When they were kings... Liam Hayes on Gaelic football and sportswriting, now and then

33 years ago, Kerry met Meath in Croke Park, with the greatest team of all running out of road and the Royals on the rise. An email conversation with Liam Hayes stirred some memories on Gaelic football and sportswriting, now and then

When they were kings... Liam Hayes on Gaelic football and sportswriting, now and then

33 years ago, Kerry met Meath in Croke Park, with the greatest team of all running out of road and the Royals on the rise. An email conversation with Liam Hayes stirred some memories on Gaelic football and sportswriting, now and then

Tony Leen: So, it was like this, Liam. You were part of, I can’t forget it. It was a time notebooks could walk among the dead of a losing All-Ireland semi-final dressing room. Joe Cassells was laid out on the medical table, his shoulder in shit. There were cuts and slits over a few eyes, and one player — I can’t remember who — was having a neck-brace sized. It was an A&E under the Hogan Stand.

RTÉ’s Jim Carney had his radio mic at the ready for Montrose to flick him live, and he’d already kindly been guided on the questions to ask — and those he might prefer not to — as only Gerry McEntee and Mick Lyons could. His hand, the one holding the mic, was shaking.

And I’m there thinking to myself, ‘Could Kerry, sweet footballing Kerry, have caused this carnage?

Hardly….

Liam Hayes: Different times. How different? I was working for The Sunday Press as its chief sports-writer at the time, and part of my working week was to serve up a GAA piece and a general sports article. I was actually interviewing opponents before games - imagine that! No secret police deciding who would be served up to the media… I would pick up the phone, just call someone. Anyone! I went down to Killarney and sat down with Tom Spillane before that semi-final. I went up to Derry and interviewed Dermot McNicholl before an All-Ireland semi-final in 87. Did the same with Jack Sheedy before a Leinster final. Crazy times.

TL: That’s what sticks with me 33 years later from that particular dressing room. The rawness. The open wounds, literal and metaphorical. Here was a Meath side, with notions, on the rise, confronting a fading force which wouldn’t win another All-Ireland after that one for 11 years. And yet at that moment, in that dressing-room, it was the Meath players who looked shattered and broken. Fair to suggest that Kerry Golden Years team was streetwise…

LH: They were operating, thinking, preparing at a different level, and a level we did not know existed. Remember, a great number of that Kerry team had been out there against Dublin in the second half of the 70s, and they had fought Roscommon and Offaly in huge games to win their four-in-a-row. And they were back beating Dublin in the early 80s! They were veteran warriors.

Us? We’d got to our first Leinster final in 1984 and got beaten by four points by Dublin. We got knocked out of Leinster by Laois in 85 (a dozen points or so). Seán Boylan nearly got the door after that. We beat Carlow by three points in the first round of the Leinster in 86. Beat Wicklow in the Leinster semi. And managed to finally defeat Dublin in the spills of rain in the Leinster final - we’d never even imagined playing Kerry in Croke Park. We had no idea what awaited us. Were they tough? Grizzled, mean, hard as nails, and on top of it all magnificent footballers and athletes. We were lambs to the slaughter.

TL: I am trying to conjure up the absurdity of a player at the elite GAA level heading straight back to the newsroom to write about his colleagues and opponents straight after. Madness. I can’t think of an example, since, of a high profile player who was a working journalist on the national stage? You must wonder now how you managed to keep all that on an even keel. It undoubtedly set you up as a hostage to fortune. How many times did you get the oul ‘stick that in your f**king paper’ on the pitch?

LH: There wasn’t too much of that, which was strange. The occasional comment. But lads like Tom Spillane before that game had no real problem meeting me. There was no question of asking a manager for permission. And Seán Boylan, for instance, would have had no idea that I’d been down in Kerry talking to an opponent. The only time in 10-plus years I ever talked to Seán about my job was prior to the 1988 All-Ireland final when I did a major profile of him for the Sunday morning of the game. I showed him the piece after training one night and he said he was very happy with it.

But, when you ask about Kerry in ‘86? My most striking memory is of us being out on the field first and waiting for them to appear. We seemed to be waiting for forever… and although we had played them in Navan and Tralee in the league before that semi-final, we were still nervous as hell waiting for them. Waiting for the roar from the crowd when they ran out…

When the game started we dominated them, out of fear more than anything else probably. The adrenaline was flowing and my memory is of us being on top, well on top… until we got thumped on the point of the chin with that awful goal.

