It was a time when the Cork hurlers went to games in a fleet of cars, and Sean McCarthy was usually in the same company.
Driving? Tom Buttimer. Front passenger seat: Canon Michael O’Brien, coach. Back seat: McCarthy, midfielder Brendan O’Sullivan, and selector Martin Coleman.
For a game in Thurles like the 1990 Munster final, O’Brien had a strategy for the trip.
“There wouldn’t have been a full conversation for the length of the journey about the match,” says McCarthy.
“That would drain you mentally before you’d get there.
“He’d sit in the front with the newspaper open and the odd time he’d turn around and say, ‘O’Sullivan, McCarthy, can you see what they’re saying here about you?’. Throwing out a sprat.
“And Martin Coleman maybe digging you in the ribs next to you when the Canon said something.
“Then, maybe coming up by Horse and Jockey where you’d turn off for Thurles, he might say, ‘right lads, I’ve put my faith in ye, go out and prove it’.”
Nearly there. But still time to plant another seed.
“There’d be a one-liner or two more maybe coming through Liberty Square in the town, just as the crowd started to build. Just to get you going.”
Long before teams hired in sports psychologists, O’Brien was working on his players’ heads.
“The build-up would have started a week out from the game, with him talking to players in the dressing-room, at training.
“Saying what? ‘You’re good enough, we’re flying, we’re going to beat them, you’re a unit, give it everything’.
“Those would have been the messages you were hearing, and maybe when you heard them you weren’t paying that much attention at the time, but cumulatively it was building and building.
You ended up the day of a game going out to mark your man and thinking, ‘I’m better than you and I’m going to give it my all’.
Now well known in Cork for his bars and restaurants — SoHo, Paddy the Farmer’s, Tequila Jack’s — McCarthy was the epitome of the tearaway wing-back in the late eighties: a panellist for the 1986 All-Ireland final, a sub in 1987 and injured in 1988, he was intrigued when a new management team headed by O’Brien took over late in 1989.
“I can remember the first night training down the Páirc and it was a breath of fresh air — new faces along with experienced fellas.
“The younger lads were looking up to the experienced players and learned from them, but in training we were trying to get on the team, so there was always a competitive edge to training.”
McCarthy pays a warm tribute to his namesake, Gerald McCarthy, who handled the coaching.
“Gerald was a fantastic coach, one of the best I ever had. His knowledge, and how he handled fellas who were tired at training — or who were buzzing at training.
“Not every good player is a good teacher but he had it every way. He could deal with individuals and with the group.
“I remember doing drills on the Tuesday night before the Munster final in 1991 — four of us in a line, balls flying up and down the line. We’d had a very heavy session the weekend before that, and I was tired.
“He pulled me out of the line and said, ‘Sean, you’re tired — don’t worry about it, this is the last of the heavy stuff, but you’ll be right for Sunday.’
“That’s all I needed to hear. I was physically tired and I was trying to analyse why, which made me mentally tired.
“But Gerald spotted me and knew what and when to say, and it wasn’t just me either — he had a handle on the entire panel like that. And such a nice person on and off the field.”
The Ballinhassig man breaks the mould somewhat when it comes to Cork players revisiting that season three decades ago. As in, revisiting the games isn’t something he avoids.
“It was on at one stage during the lockdown and my sister or brother texted me to tell me, so I sat down and watched it.
I enjoyed it. I didn’t realise — from a speed point of view — that we weren’t that far behind the modern game in particular.
“I enjoyed it, though — it’s easy to say that now because we won a thriller, and against the odds — but I was particularly happy to have rewatched it, and Paula (wife) and Clodagh, Eoghan and Orlaith (children) got a kick out of it, too.”
McCarthy advances a strong argument on the quality of preparation in his own time.
“I’d have a good relationship with some of the current players, and I’d still have a huge interest in hurling so I’d often ask what they’re doing in training. And a lot of it is cyclical. Yes, things move on and there’s a lot of science involved now, but we were training as hard and as often as they are now a lot of the time.
“I can remember training three or four nights a week, and the likes of the Canon and Gerald bringing new ideas to the whole thing.
