By Kieran Lynch
“They try to engineer a score from somewhere, to try and reclaim the prize they last held in 1988. But it’s all over, and Down have won the All-Ireland! They maintain a magnificent record; they have never lost an All-Ireland final… and the fans on Hill 16 are enjoying it enormously.”
That was the reaction of legendary RTÉ commentator Ger Canning when referee Seamus Prior blew the full-time whistle at Croke Park on September 15, 1991.
For the 30 players on the field, their reactions would have been split two ways.
“Absolute elation,” was one reaction.
“Absolutely gut-wrenching heartache Devastating beyond words,” the other.
It, of course, was the 1991 All-Ireland final between Down and Meath, and with the two sides set to lock horns in the Tailteann Cup final this Saturday, Down goalkeeper Neil Collins, and Meath corner-forward Bernard Flynn spoke to Gaelic Life to reflect upon that famous day when Down claimed their fourth All-Ireland title.
You don’t have to be a genius to guess which reaction belonged to which player.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is people,” Collins continued.
“Family, teammates, friends, Down supporters. It was great to win, but the most joyous thing was people.
“The first thing you do after the whistle is blown is jump around with the rest of the guys, and the crowd had come onto the pitch. It’s what you had dreamed of as a youngster. Even though we were confident going in, there was probably a little bit of disbelief that we had finally scaled the mountain.
“It was elation and relief all at once. It’s very hard to sum up.”
In that summer of 1991, Meath were in the midst of enjoying something of a golden era, having won the Sam Maguire in 1987 and 1988, before coming up two points short against Cork in the 1990 decider.
It was also the year Meath and Dublin had the legendary four-game series in the Leinster preliminary round. Having been unable to separate each other at the first three attempts, Meath finally got over the line – by a point – at the fourth time of asking after a succession of replays which brought 235,000 spectators to Croke Park (there were no penalties back in those days).
Down, on the other hand, were something of an unknown quantity. It’s well documented now of the brilliance of that team, with magic forwards such as James McCartan, Mickey Linden, Ross Carr and Greg Blaney; steel in midfield with Eamonn Burns and Barry Breen; and the likes of Conor Deegan, Paddy O’Rourke and DJ Kane holding down the fort.
However, they had just won their first Ulster title in 10 years, and compared to Meath’s dominance in that era, Down were written off by many.
However, a heavy favourites’ tag, along with Meath having exerted themselves across four high-octane derby matches, and key absences led to the Royal County losing their discipline on the big day, according to Flynn.
“It was unusual lead up to that game for us,” he said.
“We had just come off the back of four manic games against Dublin, and the county hadn’t really calmed down from that yet.
“Robbie O’Malley was my best friend and losing him to injury for the ’91 final was monumental, and I was worried about that going into the game. Then Colm O’Rourke got sick the morning of the match. Those were two big blows.
“I’ve never really shared this before, but I think because of the hype after what we went through against Dublin, and the fact that we were outrageous favourites going into the final – I think we lost our discipline, and Down exploited that.
“Down had an incredible team with brilliant players all over the field, plus we were down those two players. So, you look back on it now and think how was it a shock that we were beaten?”
For Collins, whilst he appreciated the brilliance of the Meath team, he said that he paid no heed to the bookmakers’ odds and went down to Croke Park full of confidence – even if he had family members trying to plant seeds of doubt.
“A couple of years previously they had come up to play a challenge game against us, and they threw the ball around us like we weren’t there,” said Collins.
“Meath were a massively impressive team. They were so tough at the back and took no prisoners, and their inside forward line of Colm O’Rourke, Brian Stafford and Bernard Flynn were as good as there has been for a long time in Gaelic football.
“But, by 1991 we had belief in our ability. They had only beaten us by a couple of points in the National League final the year before, plus we were a Division One team and had been for a while.
“So, on the day we went down confident – well everyone apart from my future Mother-in-law, who said to me, ‘well you don’t really expect to win, so you may as well just go down and enjoy the day lads’.
“But she’s an Armagh woman you see, so there must have been a bit of psychology going on!”
Footage of the game is readily available online, and when watching the game, it is hard not to take notice of the fervent atmosphere generated by the crowd.
Seeing as it was Meath’s fourth All-Ireland final in five years, one may assume that it would have been water off a duck’s back for the Royals by 1991, but Flynn says that recalling the atmosphere of that day makes the ‘hairs stand up’ on the back of his neck.
“Croke Park now is amazing, but back then it was a lot tighter, the fans were a lot closer to the pitch,” said the Meath icon.
