The big interview with Barry Coffey: 'Kerry will always look over their shoulder at a Cork team'

Thirty years on from The Double and Barry Coffey hasn't forgotten the little things that sowed the seed for something bigger
The big interview with Barry Coffey: 'Kerry will always look over their shoulder at a Cork team'

THE SWEETEST DAY: Barry Coffey, seen here at his home in Ovens, Co. Cork, admits Cork’s 1990 All-Ireland success was all the sweeter for coming against a Meath side with whom the Rebels had built up a ferocious rivalry. ‘Would it have knocked off a few percentage points in terms of enjoyment if it hadn’t been Meath? No question about that,’ he says. Picture: Jim Coughlan

There was a moment in the maelstrom. That’s what remains.

In the 1990 All-Ireland football final Cork were five minutes from immortality when Barry Coffey and Michael Slocum had a quiet word.

The torrent of noise was unceasing and Meath, their long-time rivals, were in full pursuit, but the two Corkmen found time to talk.

It’s still a highlight for Coffey, 30 years on.

“I’ve often said it since, that it was the most satisfying experience I had in my career,” says Coffey now of the 1990 All-Ireland win.

“We definitely owed one to the boys in Meath at that stage.

“Would it have knocked off a few percentage points in terms of enjoyment if it hadn’t been Meath? No question about that.

“We lost in 1987, and rightly so, to a better Meath team. We felt totally robbed in 1988, between our referee from across the county bounds — we felt we were the better team, but we were horsed out of it by Meath in the second game. And left ourselves be horsed out of it.

“There’s no question about it, there was a lot of animosities built up by the two teams that year in particular.”

That animosity wasn’t a media creation. The two teams chafed against each other in those All-Ireland finals cited by Coffey, but even when the confrontations came earlier than September there was a sharp edge.

“I think there was a quarter-final of the league as well in 1990 (which Meath won, 0-14 to 0-10), it was played in Croke Park and it was a really dirty game.

They beat the tar out of us that day — out of all of us. I was injured and sitting in the stand that day, but it showed the animosity that was still there, that had built up in 1987, the two finals in 1988, and it all contributed to the feeling that we had a score to settle with them later in 1990.

“As I say, they were well over us in 1987. They were ahead of us. But by the same token we could have won in 1988. It was a bad refereeing decision that brought us to a replay, and they beat us in that game. And they definitely had a bit of guile at that stage which we didn’t have.”

In these pages a couple of weeks ago Steven O’Brien pointed out that Meath helped Cork to improve — the Rebels had to learn from them if they were going to succeed.

“That’s certainly true — on mature reflection,” says Coffey.

“Back then it was warfare. Steven’s point is very valid, but it’s probably more valid now than it was then, or more valid 10 years after the fact when you get talking about it.

“Did we have to go through 1987 and 1988 to build that bond? There was probably a bit of that, too.

“At the time, though, you were thinking about how to beat them. That’s not to take anything away from them either, in fairness. Meath were a tough team, they had balls of steel, and fair play to them.

“I can remember the Thursday night before the All-Ireland, and we had a meeting in Jury’s. It was the shortest meeting we ever had with Billy (Morgan) because everyone was just right, everyone’s frame of mind was perfect.

“Everyone was saying the right things, the attitude was top notch, and there was no way we were going to lose.”

Coffey’s reference to experience is significant.

Cork had a golden crop of players coming through but they had to learn the hard way. There were no short cuts.

“There was a bunch of us who had come through around the same time, winning three All-Ireland U21 championships in a row from 1984 to 1986. We were growing up and coming of age all the time.

“When I think back on 1987, then, I don’t recall the panel being hugely disappointed with losing the All-Ireland, because we had made progress.

“The difference was the disappointment of 1988 and the determination that created in the group going into 1989.”