“There would have been a focus on hurling drills within the physical side, but we trained hard and often, and when I took that into consideration, then even though it was 30 years ago it was less of a shock to see the speed of the game.
“There were bleep tests, body fat tests, and we had to keep ourselves healthy — there were training schedules given out early in the year, so there was a lot of stuff happening then that is happening now, put it that way.”
That All-Ireland final eventually turned on a second-half goal chance for Galway. McCarthy had a good view of that passage of play, given the chance fell to his man.
“I was on Martin Naughton, and he never stopped moving. Never.
“I can remember him running up to me before the ball was thrown in — he stuck out his hand, he literally sprinted off past me, and he never stopped sprinting around the field for the rest of the game.
“I did my best to stay with him, but speed? In another year he could have gone to Olympics.
“On one hand if you looked at his movement, some of it looked like nonsensical running, but his movement was creating space or overlaps.”
Or goal chances, as happened in the second half.
“I always went out with the attitude ‘I’m going to keep my man scoreless’,” says McCarthy.
“He got a point or two in the first half and I was a little cross with myself because my attitude was always that I’d do my utmost, run myself into the ground, and if I’m taken off I’d come off happy — ‘give everything and if you’re taken off with the tank empty, walk off happy’.
“That was always my attitude, but that day . . . the ball broke diagonally and he ran onto it, got past a challenge, and the whole field opened up for him.
“I was probably 10-12 yards off him — as the TV showed again recently, thanks very much — and was just caught on the wrong side of him.
“Ger (Cunningham) came out and saved it, and when the ball went out — and it was absolutely a 65, not a puckout — I said to myself, ‘right, that’s the last time he’s getting away from me’. I was mad with myself to give the chance away, but I stuck to him like glue from then until the game was over.
“He was so dangerous — left side or right, always moving, that he could create an opportunity for himself out of nothing, like that one.”
The tension of the closing stages stays with him: “If you asked me if it was a game I enjoyed, I’d have to say no. There was no break in it, it was just relentless, and a warm, heavy day as well.
“Galway were seven or eight points ahead at half-time, but it was a battle from start to finish. I enjoyed most of the games I played in, but that was one I was enjoyed to see finish — I was happy at the final whistle.
“I can remember looking up at the clock with a couple of minutes to go and thinking, ‘would this ever finish?’ — they were on the attack again, we had a slender lead and they just weren’t going away.”
That focus helped him through that game. So did the team spirit fostered by O’Brien and McCarthy.
“The spirit in the team came from when we started training in October 1989. It was the leadership that the Canon and Gerald and Martin Coleman and Frank Murphy and Denis Hurley and Liam O Tuama (selectors) had built up.
“They instilled that belief in us — ‘we’re the Rebel County, we’re as good as anyone on our day, don’t give up.’”
That attitude helped. So did an element of realism.
“You’re not going to keep a team down for 60 or 70 minutes — they’re bound to have their purple patch. The important thing was when they had that purple patch, to keep their scoring to a minimum — and to maximise our return when we had our purple patch.
Right through that campaign — and it stuck with me always — the score never bothered me because of that ‘purple patch’ mentality. As in, ‘we’re having our purple patch, drive on lads’, and then when it turned around, ‘batten down the hatches’.
“I never thought about losing that year, either in the Munster or All-Ireland final, and given how little success we’d had since 1986, that was a terrific attitude to instill in players. And they gave that to us — we were given the jersey, told we were the best person for that job, and to go out to do that job.
“As a group they were phenomenal. At inter-county level you need to go out on the field with a clear head to focus on the job. No worries, no distractions.
“And that was our mentality going out for every game. The last 10% that was needed, someone like the Canon was the man to get that out of players.”
The real significance of the win sank in later. After the football final that year, to be exact.
“We went up to that as a team, and after the footballers beat Meath I remember people — genuine supporters — coming over to us and saying, ‘do you realise what you’re part of, what you’ve done?’
“That brought it all home, what we had done — not just us, but all of Cork GAA. The significance of it.
“Would I ever want to see another county doing it? Only Cork.”