TL: Between my own suspect memory of that day, and watching bits back over the intervening years, my sense is that Kerry were very much on the rack until the McQuillan faux pas for Ger Power’s goal. But even after that, while it gave a foothold, it wasn’t until Willie Maher’s second goal that you felt Kerry were firmly in the driving seat. The Meath Chronicle reporter of the day, Tom ‘Tex’ Mooney was sitting beside me in the press box. When Jack O’Shea pointed from a ridiculous distance under the Hogan Stand in the second half it finished Meath. Mooney flung his pen down on the desk. Feck it, he sighed, form is temporary, class is permanent. We could all see that this great giant of a side was getting frayed around the edges. There was a sense the end was soon, but no-one was sure how soon…

LH: On the field, we were gone before that goal, or well on the way! I know my head was fried early in the second half and I was running around and doing very little. It was a bit like we were shadowing them, and not competing against them.

They were giants. The immortals of the game, all of them. And it was difficult to comprehend that we had a right to go toe-to-toe with them. When we got to think about it during the course of the game, I think we took a step back.

I was the team free taker (luckily for everyone, Boylan gave the job to Brian Stafford the following year and he saved our bacon nearly every campaign after that). I was a 70% free taker, in terms of nailing them. I remember stroking over a couple from far out early on, no sweat, but in the second half I missed two crucial ones in the third quarter. Each time they slid past the post. They were crucial misses.

Also, while Kerry were definitely on fumes as the greatest team of all time, don’t forget we were not ‘built’ into the Meath team that everyone came to know. The building process was still not completed. We had Martin O’Connell at full-forward. Brian Stafford at centre-forward. Joe Cassells at right corner back, and in the other corner Padraig Lyons, Mick’s younger brother who was built like Ben Johnson the Candian sprinter, but had no speed! Padraig never played really for Meath again after that game.

So, we were a team three-quarters built, against an ageing champ.

TL: Martin O’Connell at full-forward? Sweet mother of… Ogie Moran never really commanded the same swooning admiration as Mikey, Spillane, Bomber, Jacko etc, but watching that game back, he was doing in the 80s what we now consider the essential characteristics of a prototype centre forward - foraging deep, linking the play, providing the outlet. And then you say to yourself, maybe that’s why he finished with eight All-Ireland medals, maybe that’s why Dwyer would fit him into each and every big match team. Cos he was that fundamental. Giles would come after and do that for Meath.

At different stages that day, Bomber would drift out and Jacko would perch himself inside. It was his flick onto Maher for the second goal. There was a bit of shape to them alright…..

LH: They just knew. It’s like all great teams in every sport, every last man is on the same page. Don’t want to sound up my own backside, but it’s a bit like telepathy at work.

Everyone knows! What they have to do, how they should respond to a setback. And Ogie was the essential team player in that Kerry side - he glued so much together. Way ahead of his time. A true, thinking footballer, which was rare enough in the 70s and 80s when there was a lot of horseplay going on and daft kicking of the ball.

But, more than anything, those big games like 1986 are won in the head. I came to realise that in 87 and 88. I remember Louth hosted us as All-Ireland champs in the early summer of 1988 in Drogheda and all the talk was that they were going to rattle us. Big neighbourly derby and all of that. There must have been 20,000 people, the place was heaving. We swatted them like a fly. We had no doubt whatsoever, from the first minute to the last, that we were the far better team and that we had every RIGHT to win, and NO REASON to lose.

For a couple of years with Meath we truly believed that we could not lose, and that we had a God-given right to win every game. We just knew we would win.

In 1986 Kerry knew they would beat us. In comparison, we were hoping that we might win. That is the essential difference between great teams and others. Great teams know.

TL: So true. If every day is a school day, that semi was almost like finishing school for that Meath team. Ye’d sorted the Dubs eventually, and now ye were sizing yourselves up against the ultimate benchmark. You came away that autumn thinking, ‘yeah, we’re ready now. It’s time.’ The following four seasons almost franked that….

LH: Absolutely true. But, funny thing is, we did not know the final classroom even existed. All we ever dreamed of was beating Dublin, and that was only a dream, even through the summer of 86. To this day, when people ask me what was my happiest and most memorable moment in my whole career, it was winning the Leinster final in 86, not the All-Irelands. The game ended, and I fell back onto my back on the ground. Could have broken my back. Right up to the final minute of that Leinster final, beating Dublin was still only a ‘dream’.

When we did it, finally got past Dublin, we were totally unprepared for the step up in weight division.

TL: I’m still back at you writing a big profile of Boylan, your manager, for the Sunday Press, the morning of an All-Ireland final! I remember too that during that epic four-game Leinster final series with the Dubs in 91, you went straight from Croke Park back to the office to write stuff on the game? When you consider where the GAA is now with media relations, that kind of proximity and engagement almost makes you weep with envy. When I started this racket in 1983 - and I’ve written about this - I was covering a Kerry NFL game in Newbridge one Sunday and had no drive down home afterwards. I asked Dwyer for a spin when I was doing the quotes, and he threw me into the back of the white Merc with three of the team! We were listening to the Sunday night sports report going through Mountrath on two wheels.

