By Niall McCoy
ON September 16, 1990, a crowd of 65,898 watched Cork defeat Meath in the All-Ireland final – the third time in four years that the counties had met in the decider.
It was the 22nd year in-a-row that Ulster had to do without a winner from the province, the last coming in 1968 when Down triumphed. Sides from here were not All-Ireland contenders.
In reality, they were not All-Ireland final contenders as those 22 years had brought just two September appearances from Ulster sides – Armagh when they lost to Dublin in 1977 and Tyrone’s defeat to Kerry in 1986. The losing margins were 12 and eight points respectively.
Connacht may not have been overly strong either in that time – they had zero winners and six finalists – but when looking for the weak link, Ulster bore the brunt.
That narrative would irreversibly change over the following five years as four All-Ireland titles were annexed while Tyrone came close to making it five in-a-row in 1995 against Dublin.
The spark that led to that domino effect was, undoubtedly, Down’s 1991 All-Ireland winning side with the Mourne county lifting the Sam Maguire 30 years ago yesterday.
There had been hints that Down were starting to put something together, but nothing to suggest what would come. Dr McKenna Cups were collected in 1987 and 1989 while back-to-back Ulster U-21 titles in 1984 and 1985 and Ulster and All-Ireland Minor titles two years later suggested that good young talent existed within the Mourne county. A 1989 National League final appearance against Meath was another signpost of progress.
In 1989, in Pete McGrath’s first year in charge, Donegal manager Brian McEniff had obviously noticed the winds of change as he stated “Down play a brand of football we should be playing. They give their forwards good quality ball and their movement off the ball is effective.”
The National League of 1990-91 provided few clues to what would occur over the coming months though. McGrath’s men travelled to Killarney for the final round knowing that they needed a win to avoid relegation. Despite the absence of the suspended Paddy O’Rourke and Cathal Murray, they put up a good show but fell to a three-point defeat with Charlie Nelligan denying Mark McCartan an equalising goal late on.
As it was, the GAA’s league restructuring would come into play more so over the next few seasons so relegation didn’t actually arrive, but a penultimate finish in the top group didn’t send out any strong signals. Perhaps the fact that All-Ireland holders Cork were the team that finished below them suggested that league form was less indicative of opportunity as it is today.
Of course, 1991 was a time of great strife in the North and the bloodiest of the last three decades with 96 people murdered during the Troubles. On the day of their Ulster Championship opener with Armagh in Newry, the IRA detonated a 600lb bomb 20 miles away in Donacloney. Amongst those who had their windows blown out were the McCartans, including young star James who would be central to the side’s Sam Maguire success that year.
He would travel onto Newry later that day and play in a match that has earned a bit of infamy in Down and Armagh circles. But not for good reasons.
CHAPTER ONE: WINNING UGLY
NOT Many Ulster Championship openers stand the test of time for Down fans, but their 1991 clash with Armagh will not be easily forgotten by those in attendance at the Marshes – as it was known then – in early June.
While the 1994 Celtic Park clash with Derry is considered one of the best games of all time, the quarter-final meeting with Armagh in Newry would be at the other end of the scale.
Indeed, one fan’s claim leaving the ground that “the pick of those sides wouldn’t win an All-Ireland” is readily recalled. Fact or fiction, it’s a nice summary of the visual punishment dished out by the teams.
While McGrath’s side had floundered somewhat in the league, the Rostrevor native said that they had managed to put that to one side with a morale-boosting win over Kildare in the lead-up to the derby.
“We had a difficult enough league campaign leading into that championship, I’m not sure what kind of campaign Armagh had.
“The reality is that Armagh had beaten us the year before in the Ulster semi in a replay at Casement Park.
“The league that followed, the autumn and winter of 1990-91, there would have been no indication to outsiders that this team was going to be a threat in Ulster never mind in the whole of Ireland.
“What gave me the confidence and belief that we could rattle a few cages was a friendly with Kildare about two weeks before we played Armagh.
“We played them down in Leixlip and Mick O’Dwyer was managing them at the time. We tried a few things in terms of personnel and positions and so on and the team played really, really well. They beat Kildare in a really good quality game.
“I came away that night confident that if we could keep the momentum going from that game and keep the training going well, that we could certainly take Armagh.
“The last training session we had prior to the match in Rostrevor, I said ‘there are very few guarantees in life but I guarantee you this, if we beat Armagh on Sunday, we will contest the Ulster final.’
“Derry had beaten Tyrone and that’s who we would be facing. Tyrone had been a bit of a bogey team for Down in years prior to that, so I think some of the players were happy to see Tyrone out.”
