Down – the trailblazers of ’91

PLAY IT AGAIN SAM...Paddy O'Rourke lifts the Sam Maguire in 1991

PLAY IT AGAIN SAM…Paddy O’Rourke lifts the Sam Maguire in 1991

BERNARD Flynn still gets the uneasy feeling in his stomach when he crosses the border into Newry. His mind immediately flashes back to the full-time whistle on All-Ireland final day, September 15, 1991. Down 1-16 Meath 1-14.

That was their All-Ireland, it had to be given what had happened that season, but exactly 25 years ago today, Meath met a special group of players that would not only blaze a trail for Down football, but also for Ulster football – and the Royal county were the unwilling victims in that particular success story.

“It’s hard to put into words about the hurt and devastation and the gut-wrenching heartbreak that the Meath team felt after that game,” said Flynn.

“I’ve never seen in my life anything like that after a defeat, what it did to some of the greatest men we’ve ever had.

“It absolutely destroyed them and some never recovered. Some still haven’t recovered.

“I got a small bit of closure when I spoke at Pete McGrath’s ‘This Is Your Life’ back in February. I got up on the stage and I got a bit off my chest.

“Myself, David Beggy and (Colm) Coyle were going golfing the day of Pete’s night and Coyle and Beggy were ahead of me as we were crossing the border into Newry, into Down from Louth.

“I told the story that night, but I was ringing them just as we were heading into Newry and I got this sick feeling just crossing there. I was sick to the stomach thinking about the defeat and the whole thing.

“I got up that night and spoke and Gerry McEntee spoke too. He still hasn’t got over it, it was every minute of every day for Gerry but now it’s every second or third day.

“When I spoke that night and met the Down people, in what was my first time really being up there at an event like that officially, I got a little bit of closure.

“I feel different since that night. I used to be tormented for years and years and years. I wouldn’t be able to get it out of my system and I know there are lads even worse than me, but I feel better about it now.”

The fact that the Down players are not prophets in their own land makes the situation even worse for the Meath players, according to the RTE pundit.

Walking up the Hogan steps as a winner is meant to entitle a player to a lifetime of back-slapping, but Flynn just doesn’t see it from the Mourne county public when it comes to the heroes of 1991.

“You know what hurts? And I know this from speaking to the Down players.

“The Tyrone players, for what they achieved, are revered in their home county.

“The squad I played on, we can all walk around in Navan, Trim, Dunboyne, wherever it may be, and we’re respected.

“The Down team for some reason, in my opinion, they don’t get the respect that they should.

“I know it maybe galls one or two of them, and I can’t put my finger on it.

“I can see a distinct difference between how the Tyrone team are viewed by their supporters and how the Kerry teams down there are viewed compared to how the Down team are respected.

“That team was so far ahead what people realise and maybe they were taken for granted.”

Meath’s estimation of their opponents is understandably incredibly high. After all, they ended the most famous ‘route to the final’ of all time.

The Royal county were pitted against Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final and in the GAA’s most famous saga, it took four games, 320 minutes and two late goals in the fourth match to secure their place in the last four.

The replays ensured the first ever million-pound gate for a fixture in the Association’s history and Meath weren’t finished yet as they drew with Wicklow eight days later. They won the replay by three points, helped by the fact that the Garden county had Hugh Kenny sent off after just nine minutes.

Comfortable wins over Offaly and Laois in the provincial semi-final and final was a break from the norm, but order was restored in the All-Ireland semi-final against Roscommon.

The Connacht side led 1-10 to 0-8 after 50 minutes, but with Brian Stafford in sensational form, the team that wouldn’t be beaten sealed a 0-15 to 1-11 win.

Game 10 was the final against Down and Meath were red-hot favourites. No matter what was thrown at them, they seemed to have the answers – that was until it mattered most.

With James McCartan in stunning form, Down raced into an 11-point lead by the 49th minute. Meath’s fighting spirit kicked into gear and they whittled the margin back to two points, but as McCartan said at the time “time just beat them in the end.”

Flynn doesn’t believe that Sean Boylan’s team felt that their inscription was already engraved onto the Sam Maguire Cup.

“We did everything to put the four Dublin games behind us,” he said.

“We were raging-hot favourites going into the match, but we did not underestimate that Down team.

“Other people did, but we didn’t and we knew what was ahead of us, especially in regards to their forward line.

“Liam Harnan got an unbelievable belt from Greg Blaney. There were two massive hits from Greg Blaney and Peter Whitnell on Liam Harnan and Martin O’Connell. Liam Harnan doesn’t remember any of the second half.

“The Down team was so strong and physical. We had played them in the league earlier in the year and I got a shock that day.

“The Down team that walked onto the field that day, the legs, thighs, arms and chests on them.

“We were a big team but they could match us physically whereas Dublin probably couldn’t.

“The final went tit-for-tat for a while then Down got a bit ahead.

“Our tackling was poor, we lunged in, we committed fouls that we normally wouldn’t have committed.

