we'd definitely have won the All-Ireland again in '74. I'm not saying we'd have beaten Kerry then in '75, maybe they'd have beaten us anyway.

MN: I doubt it.

KJ: In 1976 we got another opportunity. All of us were back again, in our positions, and all of us were hungry again, and the team that went out that day should have won that Munster final. But no, and they (selectors) got rid of us.

MN: That was definitely another turning point. It was the opening of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and had Cork won then, when they deserved to win, they had players with at least another two or three years left in them, and who knows what they'd have won.

KJ: That game was the end of it. We were all thrown aside, as much because of '75 as anything though on that day, no team would have beaten Kerry. But you don't throw them all out, about seven of us got the bullet straight after '76. Another problem we had was the dual players, trying to fit them in, but hurling always got priority. We had five or six dual players, Brian Murphy, Martin Doherty, Denis Coughlan, Ray Cummins and Jimmy Barry-Murphy. They were great players. When you were building your team in the League, if there was a clash of fixtures, the dual players usually went with the hurlers, especially if the hurlers were in trouble.

I was only 28, I played another 12 years with Beara, I played my best football after that. It always galls me, that fellows like myself were sold down the Swanee because they didn't want to be bringing us up from Adrigole, if they could get away with it. After losing the championship game, we went up in '74 and beat Dublin in the League, probably played as well as we ever played. But we went up to prove a point, I remember the attitude going up.

DOF: Was that the day Connie Hartnett laid out Bobby Doyle?

KJ: It was, broke his nose, but Doyle started it, he was mouthing off. They hit us hard from the start, I remember going up for the first ball, two of them came across me, I was down for about five minutes after a wicked wallop. We beat them anyway, by four points.

MN: There's nothing worse than being beaten when you feel you could have achieved more. They won the All-Ireland in 1973 but that Cork team was worth at least two more. Look at the forward talent they had!

KJ: Then Kerry came along, and Dublin, the handpass, and in a way, thank God I was gone, I think I'd have ate the grass. I was never a lover of the handpass, it smothered football. The Dublin fellas started it in '74. They'd come at you, you'd go to take them, they'd handpass it over your head, and were gone. We weren't into that football. Definitely that time, the running, hand-passing game by Dublin and Kerry killed most teams. You couldn't stay with them. I often saw them going in on Morgan, and any of three could score the goal, Bomber would flick it to one fella, who'd flick it to another fella waiting. If they had to kick it, you'd have some chance to block it.

MN: I'll tell you something that a lot of people don't realise, though. In 1975, it could just as well have been Kerry that were cleared out. That team was actually together since '71. I remember an incident in Boston, the Cardinal Cushing Games, I was coming onto the senior team, a lot of us were just starting off, at about 18 or 19. Of course we were wild. We were coming in this morning after a night out, about 8 o'clock, met Micko (Connell) in the lobby just on his way out, going training, and he stopped. "If this is the future of Kerry football, I don't want anything to do with it!"

He went straight to the airport and straight home! That team actually won four Leagues in-a-row, (1971-1974) but we weren't doing it in championship. Cork were a far better team, more mature. If we hadn't won in 1975, we would have been gone, a big clearout.

DOF: And Mick O'Dwyer gone with ye?

MN: No, he didn't take over until May, 1975, and I'll tell you exactly how that happened. The County Board rang me that Easter, in April, I was supposed to be captain. They had no trainer, asked me if I'd do a coaching course in Gormanstown, being given by Joe Lennon and Kevin Heffernan. I had no intention of doing any coaching, I wanted to be playing, but I rang Dwyer, "will you come up with me?" "What does it involve?" he says; "you have to do this course, then a bit of an exam at the end of it." "I'm doing no exam!" I had no intention of doing the exam either, so I said to him, come anyway, we can slip away when the exam starts. And he agreed. He collected me here in Kenmare, we went up. Heffo had the Dublin team there, he gave us an exhibition training session, it was great stuff.

Coming down, I said to Dwyer, "you'll train us?" "I have my hands full," he said, but I knew from the way he said it, the door was left open, he didn't rule it out. As soon as I got home, I rang Gerald McKenna, the County Board chairman, told him, Dwyer will do it, but you'll have to do go down and persuade him. He did, next day, but Dwyer didn't take over for another three weeks, and we were into the first round then. But those lads hadn't come overnight.

DOF: They were great years though, great occasions, those Munster finals, for the fans especially.

KJ: For the players as well. We all knew where we were going afterwards, that was always the biggest sing-song we ever had. Jimmy Brien's was the place we met in Killarney, I could write a book about Jimmy. He'd be on the side of the street as you went up, maybe spot Mickey Ned, the door would be opened, you'd be ushered in; spot Frank Cogan, Billy Morgan, myself, it would be the same thing. The Cork team was the same as the Kerry team to Jimmy, you were going to be looked after. I was actually in there earlier this year, I thought it was the funniest thing I ever saw. Only about four people in the bar, we shook hands, talked about the matches coming up, this was before the minor championship. There was a fine tall lad at the bar, one of the Kerry minor panel. Who breezes in the door but Connell. Of course Jimmy lost his head. Once he saw Connell, and if he saw him 40 times a day it would make no difference, he was all over the place. We got talking anyway, Jimmy pointed out the young fella, told Connell he was on the Kerry minor team. "Begod you're a big man," says Connell. "About 6'2," says the young fella. "How's it going for you?" "Not too bad." "Are you playing well?" "I am." "When ye're training now, do ye have many balls?" "About 20." "Ye'll only have one effing ball the day of the match!"

