AS fine days go, it was hard to top.
A haul of 2-7 from play and a Man of the Match bauble after firing Cork to a huge upset against the All-Ireland champions. Mark Foley’s display against Tipperary in 1990 was one of the best ever by any Rebel forward.
It’s the game he’s remembered for, though he’d also chip in 1-1 against Galway when the first part of the Double was completed that September.
Yet there was a lot more to his career than that sun-kissed afternoon in Semple Stadium when the ‘donkeys won the derby’ to riff on Tipp boss Babs Keating’s infamous prematch comments.
Foley made the Cork minor team when he was only 16 and helped them to an All-Ireland two years later, pilfering the last-gasp goal to pip Limerick by a point in the Munster decider, knocked in a couple of more in a rainy semi-final against Galway. An U21 All-Ireland medalist as well, he was a Harty Cup winner with Farranferris, adding a Croke Cup after beating St Kieran’s while hurling through a broken jaw.
At UCC there was a Freshers All-Ireland and four consecutive Fitzgibbon Cups. Iconic Cork hurling coach Canon O’Brien was a common thread through Farna, the College and 1990.
He was a part of the Carbery side that captured the Seán Óg Murphy Cup against Midleton in ’94 and drove Argideen Rangers to a junior county, much to the delight of his father Michael.
Not bad for a self-confessed “mullacker” from West Cork.
Foley, who was on the Cork senior squad from 1987, struck a couple of goals against Waterford in 1989 but they were knocked out by a very average Déise outfit in a replay.
A dentist by trade he headed off to England for experience and his career was at a crossroads.
“When I went to England in 1989 I could have walked away from it accept for O’Brien and Gerald [McCarthy] coming in. You knew they were going to be serious like. Back of the head you’re saying ‘something could happen here’.”
“I remember on the June bank holiday weekend after we beat Waterford and there was definitely something in the group. I’d a very strong bond with Fitzy [John Fitzgibbon] and Tom Kingston, having played minor together in ’85, you had Cashie and Teddy, very, very tight, Tomás and Kevin were very, very tight, and that all fed in that special bond overall.
“Gerald had us doing a lot of the hard-running in June. It was tough but very, very enjoyable. There was a great buzz there which carried us all the way through to the All-Ireland.
“Still, it’s hard to put a finger on how that summer catapulted off but being the World Cup summer probably helped. We’d a few good nights out watching the soccer in the Wash.”
That’s not to suggest it was a wild combination of debauchery and luck that saw Cork upset the odds. Foley believes there was a core of Rebels who had the skill and speed to hurl in any era.
“We had some remarkable players though. Tony O’Sullivan, say no more. Tomás Mulcahy, big-game player; Jim Cashman the same.
“Kevin Hennessy was a brilliant full-forward, having been a great wing-forward back in 1984. He was an incredible handful, unorthodox, the ball never came out easy.”
Though it turned out to be his greatest day in Rebel red, the then 23-year-old wasn’t a guaranteed starter before heading to Thurles in 1990.
“I would have struggled to make the team, even though I was picked corner-forward against Waterford and came out to centre-forward towards the end. The selectors were trying out different mixes. Tomás damaged his thumb and that opened up the forward line for the Munster final.”
Cork were perfectly primed heading to Semple Stadium, underdogs with something to prove.
“1987 was a sickener, ’88 was a sickener and ’89 was worse again because you weren’t even at the party. There was no bitterness but you did want to take them down a peg or two. Once-off, knockout championship, you have to rise to the occasion.
“And deep down, most Cork players prefer to play in Thurles than Páirc Uí Chaoimh.”
Foley’s own preparation was ideal, working in the Cork Dental Surgery and able to rest before heading down to training.
“I’d often go for a kip after work. Now you could say, ‘you lazy bollocks’, but it got you right for the training, to give everything.”
An injury meant he missed the All-Ireland semi-final but returned to the starting 15 for the final against Galway. That was another classic and drew a huge audience when it was shown during lockdown on TG4.
“That Sunday morning, before it was on TG4, and Dr Con texted me and a few others and said ‘go for a walk until about half three, whatever ye do, don’t watch that first half’.
“The occasion maybe got to us at the start. Croke Park is a massive place to play, in that the ball is very hard to spot with the stands rising up on either side. And I’d missed the semi-final and even if I’d played minor and combined universities there, it’s not the same.
“In an All-Ireland, it feels like the game is sped up and you’re trying to catch up. I got a ball out by the stand and just hit it over my shoulder and it went between the posts. You don’t have a second to take a look and it’s got faster since.
“We got some breaks, for sure. We were chasing our tails for a long time but it was a very good Galway team. I’d never watched the entire game until that wet Sunday at the start of lockdown. The amount of frees missed was shocking and Noel Lane could have had three goals.
The celebrations live longer in the memory than the game.
“It was incredible. That feeling in the days afterward ... they just blurred together. Pure joy. One thing I’d never appreciated was how much it meant to bring the cup back to a fella’s club. I actually never made it up to the Glen, something I had to apologise to Tomás Mul about after but when we brought Liam McCarthy back to my own club. Unforgettable.”
Foley only hurled for three more years with Cork, adding another Munster title and a league, falling short of a second All-Ireland in 1992 against DJ Carey and Kilkenny.