“Ross Carr was keeping the scoreboard ticking over and then Mick Lyons picked up a very serious injury before half-time.

“Mick shouldn’t have come out for the second half and for the goal out at the Cusack Stand at the Canal End, he was on one leg.

“Mick being Mick, he tried everything but he couldn’t walk and he got caught badly for the goal and it killed us. They were 11 ahead and we got it back to two.

“If there had been five minutes left we probably could and have would have won it, but a game only lasts 70 minutes.”

Fortune didn’t favour Meath in the lead up to the game. The loss of specialist man-marker Bobby O’Malley to injury and Colm O’Rourke to a chest infection would leave them significantly weakened.

“There were some big things going into the game that Down people didn’t realise,” Flynn continued.

“Bobby O’Malley was out injured at corner back, which was a massive, massive blow for us. We had him to mark James McCartan.

“Finding out who was going to fill that role was a big thing for us as a squad. As the match came close, Brendan Reilly was picked at corner-back.

“He had never played corner-back in his life before that and has never played corner-back since.

“James McCartan got a run on Brendan and he had a huge game and had a massive influence on proceedings.

“Kevin Foley probably should have started on him, but when we switched him onto McCartan it was difficult as he already had his gander up.

“McCartan had started well, his confidence was up so he was going to cause havoc. It’s hard to pull that back from that type of player.

“The bigger one was that Colm O’Rourke got sick and he didn’t start. Those were two big things heading into the game.

“O’Malley missing was a big thing, but O’Rourke being out was huge. I remember being on the beach with Colm before the game and I still had a feeling that he might start, but he didn’t.

“For O’Rourke not to start a match of that magnitude, well he must have felt bad.

“He came on and the aftermath was a bit like Eamonn Fitzmaurice taking off Paul Geaney against Dublin.

“In fairness Eamonn said taking off Paul was probably a mistake and I admire his honesty. Not starting Colm O’Rourke was probably a mistake for us.”

That’s not to say that Flynn has any arguments about the result. They were simply beaten by the better team to the day, and his respect for the Down teams of that era comes through in spades.

“That ’91-’94 team, I’d put them on a par or very close to Tyrone’s feat of three All-Irelands,” he said.

“That Tyrone team was the greatest team I’ve ever seen, apart maybe from this current Dublin team.

“Every time we’ve met the Down team the respect they’ve had for us has been extraordinary.

“I have great friends there, the likes of Ross (Carr) and DJ (Kane), Neil Collins and Mickey Magill, Gregory McCartan.

“You always have great chats with those lads and you’d meet them up and down regularly.

“The way they respected us during that match, the day after and even to this day, I just think they’re an incredible bunch. Just great people.

“It got Down back on the map and people have to realise what unbelievable footballers Down had.

“You go through of the likes of Conor Deegan at full-back, Paul Higgins, an unsung hero.

“DJ Kane and Paddy O’Rourke and fellas like that, John Kelly, Eamonn Burns and Barry Breen.

“But that forward line….Ross Carr, Gary Mason, Mickey Linden, Whitnell, James McCartan, absolutely brilliant.

“Greg Blaney was one of the best centre-forwards to play the game.

“I was at a talk night there in Killyman recently and I rated Brian McGuigan as the best centre-forward I’ve ever seen and it was an honour and a privilege to be sitting beside Brian that night, such a lovely and unassuming man.

“Greg Blayney is as unassuming and such a gentleman too.

“I would put those two as the best two centre-forwards to ever play the game.

“You can talk about Tony Hanahoe, you can talk about Ogie Moran, Declan O’Sullivan, but McGuigan and Blaney were the two best centre-forwards I’ve ever seen.

“Blaney was a menace. He was powerful, his use of the ball was superb and we didn’t handle him that day. He was a key man in an unreal team.”

This Sunday the Down team will be honoured at half-time of the Dublin and Mayo All-Ireland final at Croke Park. On October 1 the celebrations will continue with an event in the Canal Court, and Flynn will be amongst those who will be reminiscing.

“Neil Collins rang me and asked me to go the 25-year dinner and I was thrilled,” said Flynn.

“Gerry McEntee, Colm Coyle, David Beggy and myself are going up and we’re honoured to be asked.

“When I see the likes of Neil Collins, Gregory McCartan, DJ, the boys from ’91 and ’94, I see real characters.

“When I organise charity events, the players have no problem helping me and they’re so good with people, unlike some superstars. Ross Carr, Mickey Linden, Paddy O’Rourke, Greg Blayney they’re all so good.

“They’re absolutely brilliant ambassadors for the county and they don’t get the credit and they don’t get the respect.

“I’m very close to a good few of them and it hurts them and it actually hurts me a little bit as well.”

Those two upcoming events will put the achievement firmly back in the spotlight. It will be a reminder of the significance of that achievement. It will be a reminder that the Down 1991 team kick-started the most famous period in Ulster football history, and that should never be forgotten.

This article first appeared in the Gaelic Life on Thursday, September 15.

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW