WHEN Mikey Sheehy somehow inveigled a goal from an impossible angle to overturn a two-point deficit in the final moments of the 1987 Munster football final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Billy Morgan fell to the ground, prostrate on the sideline in front of the covered stand.
With his team moments away from a famous victory, he’d been following the action so intensely that he was almost parallel with the ball as the play unfolded.
At the prospect of a title being snatched from Cork’s grasp, Morgan keeled over. A snapshot of his passion, the image was that of a man so tormented by the possibility of losing that his emotions overpowered all other senses.
No sooner had the late John Kerins had the wherewithal to take a quick kick-out that culminated in Larry Tompkins pointing the equalising free at the other end than Morgan showcased the other side of his genius.
The man, tormented by the drama, morphed back into the manager with a job to do.
Having dispatched everybody else from the chaos of the post-match dressing-room, he gathered his squad around him and began talking about the replay.
As he spoke animatedly, he hand-passed a ball around the room, asking each man what they planned to do to Kerry in Killarney next time out.
The responses increased in fervour until, finally, the masseur John 'Kid' Cronin fumbled a pass.
“Jesus Christ, Kid,” shouted Morgan. “Will you concentrate?”
To paraphrase Nick Hornby’s timeless line about Liam Brady’s relationship with Arsenal, if you cut Billy Morgan he would bleed Cork.
The county has had great servants in both codes for over a century, but it’s difficult to find anybody, apart from Christy Ring, to whom the jersey meant quite as much.
First-choice goalkeeper for 16 years, captain of the 1973 All-Ireland winning team and manager during the most successful decade in our Gaelic football history, every triumph of the modern era had Morgan’s fingerprints all over it in some way.
Even during those spells when he didn’t have an official title, there was no off-button to his passion.
“When Cork were six points ahead at half-time in their first round championship game against Clare in 1997, Morgan took it upon himself to wait outside the dressingroom in Ennis, just to remind Larry Tompkins, then manager, that Clare had come back from a heavy deficit the previous year to force Cork into extra-time,” wrote Kieran Shannon in The Sunday Tribune.
“Morgan watched the second half of that game in the press box, kicking every ball. Anybody who saw his face after Martin Daly’s last-second goal would swear that had there been more room in that press box, Morgan would have fallen to the ground in disgust, just as he did after Mikey Sheehy’s goal in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.”
Born on February 2nd, 1945 – a good year for Cork football all around — Morgan grew up in Tonyville Terrace, off High Street. His father Tom, originally from Mullagh in East Galway, had been posted to the city as a guard. At Coláiste Chriost Ri and UCC, and with Nemo Rangers, the young Morgan first showcased his potential as a talented centre-forward, the position from which he started picking up honours.
Although he had dabbled between the posts from the age of 16, he played half-forward on the Cork minor side that lost to Kerry in the 1963 Munster final replay.
That was the point Tramore Athlete lured him away from the GAA for a season, but after Dr Dave Geaney in UCC asked him to keep goal for the college Sigerson team, the path of his Gaelic football career was set.
W Morgan (UCC), as he was officially listed, began his 16-year stint as Cork custodian on the side that lost the 1966 All-Ireland semi-final to Galway by just two points.
The following year, they went one stage further but couldn’t get the better of Meath in the final.
By the time he played in his second decider in ’73, Morgan was captain. That honour came by virtue of Nemo winning their first county the previous autumn, and his role in that victory was, inevitably, outsized.
Upon graduation from UCC, he’d supplemented his teaching qualifications with a physical education degree from Strawberry Hill College in London.
What he’d learned there, he’d implemented in Nemo when he was put in charge of the senior team at the age of just 27.
He revolutionised their training methods with increased emphasis on ball-work and imaginative drills to improve technical skills.
The club’s faith in him was rewarded as, wearing the twin hats of captain and coach, he led that side to their first All-Ireland club title. Thirty-one years later, he guided another Nemo team, most of whom weren’t even born then, to their seventh crown.
While the Cork team of 1973 was laden with stars, the final against Galway was a tight enough affair until eight minutes from the end when Jimmy Barry-Murphy scored the goal that finally clinched victory and gave birth to his teenage legend.
