Niall Cahalane looks around the Cork football dressing room and offers insights into what made them men of history
JOHN KERINS (St Finbarr’s)
“In the modern game, a lot revolves around the goalkeeper and how confident he is to pick out fellas who are 40 or 50 or 60 yards away, but John was doing that back then, he was the best goalkeeper at kicking and was until recently.
“The game which is always cited as a great example of that was the drawn game against Kerry in 1987, quick kick-outs are nothing new nowadays but they were rare then. We were out on our feet after Mikey Sheehy’s goal but John had the presence of mind to restart quickly, we went down the field and Larry put the free over. We won the replay then and it all went from there “We all benefited from the Billy’s experience, I think — he had been there and done it all — but John benefited too from the fact that Billy had been a goalkeeper as well. John had a far longer kickout though, Billy would admit that himself! He was incredibly brave and made a lot of excellent saves, when the forward was in on goal and you’d be thinking it would be certain that he’d put it away. It was tragic that he was taken so young.”
TONY NATION (Nemo Rangers)
“The one thing – and I stand to be corrected on this – was that he had never played minor for Cork and it was very rare that you’d have a fella come through without doing that.
He was one of the tidiest corner-backs around, he was an exceptional footballer and had great positional sense and always made good use of the ball, despite not being a huge man. He was always efficient and economical and was completely under-rated because of that. He had played in 1987 and ’88 but missed out for a lot of ’89 then and worked very hard then to get back in the team.
“Tony was the kind of fella that you’d be confident playing alongside in the full-back line, he had a great football brain. The way you might put it is that, back then, a lot of corner-backs were f***ing plugs like myself, a bit of brute strength, whereas Tony was nearly too much of a footballer to play corner-back. He always made sure that he put that to good use though.
He works as a maintenance manager in Whitegate now, he was in England for a while.”
NIALL CAHALANE (Castlehaven)
“I wore three, but I played left corner-back, it was a Colm O’Rourke thing, I don’t know if Meath would have expected it. I wanted to mark him, I liked going up against good players. I remember the first time I marked Pat Spillane, I was about 20 and he got about 2-3 and afterwards, I was shaking his hand – a bit in awe – and he said, ‘You’ve an awful lot to learn, ladeen!’ To this day, if I was asked for one thing which helped me to drive on to a higher level, it was probably that comment.
“With Colm O’Rourke, I knew he’d beat me to a few balls, he was big for a corner-forward and a good fielder but he was predominantly left-legged so it was a case of turning him back onto the right. It never bothered me whether I was full-back, corner-back, wing-back, I just wanted to be on the team. Invariably, I’d have been a man-marker and, if I came off the pitch without having touched the ball and my opponent hadn’t scored, you’d consider that a good return. That’s probably how I became a bit of a journeyman in the back line, I played in all the positions. It didn’t bother me sacrificing my game to mark a danger man.”
STEVEN O’BRIEN (Nemo Rangers)
“He was still an U21 player but even then, he had bags of ability and maturity and the one thing about him was that occasions never fazed him. In the parade before the 1989 final against Mayo, when he was only 19, I was probably more worried for him than I was for myself – not that I’d be demeaning the lad in any way, but you’d be wondering how he’d do in front of 74,000 or 75,000 people.
“I remember years ago, listening to the radio coming back from training in west Cork and a couple of pundits were debating the difference between a good player and a great player.
They said the great player always played well and then hit high notes. That epitomises Steven O’Brien. There was a never a below-par performance. He’s running his own business now, health and safety gear.”
MICHAEL SLOCUM (St Finbarr’s)
“Mick Slocum was similar to Tony Nation in the corner behind him, he was an exceptionally good footballer, he had great pace, he was able to cover up and down the field. He was an exceptionally good attacking wing-back, a player who had really matured into a top-class player by the time 1990 came around and he won an All-Star that year.
“He was unfortunate that he got a hip injury, I think it was, not long after that and that curtailed his career a bit, I think it was 1992 that he played his last inter-county game. Because there were so many stars up the pitch, it was often the case that some of the backs, like Mick for example, didn’t always get the credit the deserved for their level of footballing ability.
“You don’t win three All-Ireland U21 medals in a row, like Mick did, without being good. He’s a courier nowadays.”
