Rebels flew high in Thurles in 1990: Ger Fitzgerald on the game of his life

In an extract from Cork Hurling: Game of My Life, Ger Fitzgerald recalls the 1990 Munster SHC final over Tipperary
Rebels flew high in Thurles in 1990: Ger Fitzgerald on the game of his life

Cork's Ger Fitzgerald gets in a shot despite the attentions of Conal Bonnar in the 1990 Munster SHC final in Semple Stadium. Picture: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

YOU'VE heard of the phrase ‘flying in training’ – well in 1990, I was flying to training!

I was working for Aer Lingus in Dublin Airport at the time and I was flying up and down for training, twice or three times a week, depending on what was required. I’d come down and my mother Liz would collect me at the airport and drop me to training, back up the next morning and back to work. She had been around the block with the inter-county scene as my father Paddy played for Cork – he was part of the successful 1966 panel – and was now doing the same with her son.

It was brilliant to be able to do to get down for training, though! I used to do gym work on my own up in Dublin, too. Cork did a lot of training in Ballinlough in the lead-up to the Munster final because Páirc Uí Chaoimh was being used for the Prince concert. 

Cork forward John Fitzgibbon breaking through the Tipperary defence.
Cork forward John Fitzgibbon breaking through the Tipperary defence.

Because of the nature of the pitch – it’s very tight – it made the training very intense and the games were fairly robust. I remember a couple of hardy backs-and-forwards sessions!

BREAKTHROUGH

I would have been on the panel since 1984, on and off, and a regular fixture from 1985. We had won the All-Ireland in 1986, my first year playing championship, really. Then, after that, we were beaten by Tipperary in 1987 after a replay and in 1988 they beat us in Limerick. In 1989, I was on and off the panel and I wasn’t on the panel for the match against Waterford. Tomás wasn’t on it, either. They made a lot of changes going into that game, which was fair enough – they were entitled to that.

The 1986 final was really the end of a team that won five Munster championships in a row, won two All-Irelands and reached two other finals. John Fenton, Tom Cashman, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Johnny Crowley – they were coming to the end of their time and there was a heap of us starting off, players like Denis Walsh, Jim Cashman, myself, Teddy Mac. It was our first year, really, playing championship hurling.

There was a lot of excitement around the Tipp replay in 1987, given that they hadn’t won Munster in so long and, after that, they went on to dominate for a while. They were a good team, well-organised, they brought in Babs and they had a bit of a structure about themselves.

At the end of 1989, there was a management change and there was a big effort put into the national league. We trained pretty hard, Gerald McCarthy was the trainer and he did a very good job. Sometimes, you wouldn’t do much training before Christmas but we did, it was pretty tough from the start because we knew we needed to pick things up, we were after slipping off the pace a little bit.

I was on the fringes of the panel in 1984, so I would have had experience of working with the Canon. He was a great guy at getting into fellas’ heads. You also knew that there was going to be a good structure around the team. 

Frank Murphy was on board as a selector, too, which was always a big help – things were that little bit easier to access because of that! At the time, it was certainly a significant addition, because there was less bartering with the county board for access to things. 

It was all that little bit smoother.

Cork's Sean McCarthy keeps possession from Tipperary's Declan Ryan and Pat Fox.
Cork's Sean McCarthy keeps possession from Tipperary's Declan Ryan and Pat Fox.

We were beaten in the league semi-final by Wexford in Nowlan Park. After a pretty good campaign, we played pretty poorly in the semi-final itself. They beat us well and we played badly. It was a cold, miserable day and we just didn’t play well. So, much and all as we were positive during the league, we came out of that a bit dejected.

After the Wexford game, we went away and played a couple of practice matches then and just tried to get going for the championship. 

The weather improved and we started doing a bit more hurling training and that made a big difference to us. 

We had been drawn against Kerry in Tralee and it turned out to be a tough ould match!

We won easily enough in the end but for 45 minutes it was difficult. Kerry scored three goals against us and nobody else managed that in that year’s championship. They played well, but then they had good players – Christy Walsh was a serious player, for instance, he could played on a lot of inter-county teams.

For the semi-final, we had Waterford in Thurles and it was a serious match, given what had happened in 1989. We knew how tough it would be and we were well-focused. We had to up our game and be better than we had been against Kerry but I think that that game helped us, just getting a run-out in the championship.