As the ball hit the back of the net, Morgan dropped to his knees at the other end in a gesture of thanks.
“I suppose it was a spontaneous reaction,” said Morgan in Vincent Power’s wonderful book Voices of Cork.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘We have it now, we’re not going to lose it.’ I realised we were going to win an All-Ireland.”
When the All-Stars were named later that year, there was no other nomination for the goalkeeping position and he also became the first Corkman to win the Texaco Footballer of the Year.
The accolades were deserved because apart from his shot-stopping, he also brought a whole new awareness to the position and the role.
He was Stephen Cluxton before Stephen Cluxton.
On every team he played for, Morgan was the last line of defence and the first line of attack. Once the ball was in his grasp, he was immediately looking to pass directly to a waiting colleague instead of going for the then traditional, crowd-pleasing hoof down the field.
“I always believed in possession football,” said Morgan.
“I could not understand a goalkeeper saving a ball and then punting it downfield between one of his own players and a rival. He was giving the opposing player a 50-50 opportunity of gaining possession and I felt this was wrong.
"So, with Nemo first and then my Cork colleagues, I worked on and developed the short pass to an unmarked team-mate.”
Kerry beaten in 1974 and the Cork side so expertedly pieced together by Donie O’Donovan were living up to their billing as the team of all the talents.
But, then, a shock loss to Dublin in the All-Ireland final started their decline. Morgan finished his career without ever winning another Munster medal. For seven consecutive summers, he had to give best to Kerry, the sort of cumulative run of defeats that no doubt fuelled his manic desire to put Cork back on top.
There must have been times in those dark years when his mind harked back to the summer of 1969. A superlative display against Kerry in the Munster final somehow segued into the offer of a month’s trial with Jock Stein’s Celtic.
His trip to Glasgow had to be a clandestine affair because The Ban was still operating, and, after a week at Parkhead, he was faced with a tough decision.
The club wanted three more weeks to evaluate him, but staying in Scotland would cause him to lose a teaching job in Cork.
He chose the guaranteed career and although further flirtations with soccer included signing forms for Waterford United, Cork Celtic, and Cork United, he never actually played a League of Ireland match.
In any case, during the late '70s, he found other outlets for his enthusiasm. Before the 1979 Munster final in Killarney, he walked into the Cork minor dressing-room as they readied themselves to face the old rivals in the curtain-raiser.
Already in his match gear, Morgan delivered a fiery speech to the teenagers, the central thrust of which was how nauseating it was to lose to Kerry at any time, in any game. What the youngsters knew of the orator in their midst ensured every word carried more weight.
“At the end, I just wanted to give my all that day for Cork,” said Colman Corrigan, a minor that day.
“I thought then I’d love to play for him.”
It’s not surprising that somebody who cared enough to take time out of his own preparations for a crucial fixture to try to drive the minors on was often at odds with officialdom. Morgan didn’t suffer fools. Consumed by the desire to win, he wasn’t interested in politicking and couldn’t abide those unwilling to assist the cause.
When Adidas came calling with an offer of free gear and boots in 1977, the amateur sportsman who’d always given a professional commitment collided with authority.
At a time when Cork players had to supply their own socks and shorts, Morgan saw it as an opportunity for the team to at least start receiving the same treatment as their rivals in other counties.
Suspected of being a ringleader in the affair, he was one of those suspended after the team wore the Three Stripes gear in the Munster final.
Three years later, when Cork beat Kerry in the National League final, he was effectively player-manager. Except for one crucial detail. The county board gave him the title of coach, still making him pay for his earlier insolence.
In 1986, they appointed him manager but, initially, bizarrely, he had no official say in the selection of players. Incredibly petty behaviour towards somebody so devoted to Cork football, the inference that a price had to be paid by any maverick ruffling bureaucratic feathers is obvious.
“His relations with the Cork county board have often been bad,” wrote Denis Walsh in The Sunday Times, “In the autumn of 1991, Morgan’s enemies rounded on him. The county board executive drummed up 13 incidents of allegedly unbecoming behaviour or bad practice, which they felt ought to prevent Morgan continuing as the team manager.