CONOR COUNIHAN (Aghada)
“Like myself – and I don’t think he’d mind me saying it – he might have lacked a small bit of footballing ability but what he lacked in football he brought as a leader. He knew his strengths and he was a great centre-back, he was the man that stopped everything coming through the middle. It mightn’t always have been pretty but it stopped the opposition getting at the full-back line.
Cork’s centre-back Conor Counihan and Meath’s Bernard Flynn take a tumble in the All-Ireland final.
“He went on to manage Aghada and then obviously Cork, not too many fellas have played on and managed All-Ireland-winning team, Billy and Conor are certainly the only two to have done it in Cork. It’s interesting actually to see how many of our team have gone on to become managers, you have to put a lot of that down to Billy’s influence, I would think.
“Conor’s leadership is still evident nowadays in that he’s the CEO of St Joseph’s Foundation and I wouldn’t imagine that that’s an easy task.”
BARRY COFFEY (Bishopstown)
“He played half-forward a lot, but Tony Davis had an injury coming up to the final, I think he was ruled out and Barry played there, though he had often played there. When he was in his early teens, he was a very good sprinter in the Community Games and the like and that burning pace was a huge asset to him on the football pitch. He was a well-built man too.
“Where I might have lacked the pace in the left corner, he could make it up and he’d be available for a pass coming out of defence, it’s important that you combine well with the wing-back like that. He was on the three-in-a-row U21 teams also and he actually played U21 the year before that run started in 1983 when he would only have been a minor. Nowadays he’s self-employed as a business consultant.”
SHEA FAHY (Nemo Rangers)
“Would we have won All-Irelands without Shea or Larry? We’ll never know, but they were huge additions, they were probably Kildare’s two best players at the time and they really boosted us. Shay’s primary skill was ball-winning in the air but he had a great brain and he could kick points from distance too, that could really hurt the opposition – they’d think that they had everybody covered and then you manage to get a point like that.
“He was full-forward in the semi-final against Roscommon in 1990 and Larry was midfield with Danny Culloty but Billy switched things for the final. Shea was man of the match and he kicked four points from midfield, it’s probably something which has gone from the modern game, if a midfielder tried doing it today he’d probably be taken off.
When he came to Cork first, it was an Army posting in Collins Barracks but he works with Musgraves now.”
DANNY CULLOTY (Newmarket)
“He was more inexperienced than Shea but they complemented each other well. Danny could cover an amount of ground, he probably came into the GAA scene from a basketball background. He was very mobile and had great vision, a good foot-passer and the two of them were big men, Shay was about 6’ 4” and Danny was around the same. At that time, there wasn’t too many counties that would have had the matching of them so, again, it’s a great advantage to have something like that.
“Danny’s another fella who would have gone on to have success as a manager, he was in charge of Newmarket when they won the Premier Intermediate in 2011 and went up senior for a couple of years. He has been a selector on successful Cork junior teams in the last few years too and he’s working with Shreelawn Oil now.”
DAVE BARRY (St Finbarr’s)
“Any fella who could play GAA and soccer at the top level – he played against Bayern Munich and held his own – had to be good. Dave had incredible vision. Back then, there wouldn’t have been too much talk of spatial awareness – if you mentioned it, fellas would have looked at you like you were on drugs – but his would have been of the highest degree. He could thread a pass where some other fella wouldn’t even see it. Maybe it’s something he brought from soccer but I think it’s either something you have or you haven’t, Dave had it and it helped him in the Gaelic and the soccer. Another one of the team who had success as a manager, in soccer with Cork City, and he still works as a plumber in Cork.”
LARRY TOMPKINS (Castlehaven)
“At the time, I think he was undoubtedly the best footballer in the country, I don’t think anyone could disagree. He was at a level then that a lot of the modern fellas are at now. I don’t want anyone thinking we were pissheads but we all liked a pint — I always had two pints the night before a Munster or All-Ireland final, the same as any Saturday night of the year— but Larry was very hard on himself to take himself to the level he was at. He wasn’t the most naturally gifted of footballers, but he was the best around because of the effort he put in.
“ He put himself through ferocious punishment and you’d wonder maybe if all that effort shortened his own career a bit. He was the captain after Castlehaven won the county in 1989, he had been captain of the Haven too and I don’t think there was any dispute about who’d be the Cork captain, it was decided at a meeting and that was it. We won the county again in 1994 and I was the Cork captain in ’95 then.”
