Castlehaven and Nemo: A fierce Cork football rivalry grounded in respect

Castlehaven and Nemo: A fierce Cork football rivalry grounded in respect

Castlehaven's Mark Collins wins the ball from St Finbarr's Ian Maguire and Cian Walsh during the Bon Secours SFC semi-final Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

IN Larry Tompkins’ new book ‘Believe’, Tompkins’ vivid and colourful description of his first night training with the Cork footballers paints a neat picture of the impact Tompkins would later have, not just on the field, but on the culture of Cork football during that era.

At the time, Tompkins knew he would never line out with Kildare again so his ambition was to play for Castlehaven; playing for Cork never even entered his head.

When Tompkins played his first game for Cork in May 1987, a challenge match against Dublin, it was effectively a cosmetic exercise; county secretary Frank Murphy told Tompkins that playing the game “would look good” in his increasingly tricky quest to secure a transfer to the Haven.

On the train home afterwards, Billy Morgan asked Tompkins to join the Cork panel. When he went to his first session a few days later, Tompkins was nervous because Niall Cahalane told him it was going to be tough. Morgan even approached Tompkins beforehand and said he could fall out whenever he wanted, as the players were at a high level of fitness.

The session began with four laps and Tompkins lapped every one of the players comfortably. After a series of drills and exercises, Morgan ordered another four laps. Tompkins believed that Morgan felt he wouldn’t be up for it. He was; Tompkins blitzed every player even worse the second time around.

 Cork legend Larry Tompkins at the launch of his autobiography, Believe. Picture: Dan Linehan
Cork legend Larry Tompkins at the launch of his autobiography, Believe. Picture: Dan Linehan

Tompkins admitted in the book that that first session was just to test the water and “see how it would go”. Yet Tompkins’ honesty afterwards also discreetly informed Morgan of the devastating impact his desire, self-belief and mental strength could have on Cork. “You have a long way to go with these lads,” Tompkins said to Morgan after the session.

Tompkins’ though, appeared to have even further to travel himself because his first game with Cork, the Munster semi-final against Limerick, didn’t go well for him. Five nights later though, in his first game for Castlehaven, Tompkins truly announced himself to the Cork footballing public when lighting up a Kelleher Shield game against St Finbarr’s.

It may have seemed only a harmless league game but the ‘Barrs were the reigning All-Ireland club champions and Tompkins effectively dismantled them on his own, kicking nine points. For the remainder of that summer, everyone else got to see what Tompkins was really all about as he was instrumental in Cork’s run to a first All-Ireland final in 14 years.

Tompkins’ book – skilfully written with Denis Hurley – gives an intriguing insight into the mindset and iron-will attitude of one of the game’s greatest players. It also opens another window into that Cork team, and their consistent quest to try and stay ahead of Kerry.

After losing to Kerry in Munster in 1991, Tompkins spoke of how Morgan introduced more sports psychology in 1992. The players wore T-shirts with the words ‘Simply the Best’ emblazoned across them. The extended panel wore the T-shirts the day of the Kerry game but they had another role that afternoon.

To send a message to Kerry in the next dressin groom in the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ was blaring from loudspeakers, while the extended panel ratcheted up the noise by belting the walls with hurleys. “It was like we were going to war,” wrote Tompkins. “But once the match started, we were asleep.” 

Tompkins left an incredible legacy with Cork but one of the dominant themes in the book is Tompkins’ love of Castlehaven, and the passion and strength of that connection which ultimately brought Tompkins to Cork in the first place.

Tompkins’ was absolutely central in establishing the Haven as a serious force in Cork football, especially after captaining the club to their maiden county senior title in 1989. The strength of Cork club football at the time was reflected in the Cork senior team because Cork clubs won three All-Ireland’s between 1989-’94.

That was the dominance the Haven had to try and crack and Nemo Rangers were at the heart of that challenge. In 1988, Castlehaven lost to Nemo by one point and Nemo went on to win the All-Ireland.

Nemo were also All-Ireland champions in 1994 when the Haven took them out in the semi-final. That set up an epic county final against Skibbereen, who had been All-Ireland champions in 1993. Beating Skibbereen in that final clearly meant everything to Castlehaven because it was obvious that Skib winning the All-Ireland had hurt the Haven.

Nemo though, were a challenge the Haven knew they would always have to face. And Tompkins always believed they were ready for it. “The Haven never feared Nemo,” wrote Tompkins. “In fact, we loved playing against them. Some people might say that at times, they feared us.” 

Duhallow's Shane Hickey is tackled by Nemo Rangers' Kieran Histon. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Duhallow's Shane Hickey is tackled by Nemo Rangers' Kieran Histon. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

 Nemo never fear anyone but they certainly have always had Castlehaven’s respect. Nemo were reigning Munster champions and had reached the All-Ireland final that March but when the sides met in the 2018 championship, Castlehaven hounded the hot favourites into complete submission; as well as whacking Nemo by ten points, the Haven also held them scoreless for the first 43 minutes of the match.

The clubs have only met in two county finals, with both winning one each, but even those matches were titanic battles; Nemo won the 2015 county title by one point after a replay.

For now, this year’s final – which was planned for tomorrow – is on hold. But whenever the match is played, the wait will only add to the intrigue and anticipated drama of another Castlehaven-Nemo final.

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