Defender Brendan McKernan also places a lot of stock in that Kildare game, especially due to the tactical changes carried out.
“We went to the opening of a field down in Leixlip in Kildare and we had only 19 or 20 players due to injuries and four or five were pulled in,” said the Burren man.
“That’s where Ross Carr and Gary Mason moved from wing half-backs to wing half-forwards, it was in that game. A lot of people would talk about that being the turning point.
“They were boys who were fit to play in any position, and a lot of boys were fit to do that in the squad.”
Both Down and Armagh would have three championship debutants on show in Newry – McKernan, Mason and Peter Withnell for Down and Jarlath Burns, Damien Horisk and John Rafferty for Paddy Moriaty’s side.
The seven minutes of injury time played by Cavan whistler Micheal Greenan just seemed cruel, but in the end Down progressed on a 1-7 to 0-8 scoreline with Mickey Linden blasting a crucial penalty past Benny Tierney, who had moved three steps forward once the Mayobridge maestro started his run up.
“The game was poor quality, but it was played on a very difficult day,” McGrath added. “The rain wasn’t overly heavy but it was constant and the pitch was very hard because the weather had been dry up until that. Players were finding it hard to keep their feet.
“The comments made after as the crowd left the Marshes, as it was then, have gone down in folklore. People were saying ‘Armagh fans are lucky because they don’t have to go back and watch their team but we do.’
“For us it was mission accomplished. Even with my experience with Down minor teams I was well aware of the confidence a team gets when they win an Ulster Championship match. They can be a totally different team on the Monday night than they were on the Friday before the match.
“We won, yeah it didn’t make banner headlines. It was a bit of a shambles of a game but we got the job done.
“I knew, and I think the players knew, that things were coming together and we could take Derry in the semi-final.”
CHAPTER TWO: KICKING FROM DISTANCE
AS it was, like in the year before, the semi-final would become semi-finals as Down were involved in two games.
The year before they had lost out to Armagh, but this time they made no mistake the second time around against Derry.
That opportunity owed much to Ross Carr, who rescued the side in the drawn match when a defeat would have had a massive psychological impact given the position they had found themselves in during the game.
How far out was the Clonduff man when he struck the late equalising free at the Atheltic Grounds? Reports at the time would suggest 54 yards, but his teammates reckon that an extra yard gets added on every few years as the story is retold.
Greenan was again the whistler and 10 bookings were handed out – two of those to Greg Blaney and in a moment a deep cut was opened on a previously rampant Mourne side.
Down were seven up well into the second half when Derry introduced Joe Brolly and Anthony Tohill and when Blaney was lined minutes later, the comeback was on.
Eamonn Burns’s goal copper-fastened that belief and they led twice in the close minutes only to be pegged back first by McCartan and then, at the death, by Carr.
On the second day, back in Armagh, Carr, who had passed his accountancy exams earlier that week, was again the go-to man as his nine-point haul matched the total Derry posted. Mickey Linden could even strike a late penalty over the bar rather than under as Down won 0-14 to 0-9.
“In the first game we were leading quite comfortably and then Greg got sent off,” McGrath continued. “The game changed, that decision transformed the game.
“I suppose we were fortunate to get the draw in one sense thanks to Ross Carr’s legendary free kick. There’s no doubt that the distance increases with the telling of the tale.
“We won the replay quite comfortably. In actual fact though, the football we played the first day was really good and we should have been out of sight.
“We won the replay anyway to get us through to the Ulster final.”
For McKernan, once again the squad’s fluidity in terms of positions proved vital. Midfielder Liam Austin had picked up an injury in the drawn match that saw him ruled out of the replay and Barry Breen moved into the centre to pair with the late Eamon Burns.
“At club level most of us played midfield at that time,” he said.
“Barry going to midfield wasn’t really a strange thing for him, he could play in lots of position. He had played the 1990 National League final against Meath at corner-back against Colm O’Rourke.
“Until the Derry replay, Paul Higgins didn’t get in but he did then. ‘Austy’ had the injury then and he wasn’t back until the All-Ireland semi-final when he came on as a sub and he came on in the final too.”
CHAPTER THREE: ALL TOO EASY
FROM Down’s first taste of provincial glory in 1959, their longest wait for an Ulster title until 1981 had been seven years. In 1991, the wait was out to a decade. Given that the Mourne county are now 27 years without the Anglo Celt, that may not seem that extreme – but back then it was a famine.
In the end, the wait ended in rather easy circumstances in ’91 as they defeated Donegal 1-15 to 0-10. McEniff, so clearly a fan of Down’s style, had played into their hands.
“Donegal had won the Ulster title the year before,” said McGrath.
“Donegal’s tradition – and maybe Jimmy McGuinness changed it a bit – was to play an open, attacking free-flowing type of football.
“We knew it would suit us, definitely. On that day our forward line really blossomed. James McCartan, Mickey Linden, Greg Blaney, Carr, Peter Withnell at full-forward, they all played so well that day.”
Tony Boyle opened the scoring for Donegal, but once McCartan raced through in the fourth minute and fired a bullet just over the crossbar for his first score of the 1991 championship, Down never looked back.
Five minutes later Linden found the net from and Down were already looking good to end their wait for the Anglo Celt Cup.
“The goal in the first half from Mickey, linking onto a ball over the top, settled us down,” McKernan said.
“He read that ball so well and side-stepped Gary Wash (who would play club football with McKernan at Burren) before tapping it to the net. We played good football from there.”
McCartan tagged on a point at the death and the cameras panned to McGrath who had a smile as wide as Cloughmore Stone.
Paddy O’Rourke became the second Burren man to lift the trophy after Tommy McGovern and the ‘ohh ah, Pete McGrath’ banner was heading to Croke Park.
CHAPTER FOUR: WITHNELL AND I
SEPTEMBER 1960, All-Ireland final: Down 2-10 Kerry 0-8. August 1961, All-Ireland semi-final: Down 1-12 Kerry 0-9. September 1968, All-Ireland final: Down 2-12 Kerry 1-13.
When McGrath’s men were pitted against Kerry in the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final, their chests rose in unison. Kerry had never beaten them in championship football. There was little doubt in the changing room that there would be a change in that particular trend.
For McGrath, a comment by Kingdom boss Mickey Ned O’Sullivan still stands out in his mind.
“I remember reading in a paper the day after the Donegal match, Mickey O’Sullivan said to some reporter that ‘I’m not saying this to patronise Down, but after what I saw they are the best footballing team left in this championship.’
“At the time I took it with a pinch of salt, that he was trying to give us a false sense of confidence, but I knew and the players knew what we had going at that stage.
“We beat Donegal comfortably and the fact that it was Kerry in the semi-final meant that we knew we were going to get a chance to play football.
“I don’t think there was much doubt in our minds that we were going to take Kerry. Their great team was being dismantled somewhat, although Jack O’Shea was still playing, Pat Spillane and Tom Spillane and people like that. The nucleus had gone though.
“We knew they were vulnerable and we knew we had momentum coming from winning the Ulster title, the momentum was quite strong going forward.”
While Down’s last All-Ireland semi-final win had been 23 years prior, the likes of McKernan and O’Rourke had known what it was like to win All-Irelands as Burren had lifted the Andy Merrigan Cup in 1986 and ’88.
The first of those successes came against Kerry kingpins Castleisland Desmonds who had Charlie Nelligan and current Monaghan coach Donie Buckley amongst their number.
“I was lucky to be part of a great Burren team and a great Down team,” McKernan said.
“When you got that far the belief was always going to be there, and there was no stone left unturned by Pete and the players.”
That confidence paid off handsomely as Down swept the Munster giants aside in the final 10 minutes at Croke Park.
They hit 1-4 coming down the stretch in the 2-9 to 0-8 victory with Withnell finishing with a 2-1 tally to announce his arrival on the national stage.
“In Ulster, Peter had been doing a very important job,” McGrath said. “With his power at full-forward he was creating scores for other players and taking the weight of their shoulders.
“There is no doubt against Kerry, with two expertly taken goals, was the day the country woke up and asked ‘who is this guy Withnell?’ I think he’s the only Down player to score two goals in an All-Ireland Senior semi-final.
“The other forwards were just doing their thing anyway but Peter stole the headlines.”
CHAPTER FIVE: BEATING THE TEAM THAT COULDN’T BE BEATEN
THE 1991 season was meant to be the Meath story – perhaps the greatest All-Ireland win of all time.
That was due to what had happened in the Leinster Championship preliminary round. Four games with Dublin, two bouts of extra-time and, fittingly, a dramatic conclusion as Kevin Foley’s late goal and a point from David Beggy earned a famous win for Sean Boylan’s side.
A replay was needed in the semi-final against Wicklow before Offaly and Laois were dismissed. Roscommon were edged out in the All-Ireland semi-final by the minimum. Given that journey, the destination of the Sam Maguire seemed preordained.
Nobody told the Down dressing room though and McGrath did his best to keep that media talk away from the squad.
“I remember saying to the players, it could have been the first training session after Kerry, that we were in an All-Ireland final and there was going to be a lot of expectancy, a lot of excitement and it’s going to be hard not to be a part of it. I told them that we had to make a great effort to divorce ourselves from that.
“I said that the fans and the general public can get involved in the excitement and exhilaration, but our job was to make sure that come the third Sunday in September we needed to be ready.
“I told them that we, as a management team, and county chairman Danny Murphy, God rest him, would try our best to ensure that no one is going to be pulled into that. The players did that and Paddy O’Rourke as captain was saying the same thing.
“We remained as focussed and as calm as we could going into the final and on the day they were ready. They were really, really ready.”
For McKernan, getting to the final wasn’t just about the run from that excruciating game against Armagh to the semi-final at Croke Park, it was the journey from much further back.
“At that time I had two children in the house as two and three years of age so it wasn’t easy getting away to Ballykinlar.
“At the championship time it was Newry, but for the winter we were travelling to Ballykinlar for training. You were in from work at 6.15pm, away at 6.30pm and you maybe weren’t home until 11pm.
“It was a big sacrifice but thankfully Therese was very understanding and football meant a lot to myself and my family. That’s how life was.”
All those sacrifices became worth it on September 15, 1991 as Down held on to defeat Meath 1-16 to 1-14. Just like they had done in the first Ulster semi-final against Derry though, they had opened the door and were lucky to get the lock back on.
In the 19th minute, Liam Hayes’s score put Meath 0-4 to 0-3 ahead – but they wouldn’t raise another flag until early in the second half. Down, by contrast, would kick five scores in-a-row to take control.
They would go on to lead 0-11 to 0-5 early in the second half and things would only get better.
O’Rourke got his hands on the ball in the middle and the ball eventually found McCartan who showed evasive footwork to get the ball to his cousin Blaney. He passed to Linden who fist-passed across goal for the unmarked Breen to palm home.
When Carr landed another free to leave it 1-12 to 0-5 with just 23 minutes remaining, it appeared game over.
However, from there they were outscored 0-4 to 1-9 and were thankful for a save from goalkeeper Neil Collins to deny Bernard Flynn.
One point or 10 points, All-Ireland finals are simply to be won and McGrath told the adoring Down public that “they said Meath were the team that couldn’t be beaten. So here’s the team that beat the team that couldn’t be beaten.”
Paddy O’Rourke’s sliced clearance into the Hogan Stand prompted Leitrim referee Seamus Prior to blow the full-time whistle and within seconds fans were streaming onto the pitch. Collins ran and saluted Hill 16 which was bedecked in red and black flags in a striking visual display. Higgins was given a chairlift by fans around the pitch.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, became the fourth Down man to lift the Sam Maguire Cup after Kevin Mussen (1960), Paddy Doherty (1961) and Joe Lennon (1968).
McKernan said the celebrations were manic, but they also brought with them satisfaction and a chance to pay tribute to the fans who had believed in them.
“We went to the Burlington then we went to the Portmarnock Links Hotel, we got the bus out to there after the dinner.
“You got the chance to meet up with a lot of your own club supporters and supporters from other clubs who had travelled the length and breadth of Ireland to support you. It was nice to have the time to spend with those people.”
Going around and thanking fans would not be possible on the team’s arrival back in Newry the next day though. It was not only a Mourne welcome, but an Ulster one too with supporters from counties such as Tyrone and Armagh travelling down to witness the special moment at the Buttercrane Shopping Centre.
“Adrian Logan had a film crew on the bus with us going down on the Sunday morning to the match,” McGrath said. “I allowed it because having ‘Logie’ and knowing the character he is, would actually relieve the tension a bit.
“On the Monday afternoon before we left to go home, and this was before mobiles and all that, he told me ‘from what I can hear there is going to be something like 35,000 people in Newry to meet you tonight.’
“That was quite a daunting prospect but the homecoming in Newry was phenomenal, the crowd around the Buttercrane was a real stand-out memory, as was coming home to my own club in Rostrevor very late on the Monday night.
“The next couple of weeks, and this is part and parcel of winning the All-Ireland, you become a prisoner of the public.
“It was just a marvellous summer and it carried onto the autumn. The fact that it was unexpected just made it all the more dramatic and all the more memorable.
“It’s just simply hard to believe it is 30 years ago now.”