TEDDY McCARTHY (Glanmire)
“He was probably more of a traditional midfielder but he was used at wing-forward in the final in 1990. He was an option for our kickouts and then he gave us an extra body for contesting the Meath kickouts too.
“I know Teddy had great years with Cork as a hurler, but you could make the case that he was a more complete footballer. He was probably the best fielder of a ball in the country, I remember after one Munster final there was a picture in the paper of him leaping for a ball and his knees were at the shoulders of the opposing player, who was off the ground as well.
“Subconsciously, maybe there was a bit less pressure on Teddy in ’90 because he was after winning a medal with the hurlers a fortnight before. He’s another who has gone on to be a very successful manager, mainly in hurling but with some football teams too.”
PAUL McGRATH (Bishopstown)
“Paul was a tough customer to mark for inter-county corner-backs and I know that first-hand because I had to mark him in training so much.
I remember one Thursday night before a Munster final, I broke my baby finger and the one alongside it trying to do him because he was giving me a roasting!
He was another player with pace, you certainly didn’t allow Paul McGrath to turn and run at you, he was well capable of getting inside most corner-backs.
“He was unlucky to have suffered with a knee injury and maybe that meant he lost a bit of his pace but in 1989 and ’90 he was huge for us, he won All-Stars each year and kicked vital points in the finals.
He was very reliable that way, he’d kick a few points in every game and, when so many matches were close, it was a great asset to have.”
COLM O’NEILL (Midleton)
“Colm had been there for a long number of years and, for whatever reason, he found it difficult to hold down a regular position, but he was capable of incredible stuff — when we won the 1981 minor All-Ireland, he kicked three goals in the semi-final and final. The Thursday night before the Munster final in ’90, Colm wasn’t starting but someone cried off injured — I think it was Barry Coffey and Paul McGrath played on the wing — but he came in and got about 11 points, so no matter what kind of a shite All-Ireland semi-final he had he was going to start in the final! He was a real cool dude, he didn’t get too fazed or excited about anything and he was unfortunate to get the line that day. Obviously Mick Lyons provoked him – I often got a haymaker from him in training – he wouldn’t instigate it but he wouldn’t lie down on you. Colm is living in Colorado now.”
MICK McCARTHY (O’Donovan Rossa)
“Like John Kerins and my own clubman Michael Burns, who was on the panel that year, Mick is sadly deceased, I don’t think he was even 33 when he died in a road accident in 1998. He won three U21 medals in a row as well and he was a real character in the dressing room, always there with a bit of roguery and that was great for team spirit.
“He didn’t start the semi-final against Roscommon in 1990 but he came on and got three points and that was what he could do, hit you with a few quick scores. He started the final then — which was great for him as I don’t think he started the ’89 final — and he got two or three points again. When it finished 0-11 to 0-9 or whatever it was, every point was hugely important and we were lucky that we had more than a few fellas who could take their points.”
“The thing about the team that got to the four finals from 1987-’90 was that it was a very settled side and so I suppose it was difficult for fellas to break into it, there were a lot of players who would have been automatic starters in other eras who were unlucky to miss out.
“Michael Maguire was as top-class goalkeeper, he played in the 1988 semi-final against Monaghan and did very well but John was so difficult to dislodge. Colman Corrigan and Jimmy Kerrigan soldiered for ages in a Cork jersey and were unfortunate with injuries, you could say the same about John O’Driscoll, Tony Davis and John Cleary in ’90.
“Paddy Hayes played in the Munster final and All-Ireland semi but missed out in the final though he came on and then you had others like Mark O’Connor, Brendan Searls, Noel Twomey and Séamus Coughlan.
Probably the unluckiest of all was Denis Walsh, who was togged out for the final but at the time only 21 medals were given out, which seemed like very little.”
“What else can you say about Billy Morgan? He had been there and done it all and that helped to inspire the rest of us. He was a great motivator but maybe the image of him as a passionate operator made people underestimate his football brain and he was an expert. You can see that even today with the way he’s still having success with UCC.
“He had a good team with him too, the selectors were Bob Honohan, Christy Collins, Seán Murphy and Dave Loughman. I can imagine that there were a lot of tough decisions to be made when there were so many good footballers in the squad but, in fairness to them, they generally got the calls right.”
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