Niall Cahalane: If you’re not into it in the first 10 minutes an All-Ireland just passes you by

Niall Cahalane: If you’re not into it in the first 10 minutes an All-Ireland just passes you by

Niall Cahalane at the Marina in Cork.  Pictures: Denis Minihane

Why start at the beginning?

Niall Cahalane served Cork for years with distinction, but he can recall the signpost which suggested the road was coming to an end.

“I can remember playing Donegal in the league above in Ballybofey, near enough to the finish of my time,.

“The fun was kind of going out of it a bit at that stage. In your middle thirties, frost on the ground that you could feel through your boots, and heading out to mark some young lad then from Donegal who was telling you were well past your sell-by date.”

How could you tell with that accent?

“Oh, you could make out what he was saying alright. And it was the kind of outing that would make you think he had a point.

“Generally there wasn’t much talk. Which was a good thing. I’d rather hit a fella a poke than hear stuff. It’s appalling, to be honest, some of the stories you’d hear about what’s said on the field of play now.”

We were sitting down to chat about 1990, but the conversation takes a few entertaining detours, as ever. Still, he’s conscious of the anniversary.

“Every time it’s 20 years, 30, whatever, it comes back a bit. At the time did we realise what had happened? Not really. It was marvellous.

As it goes on you'd think, will we ever see it again? The likelihood is we won’t.

“For us at the time the whole thing was starting to break up. Some of the older fellas were getting long in the tooth, we had younger fellas coming in - but we had Meath to concentrate on.”

It was the rivalry of the era and came with a spiteful edge. The two teams learned from each other as the years rolled on, starting with their clash in the 1987 final.

“Your first All-Ireland . . . my first one passed me by. I’ve never discussed it with the others but I’d say some of them felt the same.

“We weren’t ready for it. The fanfare before it, a lot of things took over and became more important than the game - there was a scramble for tickets, there were suits, the press, all the things that you’d never done before and which nowadays I’d say is handled much better. It’s taken away from players now to a degree.

Niall Cahalane against the backdrop of Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork.
Niall Cahalane against the backdrop of Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork.

“Look, if you’re not into it in the first ten minutes an All-Ireland just passes you by. All of a sudden you’re looking up at the clock in the Canal End and it’s nearly five to five.

“Now you’re not supposed to do that, obviously, but you’ve no idea how long the game has been going on, and in the back of your mind somewhere you’d remember that five to five is a critical enough time the day of an All-Ireland final.”

The rivalry sharpened with the All-Ireland final draw and replay in 1988.

“We were so close and yet so far. I’d say having lost the previous year and then (in 1988) drawing, having probably been the better team on the day, there was a sense that we’d arrived. That we were up there.

“A draw is an anticlimax, but we were going home with something to fight for at least. In fairness to them, they were the better team in the replay.”

That was the hinterland to 1990. Cork took Sam Maguire home in 1989, but there was unfinished business.

“We’d failed in 1987, we had (referee) Tommy Sugrue in 1988 - if you had the analysts we have today on television he’d probably have been stripped apart, the way the analysis goes now.

Looking back, it was huge. We could have been looking at three in a row. As it was, in 1989 we were energised about having another go at Meath and then Mayo popped up.

Cahalane points out that the enmity between the two teams had a context specific to its time.

“It was different now. You were in your own cocoon in your own county. There was no social media then, no lads sharing houses in college from different counties, or at least not in the same numbers.

“You were lucky enough going back then to have a landline in the house and the media was the newspaper, basically.

“Did I know anything about inter county players from outside Cork? To be honest, if we had a league game up the country you gave the first ten minutes to figuring out if your man was left- or right-legged.

“The whole thing is very scientific now, and players are well briefed on who they’re against. There are very few surprises, which takes a lot of the rawness out of it.”

The surprise element that summer was the hurlers’ success. Suddenly the double was an option.

“That was a disaster altogether,” laughs Cahalane.

“We were so focused - and we’d been focused on Meath from early on that year, and it was coming together, so that (the double) was the last thing we needed, if you like, because we had Meath in our sights all the time.

“We weren’t the only team coming towards the end of our time. Meath had been around for a good while trying to get out of Leinster while we were trying to beat Kerry.

“The other side of that was maturity. As I say, 1987 had passed me by, and after playing in those All-Ireland finals meant you knew what was required in 1990.

“For that reason the double wasn’t the issue it might have been if it had come up when we weren’t as experienced: 1990 was probably the most relaxed we were as a team.

“When it came to September it was Meath we were up against, and we knew in our heart of hearts we had to turn them over.”

They had unexpected assistance from the hurlers the morning of the game.

“The Canon (O’Brien) said mass in the Burlington before the game. He didn’t take any prisoners with his sermon, either.

“That probably brought its own pressure. He wasn’t someone we’d have known that well, but he was there all of a sudden.”

The details of the game are well known now. Cork held out against Meath and made history. And the rivalry that animated two counties eventually faded.

I think these things all end up better anyway in the end. I’m sure when you go back to all the rivalries which were hard enough at the time - Dublin-Kerry in the seventies, whatever one you want to pick - everyone moves on.

“We all moved on, certainly. People would know the effort they made that time for John Kerins’ funeral, and that was hugely appreciated. I was up in Meath only last year for a fundraiser and they were great. You wouldn’t find better people anywhere, full stop.

“While you’re there you pick up on everything to give yourself an incentive, to drive yourself. If you didn’t do that it’d be boring. But that’s for that time and place. You must move on as well when it’s over.”

And the hurling squad they joined in immortality?

“We wouldn’t have known a lot of them that well. You spoke to Sean O’Gorman recently but he was living up near the Limerick border, I was in west Cork. You just wouldn’t see each other only for a minute after training.

“Afterwards, that winter, you were meeting the lads at functions all over Cork, and there was a function every night. We certainly wintered well, because the following year wasn’t too pretty.”

It hardly mattered. They had given Cork the year of years.

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