When Down hammered an ailing Kerry side in the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final, team manager Pete McGrath was greeted by a breathless and beaming county administrator Dan McCartan.
“With the passing of time, and although it’s 25 years ago, some things become more vivid and I always remember seeing wee Dan,” says McGrath. “He said to me ‘did you see the red and black in the Hogan Stand? A risen people!’
“There was this sense that Down were back.”
Two Peter Withnell goals against a Kerry side past its best, and the innate confidence and swagger Down teams traditionally brought to Croke Park had returned.
And for football people in the north, who’d watched their teams routinely beaten out the gate since Down last brought Sam Maguire across the border in 1968, a real conviction that they were the only team who could do so again.
Still, Down were rank outsiders heading into the final against a Meath team that seemed destined to pick up a third All-Ireland in five years.
Despite labouring to a one-point win over Roscommon in the semi-final, Sean Boylan’s side was still trading on a fearsome reputation and their stock was high after edging the titanic four-game thriller against Dublin which dominated the summer.
Down, it appeared, were ill-prepared for the challenge having come from nowhere.
Ross Carr refutes that perception.
“A lot of people thought Down disappeared after ‘68,” he says. “But we had four players - Paddy O’Rourke, Liam Austin, Pat Donnan and Ambrose Rogers - who had won All-Ireland minor (‘77) and U21 titles (‘79) and an Ulster senior championship (‘78) and a couple of national leagues.
“So you were going to watch Down as a young fella expecting to win things. A lot of us then won Ulster U21 medals in ‘84 and ‘85, Burren were winning All-Ireland club titles and the Ulster universities were starting to dominate in the Sigerson Cup.
“At senior level we played without much success and had a lot of managers in and out.
“But once Pete came in, it became obvious very quickly there would be no compromise. If you wanted to stay on his panel, it was going to be his way.”
Bar 1986, Carr hadn’t won two championship games in the one summer until ‘91.
“The first round was against Armagh, who had beaten us the year before, and neither side had any aspirations beyond having the bragging rights of Newry.
“It was one of the worst games ever played, but at the same time we had no fear of Derry in the semi-final, or Donegal in the (Ulster) final. But what became apparent to me was that we had three of the best forwards in the country — Mickey Linden, Greg Blaney and James McCartan.
“I felt if we could hold our own defensively and break even in midfield, then if the three of them clicked on the same day, there wasn’t a team in the country that could hold them.”
Pete McGrath was feeling the power surge too.
“The longer a campaign goes on, the easier it is to manage.
“I had a lot of the players through my hands at St Colman’s College and a few of them had won an All-Ireland minor title with me in ‘87. I knew the potential they had as players and as people.
“Meath were vastly experienced and had this aura that they wouldn’t bend the knee to anyone, but we savaged them in that 15 minute period after half-time.”
The debate still rages: were Down an unstoppable force or did fatigue and injuries catch up on Meath?
Liam Hayes, the cultured captain of that brilliantly unruly bunch, remarked recently it was the latter.
“By the time we got to the final, Colm O’Rourke was suffering from viral pneumonia, Padraig Lyons had broken his leg, Bob O’Malley had broken his leg. Mick Lyons would break his knee in the final.
“I remember coming out after half-time and you had four of your best players in the dressing-room. It had been a long, punishing summer.
“Nobody in those days was prepared for four games in five weeks or 10 games in a summer, and there was a price to be paid for that.”
Yet McGrath is adamant the best team won.
“People said it was the best football played, not just by a Down team but any team, in Croke Park for a long, long time. We were 11 points up at one stage and it would have been done and dusted had Mickey Linden put away a great goal chance.
“We led the whole way from the 15-, 20-minute mark, so it wasn’t like we stole it.”
At the homecoming in Newry, McGrath told the crowd they were looking at ‘the team who beat the team who couldn’t be beaten’.
The phrase stuck.
“I was at a Frank Sinatra concert in Dublin about a month later and this Meath lady accosted me.
“She kept saying ‘I know who you are. You said your team beat the team that couldn’t be beaten!’”
Down’s victory, exactly 25 years ago yesterday, ignited an unprecedented run of September success for Ulster teams.
Mayo should take heed of Pete McGrath’s precise assessment of what made his team champions as they try to end their horrible losing streak in All-Ireland finals on Sunday.
“To take on a Meath team that people thought was invincible, and beat them, required really indestructible confidence about who you are and what you are – that you and the man beside you, and in front and behind you, is not going to take a backward step. That group truly had that sort of belief.”
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