CONFIDENCE

We played so well that day that it gave us a lot of confidence going into the final against Tipp, but in the meantime we had picked up a couple of injuries – Tomás got injured and so did Teddy. Tony O’Sullivan had been out for Waterford match, so we were blooding fellas, as much out of necessity as anything. The panel was being extended a little bit.

With those injuries, the pressure was off us in a way going in to face Tipp. In fairness, when you’re playing Tipp in Thurles, it’s always a huge challenge, anyway – it’s a great venue and the atmosphere would be brilliant.

Our own preparation was pretty decent. Fair enough, we had had the few injuries but the lads who had come in – David Quirke, Anthony O’Sullivan from Bishopstown – did well and Kieran McGuckin was a superb stand-in captain for Tomás. We had the core of a good team and the Canon was a great fella to motivate guys. The Babs thing, I think there was a lot made of it after. In fairness to him, he was never a man to be shy about public utterances! He left a hostage to fortune there which came back to haunt him. In terms of whether or not it improved us on the day? I would say it had nothing to do with it, really.

We were in a good position. We were well-prepared and we were primed. It started off dampish. I was in corner-forward and I was marking Bobby Ryan. You’d be watching the fella who you’d be up against and I had six-stud boots on and I noticed he had multi-studs. Particularly in the first half, the surface was wet and you know that if you turn a fella fast, he wouldn’t be as quick to get you. Small little things like that give you a bit of an edge and a bit of confidence.

EXPERIENCE

Tipp were raging-hot favourites and, in fairness to them, they had a serious team when you look at those players. They had a right to be favourites, given that we didn’t have a lot of form. In saying that, we still had eight or nine of the team that won the All-Ireland in 1986. There wasn’t a lot of notice taken of that but I think that was significant in that a good few of us had been through the mill and knew the craic. We were experienced, without getting the acknowledgement for that before the match. I suppose there was a bit of complacency with Tipperary, that would be fair to say, but at the same time they did start the game fairly well and it took us a while to get into it.

The Cork team before their famous win over Tipp in 1990.
The Cork team before their famous win over Tipp in 1990.

The longer we stayed in it, the more confident we got and Mark got a great goal just before half-time to give us a significant boost going in. We were well in the hunt. In 1988, they had got ahead of us early and they dominated but we were well in the game and we were playing pretty decent. We were competitive all over the field, our defence was good. They had a vaunted forward line with Fox, English, Michael Cleary, Declan Ryan but our backs were doing well. We were playing reasonably well as a team and we knew that we were well in with a shout.

Fitzy got two goals and Foley got another one and that made a massive difference. 

When you’re playing a game like that and you get goals, confidence grows. It was a tough match to the end but we hurled very well as a team and we came of age as a group that day, I think. 

If you looked at it, five of the six forwards would have been noted goalscorers – you had Kevin, Fitzy, Mul, myself and Foley and Sully would be the only fella who’d hit it over the bar! To be fair to him, he was prolific at that and he had a very good game in the Munster final.

Cork's Mark Foley scores on the stroke of halftime.
Cork's Mark Foley scores on the stroke of halftime.

It was the game that made Mark. To be fair to him, he had come through the system, he played minor and U21. That team was built on the core of lads who played in 1986 and then the lads who played U21 in 1988 – Foley, Fitzy, Cathal Casey. There was a backbone of success and a very capable group of hurlers.

The significance of that victory was that it opened up the door to the All-Ireland. We knew we had Antrim and Tomás Mul and Teddy were coming back after their injuries so there was a natural competition for places anyway. Having not been in an All-Ireland final in a couple of years, we didn’t want to make a mess of the semi-final against Antrim.

It was a relatively toughish game, without being put to the pin of our collar. It was good to get into Croke Park, get familiar with the situation and build more confidence. You’d be expected to win it but they had been in the previous year’s All-Ireland final and they had beaten Offaly. We were well aware what they were capable of, because they had run us close in 1986, as well. In terms of a crowd, was as close as what you’d get during the pandemic – there was nobody there, really! They could be a banana skin but we played well and we beat them. That put us up against Galway again and they had won two in a row since we beat them in 1986.

They were a very good team, they had been dominating with Tipp, but we wouldn’t have been lacking in confidence taking them on, either.

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