WE are doing a rewatch of the most important Cork GAA games in recent times. Starting with probably the most important of all, Cork v Meath 1990.
Look, we all know the context. Meath beat Cork in two increasingly bad-tempered All-Ireland finals, Cork win the next but with doubts hanging on it as they didn’t beat Meath.
Billy Morgan praying for the change of revenge after losing to Meath in the league semi-final that year. Afterwards he declared this win over Meath in the 1990 All-Ireland final the pinnacle of his career (if Billy Morgan says this, you know it’s big).
These were the two teams of this era, a Classico in a Champions League final – they shared nine All-Stars in 1987 and 1988, 10 in 1990. The Double. We remember it was iconic, but it’s interesting to look again and see if it was any good.
The game started with frantic Cork attacks. And then, lordy it escalated.
The next passage of the game was absolute carnage, like full-on chaos of collisions and rucks and balls won and lost as quickly, to the extent that it’d cause some form of computer malfunction if a GAA analyst tried to put it through a software programme these days.
A taster: Stephen O’Brien breaks out with a ball at one stage, takes a hop and solo, gets dispossessed by Martin O’Connell, who boots a long 50/50 into his forwards that Cork pick up loose, the ball gets transferred to Mick Slocum who kicks long straight to a Meath defender, who kicks long up the line where a ball breaks and gets kicked inside where Cork pick up the ball loose again and work the ball to Larry Tompkins who kicks long and inaccurately inside where Meath win possession back.
That’s about 40 seconds worth and in four minutes 30 seconds of play, we count 12 turnovers of possession (mostly through aimless kicks) and three is the most passes one team strings together. It’s like watching another sport completely, with every possession a 50-50 contest and no time on the ball, so many balls kicked with little thought, no real patterns of movement or combinations from teams.
If anyone ever says that Gaelic football is still the same basic game it always was, get them to watch the period between Cork’s first and second score of the 1990 All-Ireland final.
On Monday Night Football Retro last week they reanalysed Leeds-Liverpool from 2000 and couldn’t get over how more technical and tactical soccer looks now in comparison and this felt similar, watching players boot the ball away into crowds of players versus the more thoughtful build-up and awareness of spaces of the modern game, it’d be impossible to argue the game hasn’t moved on.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments and performances of savage quality. We forgot one of the almost-classic All-Ireland final goals – Colm O’Neill’s rasper off the crossbar after gliding past Mick Lyons.
Honestly it would have been one of the greats, it could have changed the memory of the game for O’Neill and looking back now, you can see the frustration of that miss and the fouls from his marker Lyons sort of build towards that red-card moment.
By the way, you see Billy Morgan put his arm around O’Neill as he walks off and you think this bond and passion for his players has always been at the heart of what he’s achieved and also, how amazing he has still managed to remain so relevant for so long, still influencing footballers at UCC 30 years on.
Two performances jump out even now.
Shay Fahy obviously, with four points. It’s funny to look back and think that was a regular thing for him but he wasn’t always that prolific – two points v Kerry in the 1990 Munster final and in 1991 as well were as good as it got apart from this game. But he was a constant influence here, fetching kick-outs and long frees, carrying ball to link play right to the end and of course those four scores.
His scores were little snapshots of the game.
Point one – Danny Culloty won a Meath kick-out break and passed to Fahy galloping through the centre of defence before kicking over on the run, a little signal of that dominant midfield.
Point two - at the end of one of Cork’s most flowing moves of the game, a kick-pass from Teddy Mac, another from Dave Barry into Paul McGrath, a shot across goal retrieved by Culloty and laid onto Fahy, who shot from an angle out on the left wing.
Point three – a Martin O’Connell clearance from defence straight to Fahy who slammed it back over the bar, a sign of Meath being unable to get their game going under Cork pressure.
Point four – a free clipped short by Tompkins to Fahy, who turned and shot over, a cleverly worked simple move that showed Meath just weren’t able to stop Fahy all day.
Larry Tompkins was the best footballer in the country at the time but for once he wasn’t the most important influence on a Cork performance - in the three previous finals with Meath, Tompkins kicked 0-6, 0-8, 0-8 and here it was 0-4 (all frees) but Fahy made up the match-winning difference.
But Mick Slocum, wow he was close to MVP apart from the scores surely and was one of the players from that time you’d look at and think he could be a serious player in this era as well. A modern sort of half-back, he played a huge amount of ball in this game, picked up breaks and was available as support.
It was his willingness to kick the ball cleverly into his forwards that stood out, that ability to give a little dinked 30-yard pass, which he did to set up John O’Driscoll to be fouled for a pointed free in the second half, or a long raking one into the space, which he did for Paul McGrath, who by the way came out of this rewatch extremely well also, all clever jinks and quick movements.
In the last minute, when Colm Coyle launched a ball deep into Cork’s defence, it was Slocum who caught it clean.
That Cork defence gave NOTHING easy, contesting every single ball kicked in and usually managing to disrupt with a hand or get out in front and win it clean. Niall Cahalane on Colm O’Rourke was some battle, Cahalane admitted afterwards he relished that kind of challenge.
There’s a moment in the second half where Martin O’Connell and Tompkins sort of old-style soccer-tackled each other, O’Connell came away with possession but Paul McGrath chased back to win a turnover and a free. It was that kind of game, desperation to do anything to win from a serious group of winners/players.
It might look a little of its time when held up against to the modern game, but you can still get that epic importance of it all.