LH: It’s incredible. But there was trust back then between most GAA lads and journalists. It was a different world, no social media, no text messaging, no phones! I travelled from Dublin down to Micko in Waterville to interview him a few months before we played them in 86. I travelled down and back the one day in my old broken-down car - and four times I stopped at phone boxes to call Micko and tell him I would be late. I knew he did not really want to talk to me, and would grab an excuse to vanish on me. But when I finally arrived in Waterville he was there with tea and sandwiches for me.

Oh, yeah, after we beat Dublin in the final game of four in 91, I had to go back to the newsroom and write a front page piece — then I hightailed it after that to the Mansion House where the Lord Mayor was making presentations and myself and Tom Carr had to make speeches as rival captains.

Kerry’s Denis “ Ogie “ Moran comes under pressure from Meath’s Liam Hayes, left, Bernard Flynn (15), and Colm O’Rourke during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final on August 24, 1986. Hayes says of that clash: ‘My memory is of us being on top, well on top… until we got thumped on the point of the chin with that awful goal.’ Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Kerry’s Denis “ Ogie “ Moran comes under pressure from Meath’s Liam Hayes, left, Bernard Flynn (15), and Colm O’Rourke during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final on August 24, 1986. Hayes says of that clash: ‘My memory is of us being on top, well on top… until we got thumped on the point of the chin with that awful goal.’ Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

TL: Where did Meath football go this past decade? TWO Leinsters since 1999 beggars belief. I’ve the family connection up there, and used go to a lot of championship games back in the day (mainly involving Cortown, when they were flying high). The love of football there is enormous, real football people, and I know other counties, like Down, have also suffered dips, but the refrain I got all the time up there — even up to recently — was ‘the footballers aren’t there’.

Is cyclical too simplistic….

LH: No, there’s always been something cyclical at work in counties like Meath. I’m out of the place 30 years (and living in Dublin) and I do not see much club football either. I hear the same thing. Though this year we have a decent defence, and a decent set of middle players. But we have no ‘geniuses’ up front. Meath, remember, only won one Leinster between 1967 and 87 — 20 years of

nothing apart from losing to Kerry in the All-Ireland final in 1970.

What teams like Meath need to do is break that cyclical nature of things by putting in place strong structures from underage (academy) to senior, and employ full-time personnel who are there all the time. The likes of Meath, if they are to compete against Dublin, need to build a structure that is a mini-Leinster rugby.

They can’t wait around with their hands in their pockets hoping the next manager does a better job than the last. That is what happened after Boylan left. There was no plan. No idea at all about how to hang on to what Boylan had achieved. Seán stayed too long in charge, and when he left everyone was clueless. No idea. No plan. Nothing.

But, back to geniuses. We would have won little or nothing in the 80s either without O’Rourke and Stafford. They were two complete geniuses. Flynn was half a genius. We had two and a half geniuses in our full forward line.

Genius still counts today. That is why Jim Gavin is extra smart in bringing Diarmuid Connolly back on board. Dublin don’t have geniuses, and that is where they might be a little bit vulnerable. Mannion is nearly there, but not a qualified genius. Same with Con O’Callaghan. Rock and Costelloe are not genius, not like Bernard Brogan at his best.

TL: From where you sit, where are Kerry now? I think they could - with all the stars aligning on a given Sunday afternoon - win an All-Ireland this September, but it would be a year or two ahead of schedule. The minor successes don’t make that a given. David Clifford is the genius you refer to. Tom O’Sullivan is class, and the likes of Killian Spillane, Graham O’Sullivan and others will be seriously good players in 2020 or 2021, but we are back to that moment you described earlier - Dublin are now the ones who expect to win; Kerry would be hoping to win if it came to all that on September 1.

I’m sure given Meath people’s love of football, there will be a nice buzz in Navan on Saturday - I can’t remember the last time Kerry were there for a game with so much on the line…

LH: Kerry haven’t been in Navan very often. We played them in a league game back in 85 (I think) and the place was packed out. It was an incredible atmosphere - everyone at it (including those of us on the field) thought of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have Kerry in our home! They won by a couple of goals I remember. I was on Jacko, and talk about being overawed. I kept on telling myself, ‘I’m actually marking Jack O’Shea… here, in Navan!’ So, that tells you how little harm I did to him that day. Same day, Maurice Fitz was making one of his early starts and he did something and I gave him a little clip, and before I knew it, I had the Bomber promising blood and thunder if I even looked crooked at the young lad again! The order was taken on board.