Barry Coffey celebrates after Steven O'Brien's goal against Kerry in the 1994 Munster SFC semi-final. Picture: Denis Minihane
Barry Coffey celebrates after Steven O'Brien's goal against Kerry in the 1994 Munster SFC semi-final. Picture: Denis Minihane

That progress, of course, was hard-earned: The Kerry side Cork faced in Coffey’s early years was Mick O’Dwyer’s great team, even if the end was in sight for them by then.

“There was a sense Cork were the coming team but we weren’t taking it for granted. Not when you consider the Kerry team we were coming up against at that stage. Fair enough, it was the tail end of that Kerry team, but the likes of Páidí Ó Sé and Jack O’Shea, Tommy Doyle and the rest — they might have been finishing their careers but by God you respected them still, because they had it.

“We were coming out of a good run at U21 level, we were used to winning, but even in 1986 they (Kerry) were still very experienced, a team which still knew how to win.”

The step up, even for successful underage players, could be daunting. What helped was the pair from Kildare.

“Larry (Tompkins) and Shay (Fahy) were huge, two great players in pivotal positions. You only have to see what they brought to crucial games — Larry having storming Munster finals, Shay with a magnificent All-Ireland in 1990 in particular.

“What they brought to the middle of the field was outstanding, and they were a huge bonus to Cork.”

What was “less of a factor than you might think”, however, in 1990 was the Double. Coffey enjoyed seeing the Cork hurlers winning the All-Ireland in 1990, but it didn’t change anything for the footballers’. They were on a mission.

“The Double itself never really came into play. Obviously it might have been playing in the backs of fellas’ minds to some degree, but I don’t think it was a pressure we felt collectively — there wasn’t a sense of ‘oh, we better keep this going because there’s a double at stake’.

“Our focus was on beating Meath, to be honest. The Double happened to be the double, but it didn’t change the dynamic within the group, or the thinking of the management.

“Now, I went up to the hurling final, sat with my parents and enjoyed the game, enjoyed the fact that Cork won.

“Did it give me a lift that the hurlers won? Absolutely. Did it make me feel there was more pressure to go out and win the Double? No.

“And in fairness to Billy and the selectors, they managed that very well in particular. Billy was in tune with the players and could read their moods, he could read their form — as the saying goes, he always knew when to press the button or when to give a kick in the backside.”

Coffey clocked the 1990 final was on television recently and decided to give it a couple of hours.

“It’s gas because I hadn’t actually watched the game from A to Z, really, until a couple of months ago. I sat down with my daughter to watch it.

“I laughed my way through it. It was a very physical game compared to modern matches, and even the way Paddy Russell refereed it, there was a lot of stuff left go that might be called back these days. But that’s the way football was played back then, and there was nothing wrong with it.

“The game was totally different back then — more one-on-one battles, more open generally. I’d have enjoyed playing the present game, I always had a high level of fitness, but they’re two contrasting styles of play.”

Eventually, the old game took a toll. Coffey picked up a bad back injury and came back too soon for a county quarter-final, Bishopstown versus Castlehaven in Bandon.

“I was supposed to take six months off but I went back after eight weeks to play in that game. Made a hames of my back, which is still at me today, but in terms of playing...

“I wouldn’t change it for anything. When you think about it, we were on a gravy train, really. I played minor in 1983, was in with the U21s for three All-Irelands after that and the seniors, and then going from All-Ireland final to final from 1987 to 1990, non-stop.

“It was a phenomenal time. For us, for the GAA in Cork, for Cork sport in general.”

He’s still interested. Cork v Kerry this season looks a promising contest: “There’s a good crop of footballers in Kerry, they’ve enjoyed the kind of success at underage level we had in the 80s.

“Do I think our boys are at that level? I’d love to say they are but I’d think Kerry might have that edge on Cork.

“Still, I’d be hoping we could catch them on an off-day. Kerry will always look over their shoulder at a Cork team.”

And that quiet word with Slocum towards the end of the All-Ireland. What was that about?

“It was a private moment,” says Coffey. “Totally and utterly. But that’s the kind of thing that makes it.

“We were always a tight bunch, and some of them are still my best friends to this day, which is mighty.”

Mighty is the word.

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