This is a young fella now that he'd met for the first time. "Can you jump?", he asks the young fella. "I can." Jimmy's ceiling is high, a fan in the middle. "Can you catch that?", and as sure as jaysus, Connell takes one step back, makes a lep, two hands, nearly grabbed the fan. Jimmy was watching carefully, in case he would get to it. The young fella stood back, made a leap for the fan anyway, one-handed.

"Hah! Is it one effing hand you put up for the ball?!" Told the young fella to have a go with the two hands, and Jimmy stepped in. "Stop, stop, he'll pull down my fan!" Sure Connell must be nearly 70, but he's still a very fit man.

MN: Frightening.

KJ: I'll be back in ten minutes, he says, stay there. He takes an odd ould drink now. We had a reunion of the '72 Railway Cup team, in Creedon's in Ballyvourney and it was the first time in my life I saw Connell drinking. "Jaysus, Micko, am I seeing things?" "I take an old pint of ale now and then, just to get away from that old orange." A pint he had, then went to a glass or two, that was all. But we had a great night, Babs Keating and all those lads were down.

MN: When I was about 18, I was in my first year in PE College, and of course he was fierce interested in this, because it was something new. We were in New York anyway that year, and he comes to me, "we'll go up to the New York Athletic Club, see what they have there." We got on the subway, Dwyer was with us, and there was this black man there, just a massive man.

O'Connell looks at him, "tell me," he says, "have you any shame at all in yourself to let your body go into that condition!" Luckily, your man didn't understand what he was saying, or we'd have got a poke. But that was Micko, he had no problem saying whatever was on his mind, regardless of the circumstances.

DOF: I have to ask you about the tackle by Sean Doherty in 1975

MN: Football was different that time. We look back now, but with different standards, and to see that now, yes, it looks vicious. That happened to me on a number of occasions at club level, happened again a year later in a challenge game against Offaly, above in Edenderry, I was concussed again. Football was different, if a fella ran at a guy, you expected to get hit. Fellas didn't like to be passed, they took no prisoners. You might pass a fella once, but you wouldn't pass a second time. Either you were gone, or he was. Any back worth his salt wouldn't allow it. Paudie Donoghue, the full-back for Kerry around that time, said to me, "if you keep playing like that, you're going to get effing killed!"

DOF: Have you ever met Doherty since?

MN: I'm actually meeting him tomorrow night, in Dublin! I think anything that happens on the field, you leave it on the field.

KJ: We had the very same incident inside in Macroom, between Millstreet and Bantry, around the same time. Humphrey Kelleher was full-back, Donal Hunt got the ball (Cork team-mates at the time), went through, left them all for dead, drop-kicked and nearly burst the net. Back out he went, won the next ball again, came thundering in, beat one man, beat the next (pauses, voice drops), and Humphrey came. Now, I swear to God, he just went straight into him, and the two of them hit, dead-on. Humphrey kept going, Hunt went back about ten yards and got up no more. His lung was punctured, not from any particular belt he got, just the force of the collision. Everyone was saying Humphrey meant to do it, he did not. He was just going to stop Hunt from making his runs through the middle; he was probably told, if you can't stop him, you might as well go off out to the sideline. He didn't kick him, hit him with his fist, it was with the body.

MN: I'm delighted Kevin has told that story. A lot of people didn't understand what was happening, and I accept that it looked terrible, but the game was different. I played in the backs as well, and if a guy was taking you to the cleaners, by hook or crook you had to stop him.

KJ: Or slow him down anyway! You wouldn't last long if you didn't, you'd be called ashore. But no matter how hard the game was, you left it on the field.

KJ: Shook hands, went for a drink afterwards. You might take it up again the next match, but when the final whistle sounded, it was over, for that day at least.

MN: I remember after that incident, Sean Doherty and myself went for a few pints the next day, and any time I'm in Dublin I make it my business to ring him.

KJ: It actually strengthens the relationship.

MN: Yes, there's a mutual respect. We'd still go out and belt shite out of each other, but we'd have a drink together afterwards, but you know, the tougher the games, the harder he belts, the greater the friendships afterwards.

DOF: What do ye think of the modern game?

KJ: It can be a beautiful game, the way we saw this year in the Munster final, with Dublin and Tyrone, Cork and Galway; even Armagh showed they can play football, last week.

MN: I think the teams we played with wouldn't hold a candle to the modern team. I know it's out of context, but the level of fitness, of strength, nowadays, is phenomenal. The intensity of the game for 70 minutes, it's fantastic.

KJ: They're superfit, but against that, a bad game is the worst you ever saw, the pulling and dragging. I don't know what ye thought of the sin-bin, but even for the short period it was in, I thought it cleaned up the game.

MN: I liked it, but I think the GAA lost their nerve. They probably wouldn't have got it through anyway, the northern teams were dead set against it, so you wouldn't have got your two-thirds. I think it was all done too hastily. They set up this group, and all due respects to our president, but they were set up in November, met twice, maybe three times, to change the whole face of the GAA.

They should have studied the game, brought in experts, identify the kind of game you want, and construct the rules to achieve that.

KJ: You and me will never do that, because we're still only the people that talk about it. I'll say one thing, we've come on an awful long way in Sean Kelly's term of office, I think he's doing a very good job.

MN: He's been great, but this was done badly, he wanted to get these rules changed before he left, and that was too short a time frame.

DOF: Who's going to win on Sunday?

KJ: Ah sure look, we're both going to say the same thing. Cork have improved since the Munster final, though Derek Kavanagh is a huge loss to them, Kerry will be wary of them, it could be anyone's game, on the day.

MN: Exactly.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up