FOR Denis Coughlan, most of the game is lost to the sands of time, buried beneath the avalanche of memories built up during his years serving both Cork’s footballers and hurlers, but one vignette remains unwithered by time: a photograph of the Corkman rising with Tyrone’s Frank McGuigan for a ball in midfield in the 1973 All-Ireland semi-final.
“I was marking Frank that day and I genuinely didn’t know anything about him,” Coughlan explains. “He was only 18 or 19 but I can honestly say that, not knowing anything about him, I came to the conclusion, even during the match, he was one of the best footballers I ever played against.
“I was very impressed with his fielding ability and the way that he timed his runs. I was actually in the act of catching it (in the photograph) but Frank is just behind me and, with his timing, I don’t know what followed on from that. Did he catch the ball or tip it away from me? I’d love to know. A classy player.”
McGuigan and Jimmy Barry-Murphy had lined out on opposite sides in the All-Ireland minor final which Cork won the year before but, that brief crossing of paths apart, neither side knew much about the other.
As Coughlan remembers it, it was unusual for Cork to play a northern team back then. Because of the way in which the national league was structured, dates with Ulster sides were reserved mostly for league and championship semi-finals and finals.
With live games – apart from the two All-Ireland finals – and home video recorders still figments of the imagination, both sides were made to scrape and scramble for what information they could.
Cork selector Derry Gowen made the trip north for the Ulster final against Down and the entire Tyrone team and management organised a trip to RTÉ’s Dublin studios to view a recording of the Munster decider. Both events were deemed unusual enough to be mentioned prominently in the Examiner in the week beforehand.
Tyrone had reason to be confident. They were unbeaten in 17 games, ever since the 1972 Ulster final against Donegal, and their minors and U21s were collecting Ulster titles in the early part of the decade like they were going out of fashion.
Cork suffered a blow before the first whistle when Dave McCarthy, one of their best forwards, was ruled out through injury and the gods seemed to be against them when another, Billy Field, fractured a leg just six minutes in.
Despite all that, they went on to win by 5-10 to 2-4. Tyrone, who used a tactic of interchanging their forwards to a bewildering degree, didn’t score for 34 minutes and the closest Cork came to a scare was in the third quarter when their lead was whittled down to 2-9 to 2-3.
“They weren’t as strong as they are now,” says Brian Murphy, who was a corner-back on the side. “The northern teams have become so strong over the last few years. They have made a huge impression on the football scene now beating the Kerrys and so forth. It was different then.”
So was the game, with fixtures back then lasting an energy-sapping 80 minutes.
“It was tough enough,” says Coughlan. “Between hurling and football, I suppose you could say we were very fit, but you had a dilemma to try and pace yourself or play as hard and as long as you could.
“At that time you were only entitled to three subs and you didn’t want to be taken off. You weren’t part of a panel like you are now. You mightn’t even be picked on the panel the next day if you were (taken off). You had to be very fit.”
For the final against Galway, Cork had to change jerseys, and they trained in Tyrone’s jerseys which had been sent down soon by their semi-final victims in a gesture of solidarity. Coughlan can still picture the red hand of Ulster on his chest and the change of colours did them no harm, as they beat Galway by seven points.
It was a superb Cork team, one that would claim seven All Stars that year. Billy Morgan was in goal and his domain was protected by men like Frank Cogan, Kevin Jer O’Sullivan and Murphy.
Dinny Long roamed the midfield with Coughlan who, along with Murphy is adamant that it was forwards like Jimmy Barry and Ray Cummins who proved to be the extra ingredient that took them over the line.
“That Cork team had exceptional forwards,” says Murphy. “They were very like the current Kilkenny team. You might hold three of them well enough but one of the others will pop up and have a fierce day.
“Last time it was Henry Shefflin and it was Martin Comerford before that. We had a great scoring forward line and it worked well as a unit. The likes of Ray Cummins and Jimmy Barry Murphy alone were as good a pair of forwards as Cork ever had.”
Both Coughlan and Murphy would go on to help the county hurlers to a famous three-in-a-row in 1978 but the success in 1973 stands shoulder to shoulder with what they achieved later that decade.
“Absolutely,” says Coughlan. “Cork hadn’t won a football All-Ireland since 1945 and we just felt that we were privileged to have been there in ‘73.”