“Cork players were outraged and the pressure to re-instate Morgan was irresistible. Morgan’s relationship with his players was critical to Cork’s success. He regarded them as his friends and wanted them to look on him in the same way. He seemed more comfortable with footballers and football people than with anybody else.”
At this remove, it is mind-boggling to consider people were seriously trying to oust a younger manager who had just presided over Cork football’s most fecund five years ever.
Objective viewers might have thought that leading the county to two titles from four consecutive All-Ireland finals, not to mention its first three-in-a-row in Munster would have guaranteed the man the job for as long as he so desired.
His detractors — some of whom still contend that Cork team should have won more — had obviously forgotten how bad things were when Morgan took over.
“It bugs me a little when people write we should’ve won more,” said Morgan.
“We won two All-Irelands, the same amount as Meath, but no-one would ever write or say that about Meath. We should’ve won All-Irelands in 1988 and 1993 but for a few refereeing decisions, and that’s something I’ll never be persuaded from.
“The equalising point Meath got in ’88 (from a free), and in ’93, Anthony Davis’s sending-off, which was rescinded after the game.”
In his first campaign as manager, he had orchestrated the defeat of the greatest team in history (at least if you don’t count the financially-doped Dubs of the 21st century).
When his side fell short against Meath that year, he revamped it. Working all the time towards a winning formula, the side that lost the replay to the same opposition 12 months later had six new faces, including the returning prodigals, Dave Barry and Dinny Allen.
That Allen and Barry would scarcely have come back for anybody else is relevant too because man-management has always been Morgan’s forte. He would have considered it part of his remit to occasionally drive the length of the county to privately help a player with a problem, whether sporting or personal.
“I don’t know if Billy had to do the same with other players, probably not,” said Danny Cullotty.
“But he took me aside and had a couple of long chats about the problem of my kicking. It was going all over the place like and it was embarrassing. Billy forced me to lay it off short and soft all the time. I wasn’t allowed stray outside the area between the two 50-yard lines for a long time. I’d get the ball and lay off short passes to guys around me. They’d know to make themselves free.”
American-born Cullotty might not have had the finesse with the boot that came naturally to those who grew up in the maw of the game but Morgan knew the Newmarket man had something to contribute.
A more snobbish manager might have baulked at the lack of such a fundamental skill but not this one. His background in physical education (he gained another qualification from New York University in the early 1980s) had always made him more open-minded towards every aspect of the game.
As late as 2000, Morgan went to England to study training methods of soccer and rugby teams there. At a juncture when most people would have assumed he was winding down, there was still a thirst for knowledge. Under his tutelage, the Nemo panel at that time could often be found playing a game of tip rugby or a full match with four sets of goalposts.
For all the thinking and sports science that informs his preparation of teams however, Morgan’s hallmark was passion and commitment.
More than once, his temper has neared critical mass on the sidelines of big matches, but his fans will point out every occasion was justified.
In the 1987 final, he got involved with a couple of Meath players because Jimmy Kerrigan had been struck off the ball. For a manager who kicked every ball with his team, remaining divorced from the fray was never an easy option.
There’s a reason why long after retiring from the Cork colours, Morgan, in his mid-forties, could still be found wearing the black and green of Nemo in junior football, trying to sate the competitive thirst even then.
That he remains ageless was shown in 2019 when he led UCC to yet another Sigerson Cup triumph over St. Mary’s. At the finish of that game, the players wearing red and black with the skull and crossbones on their chest, were swarming around him, each one of them seeming determined to seek him out for an embrace in their moment of victory.
More than half a century after he first pulled that fabled jersey over his own head, still working at the coalface, still shaping lives at a sprightly 74.
To best understand his greatness, it may be necessary to move beyond the confines of the GAA. If you combined the gut instincts of Brian Clough, the paranoia and raw passion of Alex Ferguson, and the obsessiveness of Bill Shankly, you’d be some way towards an outline of this character and what he has brought to Cork sport. Sprinkle in Roy Keane’s indomitability and the portrait fills out nicely.
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