“The atmosphere was incredible; I think the supporters were a bit mad back then! They were obsessed with their team and obsessed with the players.
“I think crowds nowadays are a bit more sedated, save for late-game situations or penalty shootouts. A word I would use to describe the supporters back then is ‘bonkers’, but they made it an unbelievable atmosphere to play in.
“It makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck just thinking about it.”
For Collins, whilst he can appreciate the scene of the Down supporters coming out in force now, at the time it was all business… even if one fan in particular stood out.
“My favourite photograph in my whole career was us walking in front of the Hill, and it’s just a sea of red and black,” said the Carryduff shot stopper.
“When you ran out onto the pitch, you were just hit with a wall of noise. But look, you have got to block all of that out. You are there to perform and to do a job. My job was to communicate with the boys in front of me, so that was my focus.
“So, as much as possible, you’re trying not to be distracted by the crowd – or more specifically, by Connaire Harrison’s father on top of the Nally Stand!”
The teams traded blows back and forth in the early stages and were knotted up at 0-5 apiece. However, Down would go on to have the mother of all purple patches, outscoring Meath 1-9 to 0-1 in a 28-minute spell either side of half-time, to lead the All-Ireland final 1-14 to 0-6.
James McCartan was in inspired form, Gary Mason and Ross Carr kept the scoreboard moving with frees, and a midfield partnership of Eamonn Burns and Barry Breen were dominant – with the latter finding the net after a well-worked move.
With an 11-point lead, surely it was all over?
“At 11 down, I honestly thought it was over,” said Flynn.
But Meath weren’t to go down without a fight.
“Well, you have got to give the crowd value for money,” laughed Collins.
Inspired by substitute Colm O’Rourke, Meath made Down sweat in the dying minutes of the game.
Flynn and Collins were even involved in a huge moment in the game, as Collins denied the corner forward when he looked set to find the net.
As it was, Down survived, and Meath’s comeback was too little, too late.
“When we got it down to six, five, four, three, we all thought that we had a serious chance,” said Flynn.
“A score of 1-14 in those days would probably have won a lot of All-Irelands for you; but to be honest if we had won that game, it would have been daylight robbery, because Down played the better football.
“If we had scored a last-minute goal, it would have been incredible, but it would have been an injustice.”
“Colm O’Rourke coming on definitely gave them a lift,” said Collins.
“But we got a couple of important scores in the second half. Big Eamonn Burns, God rest him, had the game of his life, and scored a great point with the outside of his boot.
“Gary Mason got one as well, Mickey (Linden) chipped in with one as well, and we were able to get over the line.”
Now 32 years on, Down and Meath will meet again to contest a final in Croke Park. Yes, it’s not the final that either side would have been hoping for, but it remains a big occasion – and an intriguing game, nonetheless.
The two sides long for days like that final in 1991, and with both counties in ‘rebuild mode’ under first-year managers Conor Laverty and Colm O’Rourke, Saturday presents a chance to win silverware, and get back to the All-Ireland series, so that they can begin dreaming again.
Both Flynn and Collins, as expected, are giving their respective counties the nod this weekend. But in fairness, it’s a close one to call.
“Both teams are evenly matched,” said Flynn.
“If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I would have said Down, but as it gets closer, I think that we have a really good chance.
“The prize on offer is monumental, and both counties are trying to rebuild and there is no better way to get to where they want to go, than doing it this way. With that said, the loser of this game has a huge challenge to pick themselves up from, because they’ll be back to square one. Meath’s confidence will be high, and I think that we have a great chance.
“I was 19 when Meath won the Centenary Cup in 1984, having been in the doldrums for 20 years. This to me, is very similar. If we can win this and get all the new blood in, and try and rebuild, it can give us a real lift.”
“Regardless of it being ‘B Level’ or anything like that, there is an ultimate prize here, which is entry into next year’s All-Ireland series,” added Collins.
“It’s nice to win a bit of silverware, but for me, getting that qualification is the ultimate prize.
“It’s going to be tight; I think a lot of it will depend on how Meath set up defensively. Down have a lot of pace, which can hurt teams, so Meath will have to counter that.
“One thing which has really pleased me about Down this year is the emergence of leaders. Odhran Murdock, Danny Magill – who must have got his pace from his mother, because his father was a carthorse in front of me back in the day – Liam Kerr, Pierce Laverty, Daniel Guinness from my own club.
“The team are progressing, and I’m quite hopeful. If we turn up and play with the same desire and clinical ruthlessness that we have shown, I’d be hopeful that we’ll be having a celebratory pint afterwards.”