PETE McGrath: “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.”
There were a number of famous quotes that emerged from Down’s 1991 All-Ireland triumph.
After their horrible, first round Ulster win over Armagh it was a supporter saying “the pick of those two teams wouldn’t win an All-Ireland” but just a few months later McGrath was delivering his own gem to Down fans as the Mourne county collected Sam Maguire for the fourth time – the first Ulster county to do so since the red and black scaled the Hogan Steps in 1968.
So how did they beat the team that couldn’t be beaten? The side with their name seemingly on the cup after coming through an epic four-game saga with Dublin in the Leinster Championship.
Here are the key moments that helped Down to a 1-16 to 1-14 win in front of 64,500 fans.
AN EARLY GOAL CHANCE
Down famously raced into a sizeable lead in the game, but their start was more than nervy.
The late Eamonn Burns gave away an early free for a tackle on Bernard Flynn and Brian Stafford put the Royals ahead.
Neil Collins overshot his kick-out giving Gerry McEntee an easy catch. He passed to Liam Hayes who played a middling ball towards Flynn. It should have been cut out, but wasn’t. Flynn side-stepped Brendan McKernan gracefully and kicked over with his left.
James McCartan won a free in the next play, but Ross Carr didn’t get a good connection and Meath easily cleared the danger. Gary Mason’s decision to go for a point from the resulting sideline was also an indication of the team’s nervousness early on. With a swirling breeze, it was always a low percentage shot.
Mason did get them off the mark with an easy free after great work from McCartan but it could have been a lot worse.
Barry Breen gave away a free around the middle – a harsh decision, it must be said – but when the ball was floated in Conor Deegan made a great defensive catch and the ball made its way to back to the goalkeeper. Collins again coughed up possession though and kicked the ball straight to Hayes. The Meath player’s miss-hit shot landed into the hands of the unmarked David Beggy on the edge of the square.
His first touch, however, was heavy – and the split-second he needed to control the ball allowed Collins and Deegan to surround him, blocking the route to goal. Beggy recycled the ball to Stafford who kicked an uncharacteristic wide. Down should have been four points down, instead they were just one behind.
SECOND QUARTER DOMINANCE
In the 19th minute, 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 of the 1991 All-Ireland final.
From Hayes’s score, Collins delivered a monster restart that Eamonn Burns collected before being fouled by Hayes 47 metres from goal. Carr, who had looked nervy early on, took little time over the kick before beautifully sending it between the posts.
Down were starting to get a foothold around midfield and after Gary Mason scrapped well for a loose ball, Paddy O’Rourke and Greg Blaney combined well to send Eamonn Burns away for one of the best scores of the day. The Ulster champions were in front for the first time.
Meath dropped one short and hit the post before Peter Withnell burrowed through to set up James McCartan for a score in the 24th minute.
The Royals were again wasteful at the other end and they were punished as Carr landed an easy free after a foul on Blaney.
A scoreless period followed before then 26-year-old Carr rounded off the first-half scoring with another simple free. Down may have looked nervous early on, but their efficiency gave them a 0-8 to 0-4 interval lead.
THIRD QUARTER FLEX
Sean Boylan’s side were big favourites going into the game, and when the brilliant Flynn found an inch of space to slot over on the resumption it looked like the comeback was on.
Then came the Down power-play that would ultimately secure the county’s fourth All-Ireland title.
James McCartan, like Flynn, only needed an inch of space to curl over with his left in the 39th minute and the same player bravely won a ball three minutes later to set up Carr for another score.
McCartan was on fire at this stage and after good foraging in the middle by O’Rourke and Blayney, ‘Wee James’ ran straight at the Meath defence and fed Mickey Linden.
The Mayobridge maestro hadn’t scored at this stage, but a neat side-step gave him the required time to kick over – another left-footed point for Down.
Leading 0-11 to 0-5, Down were in dreamland, and things would only get better for Pete McGrath’s side.
Once again it was O’Rourke who got his hands on the ball in the middle and the ball eventually found James McCartan who showed more evasive footwork to get the ball to his cousin Greg Blaney. He passed to Mickey Linden who fist-passed across goal for the unmarked Barry Breen to palm home.
When Ross Carr landed another free to leave it 1-12 to 0-5 with just 23 minutes remaining, it appeared game over.
BURNS, MASON AND COLLINS PREVENT A COLLAPSE
1991 will always be remembered as the day Down ruled Croke Park, but it very nearly could have been one of the biggest collapses in an All-Ireland final.
They led by 11 points as the game moved into its 50th minute, 1-14 to 0-6, but were outscored from there on 1-8 to 0-2.
It was that 0-2 from Down that just about disrupted the comeback enough and kept the daylight between the sides at full time.
Before that though, after Meath had reduced the deficit to nine points, Neil Collins came up with a massive save for Down.
Colm O’Rourke, not long on the field, showed great footwork to give Flynn a clear sight of goal, and while his effort was central, Collins still made himself big to block the effort. Colm O’Rourke blazed wide when the goal was on seconds later.
With 15 minutes remaining, Meath were utterly dominant and Bernard Flynn brought the gap back to seven points.
From the resulting kick-out, substitute Liam Austin broke the ball down to Eamonn Burns and he played a one-two with Blayney before kicking a beautiful swerving effort over from distance.
Meath responded with a goal through Liam Hayes after great work from Tommy Dowd, and when Mickey Linden missed a glorious goal chance in the next attack, the doubts surely would have been creeping into Down fans’ minds.
Gary Mason, again another left-footed point, took some of the heat off and although that would be Down’s last score with Meath raising four more white flags, it was enough to secure victory. Down were All-Ireland champions for a fourth time.