“I was on the bench in ’93 and then it was gone. I opened my own dental practice in ’92 and I’ll be honest, the writing was on the wall in ’91. I remember watching Jamsie O’Connor and he was at a faster level than a fella like me, that’s for sure.”
The affable 53-year-old says the demands of inter-county take their toll, especially when he was committing to getting his business up and running in Bantry, where he’s lived since the 1990s.
“I remember going down to the ’91 Irish Open, which was on in Killarney [Nick Faldo won]. We were down there and having a few pints outside The Laurels. It was in the middle of June and we were just having a bit of craic. This was no session.
“The following week at training and Canon said to me ‘you were drunk down in Killarney’. I said I wasn’t, I had a few drinks, full stop.
“That sticks in my head now because there has to be a balance. It isn’t worth that. And sure now everyone is tracking it all through the phones.”
What about the future of hurling? He still has a burning passion for the game, loves following Cork, heading up to watch UCC in the Fitzgibbon and tracking the fortunes of Argideen as well as his adopted home of Bantry.
“Sure the game has changed remarkably, if you don’t have pace and touch, whether that’s hurling or football, forget about it.
“Will the John Fenton and Tom Cashman type come back in? John Crowley pulling on it to drive it out. The idea of just letting the ball in as quickly as possible.
“You take John Fitzgibbon, the goals he got on the ground were incredible but also, his touch was awesome.
“There was no going on a solo run from corner-back and pinging it up to the number 10 to catch it. It was just left go but that meant you had to win it. O’Brien would often have a big rant about lads killing themselves to get it up to the forwards so you couldn’t be coming out with one hand on the stick.”
Some of his fondest GAA memories are on a smaller scale. He hurled at junior B alongside his father when he was a minor. Years later they sat together in the stand at Croke Park with Mark’s own sons watching Joe Deane, Ben O’Connor and co rip it up.
“You say what does a man talk to his father about? GAA. It connects generations. You always remember who you were with, what you did around a match, even more than a match itself.”
Only the other week, he was introduced to Brother Denis Minihane, a figurehead of Offaly hurling who shaped the fortunes of Birr stickmen as a teacher and principal, by his brother-in-law Jimmy. A native of Kealkill, a few miles outside Bantry, Br Denis had popped up recently on Foley’s radar when he was rewatching the 1984 Cork-Offaly All-Ireland final on YouTube.
“It’s funny the way it goes. And I don’t spend all my time looking back over old matches, I’m not one of those fellas.”
He appreciates all the roads hurling led him down and the bounces of the sliotar that went his way.
“Take Brian Murphy, he was a serious dual minor, centre-back in both teams. Barry Harte from my own club was the same. Massive talent.
“Brian went on to play for Kildare and get a goal into Hill 16 after coming in as a sub to win a Leinster title. He was a standout at the start of the 1990 campaign and did his cruciate.
“I remember turning around to him in a training game around February and saying ‘Jesus Murph, give me a break here’. He’d have been there if he’d stayed fit.”
The tradition of Timoleague and Barryroe lads going to Farranferris was the difference that put Foley on the path to hurling for Cork; breaking his jaw in a Harty Cup final (“I only realised it that night after when I couldn’t chew my chips”) had an influence on pursuing dentistry.
Hurling with UCC in their heyday in a period when they captured eight Fitzgibbon Cups in succession was special.
“I remember playing Fitzgibbon Cup with Colm O’Neill and he must have been responsible for amounting 12 points with his catching. He was a serious hurler, great footballer too of course.
“Ian Conroy, Mick Quaid, Pat Hartnett, Christy Ring junior, Paul O’Connor, Grainger, John O’Connor out of Wexford, Nicky English, an incredible panel. Andrew O’Connell was the captain of the fourth Fitzgibbon team I played on.
“Two of the four we won were up in the north. I was poor in the one in Galway, grand in Dublin but I did quite well in the northern ones. I loved playing up there.
“Mick Crowe from Limerick, a very good rugby player and a very good hurler, 6’ 5” and you could let the ball down on top of him. He was left half-forward and I was top of the right and Canon was big into diagonal ball because defenders hate that. I got two goals off it and he was so happy those tactics had worked.
“Because O’Brien was involved with Cork in ’85 we had practice games with Cork and you could be on Johnny Crowley or John Meyler. They’d pull before the ball was there and after it was gone but it made you know what it was all about. Same with playing Harty hurling when you were out of west Cork.
“I still remember the flaking between Ian Conroy and Johnny Crowley. Both hard as they come. Absolute welting. I remember marking Mickey Mullins from Na Piarsaigh when I was in Farna; taught me a lot about what it takes.”
If winning that junior county in ’96 cemented his “old man’s satisfaction”, he’s enjoyed spreading the hurling gospel in Bantry.
“Our U16s beat Russell Rovers at Páirc Uí Rinn in a final and our U14s beat Cloyne in the Féile. They’re little landmarks when you’re playing East Cork clubs.
“The best performance was by our junior Bs out in Enniskeane last year against Kilbrittain’s second team and they’d very little training done but gave a perfect performance, passes to hand, great frees.”
Some days it just all comes together.