The place will be like a ‘little’ All-Ireland final Saturday night. For Meath folk, it gives a tiny hint, a glimpse, at getting back to the top table.

I can’t see Kerry stopping Dublin this year, but they will… they will land the Dubs on their backside next year or 2021 at the latest. I don’t think I have seen a more exciting team than this group in over 20 years in The Kingdom. They are such an amazing bunch of athletes, and their skill level is off the charts.

People think I am hard on Kerry teams, and I’ve received stick for any criticism I have ever given them. But, as I’ve always seen it, Kerry are The Greatest. They are the Muhammad Ali of our game. And, because of that, they have to receive (and deserve) the toughest analysis. Kerry folk know the truth.

And, the Kerry teams of the last 20 years, despite the wins, were flawed in many places all over the field. We have not seen an outstanding Kerry team since Jacko, Bomber and co.

TL: It’s odd that there are continuing problems in the full-back line, or certainly when the side as a collective is on the back foot. Kerry haven’t been good in recent times — including under Fitzmaurice — at stemming the bleed, or minimising the damage when things are going against them. There hasn’t been a natural No 3, or a natural man-marking Marc Ó Se for quite some time (then again there aren’t many Marc Ó Se’s). If they had a more resolute shape about them without the ball and got a pairing that complemented each other at midfield, they certainly have the attack to cause problems for any 15, even Dublin.

I like Andy McEntee, by the way. He has that slightly mad stare about him, but he’s clearly a straight shooter. Gerry was the same I seem to recall... Whatever way you slice and dice it, promotion to Division One and hosting Kerry on the August bank holiday weekend represents a healthy 2019 campaign for that Meath management and players.

LH: The McEntees, all of them in the family, only do ‘serious’ when it comes to football. Andy needs to calm it, he’s too hyped and not doing his team any favours. Even though he has done a big job of work these last three years.

In Meath football, rival clubs like Skryne used to put someone on the sideline to drive him mad during games. Skryne actually had a man with a water bottle, firing water at Andy in one game. It worked!

What you were saying about Kerry brings us naturally back to what we were discussing at the very start - when a Kerry team was able to pummel an opponent, play them off the field, and beat them up in the process, like 1986.

The present squad will have to develop, as you say. They need to be built into a fully-fitted team from the full-back line out. But they also need to adopt a ruthless streak, and as much as we admire Dublin’s brilliance and massive entertainment value, they are tough and nasty at the back. McCarthy, McMahon and Cooper have done more damage to opponents than any other trio of defenders.

Kerry will need men out there in the next two or three years who are capable of putting manners on star forwards.

TL: Your club Skyrne had its fair share of star forwards down the years. O’Rourke. Giles. David Clifford would fit neatly into the jersey...

LH: Clifford looks like he is going to be ‘the forward’ of the next decade, but only if he keeps developing. No reason why not, but he’s going to get some stick from defenders from here on in, and he will have to grow up fast. The thing about Colm O’Rourke in Meath was that he was as strong and tough as any other man on the field. O’Rourke was also the second fastest (after David Beggy) on our team. And he was the best points scorer.

I was asked by a group of Kerrymen a few years back who was the best forward I ever saw. I said O’Rourke. They refused to believe me. They thought Colm Cooper was better, which is hilarious really. Cooper was probably the most over hyped footballer of his generation. I think Clifford will be twice as good as Cooper.

TL: Lastly, how engaged are you with the game nowadays? Do you still love it, or did you ever actually LOVE it? Was it to be endured or enjoyed? I know you had some health issues too, and hopefully they are in the past. Are you now waving goodbye to journalism and going to concentrate on getting good books out there to the market?

LH: The health is good thanks. Been in and out of St James’ for the last eight years, but no drama at the moment. I’m not involved directly in the game. Managed our local club in Lucan for two years and managed Carlow for two years, and that was me done.

I do love the modern game. It is tough to watch at times, but it is a game finally evolving (after a century of stupid catch and kick football — including the 70s and 80s). I think it is brilliant to watch.

I’m now publishing books full time. Our company is Hero Books, and we’ve got a big publishing programme in the next 12 months. Richie Bennis, Kevin McStay, Martin O’Connell, Larry Tompkins, Karl Lacey, and a few others I’m not in a position to disclose yet. A few Cork books amongst them. I love books. Building a great book is like building a house - you stand back and feel nothing but pride. And then hope everyone else agrees that you have done justice to one of the game’s heroes.

TL: Tompkins is an intriguing character. We used do a bit of training together down in Ballygarvan GAA of all places.

He was just different. A granite-hard footballer. But what a player to have on your side. Looking forward to reading the Martin O’Connell book. Met him in Kells a few times, in the Headford. Decent man in his street clothes, tough man in his boots.

Thanks Liam.

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