I GREW up in a small townland called Fyanstown a couple of miles outside Kells on the way to Slane. We had a GAA club but it was a constant struggle to try to get funding to buy a half-decent pitch and even to field a team, given the handful of families that made up the club.
One year, desperate for funds and taking advantage of the showband connections of one of the locals, a big country music extravaganza was held in Fyanstown. It was an all-star line-up but unfortunately it pelted rain the entire day and attendance was very sparse.
Tense scenes ensued in my family’s sitting room after the event as the cream of Irish country music – Two’s Company, Ray Lynam, TR Dallas in his white suit and Stetson and many more – gathered demanding their cash. Our country music Woodstock was a bust unfortunately, there was no money to give and TR and the lads eventually stormed out, cursing the very name of Fyanstown.
Not long after the club folded. Our fate was sealed and a group of football-mad eight and nine-year-olds would go in to kick ball with the townies in Kells and would wear the red, white and green of Gaeil Colmcille.
Over the next decade with a healthy representation of Fyanstown kids, underage success flowed for Kells with a succession of cups paraded around the town in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Our school in Kells brought together lads from the surrounding parishes so our teams were augmented by the likes of Ollie Murphy from Carnaross and Raymond Cunningham from Kilmainhamwood, who would go on to win an Ulster title with Cavan in 1997.
From an early age, Ollie was so obviously just a force of nature on any sporting field. I remember him playing soccer for the first time with us in Kells. He had never played before but within 20 minutes he was sauntering forward from left-back and banging in goals.
In 1991 at the age of 17, I was sub-goalie on the Kells senior team that won their first Senior Championship in 25 years. Unfortunately, they haven’t won it since, although they were cruelly denied in 2020 by an injury-time sucker-punch goal in the final. Our trainer was the legendary Cavan man PJ Carroll, ably assisted by Kells stalwart Benny Reddy who played half-forward and had trained our underage teams all the way up. PJ had managed Cavan and had great success in charge of Leitrim. He was as old school as it comes as a trainer, screaming at you, pushing you beyond the bounds of endurance and stretching your concept of the pain you could take in pursuit of a common goal.
I never played even a minute in that championship, but the training made me into a player. I remember one freezing cold wet night at the town end of the half waterlogged pitch in Kells. The drill was to get the ball from PJ Carroll and take on the two defenders and try and get a score. Unfortunately the two defenders were Benny Reddy and Terry Ferguson and they would repeatedly hammer you back, dispossess you and then scream at you to grab the next ball and try again. It was torture and it broke you down but it drove you forward as a young player.
Terry was a great hero, two All-Ireland medals in his pocket, a proud son of one of Ireland’s great sporting families. In the Leinster Club first round that year, he gave the greatest exhibition I ever saw of defensive play, marking the Baltinglass and Wicklow legend, Kevin O’Brien. O’Brien never got a kick until he got a pure lucky breaking ball in injury time to kick the winning point. A cruel end to a historic year for Kells.
And so, when 1992 came around, I had done enough on various teams to be called in for trials and to eventually make the Meath minor panel. It is hard to explain what the green jersey meant to us young fellas at that time.
In 1986 when I was 11, a big gang of youngsters came up from Kells to Croke Park for the first time in an old hired bus. Rain was sheeting down and skin and hair flying as Meath finally overcame the Dubs to win their first Leinster title since 1970 when the great Kells man Joe Murphy was a marauding full-forward. The great adventure had begun.
Coming through Phibsborough on the way home, we got a bottle through the window of the bus from a disgruntled Dub who didn’t appreciate a bunch of kids offering our gestures of condolence. Well and truly baptised we were that day – We are Meath. Everybody hates us and we don’t care.
Through the All-Irelands of ‘87 and ‘88, the near miss of ‘90 and the amazing adventure of 1991, one wonders if those men who wore the green of Meath appreciated the impact they had on young people in the county at that time. It goes beyond just sporting achievement, beyond a group of talented players coming together and achieving success.
What we learned from those men – from Lyons, McEntee, O’ Rourke and above all Sean Boylan was raw pride and a belief in a way of playing sport that would come to define the county – Play hard. Whatever it takes to win. Keep fighting and if you’re beat in the end, never whinge and whine. Shake hands, say the better team won, and store up every ounce of collective bitterness you feel and hit the bastards with it the next time you play.
Meath were not fancied to do much in minor in 1992. We had Brendan Murphy in goals who would go on to play soccer for Wimbledon in England. Our star player was Peter O’ Sullivan who was just a phenomenal footballer. Trevor Giles was just starting to move towards the greatness he would later achieve. I think it was during that campaign that he first moved from half-back to the centre-forward position that he would revolutionize over the next decade.
Ollie Murphy was only 15 or 16 but he was brought on the panel for the experience as it was clear he was going to be shooting out whatever lights you wanted to turn on just as soon as he filled out a bit. We won a couple of early rounds in Leinster, struggling over a highly-fancied Wexford team after a draw and extra time in the replay. I played ok at times at half forward; pulled up no trees. I just about kept my place for the Leinster final against Westmeath, who were very well regarded and were favourites to win. I played corner-forward for most of the game. I think I touched the ball once but we edged home. Leinster champions.
The only problem was that the draw against Wexford had thrown the schedule back a week and the Leinster final was on the Sunday evening of Feile 92, the fabled Trip to Tipp. I had been at Feile 91 with all my friends and had the kind of universe-altering weekend that only 16-year-olds away on the tear can have.
On the Friday, after eight cans of Carlsberg Special Brew, I managed to decorate my t-shirt with a torrent of vomit, leaving only enough to destroy the tent of a lovely bunch of girls from Waterford. From that inauspicious start we had the weekend of our lives with Billy Bragg, Transvision Vamp and That Petrol Emotion and all sorts of shenanigans. Suffice to say that we left Feile 91 with a sworn determination to return for a post-Leaving Cert Feile 92 at any cost.
Thus it was that in a jubilant Meath minor dressing room in Portlaoise with Philip Duff in the shower belting out ‘O Beautiful Meath’ – a song made famous by his auntie Mary Duff, I slipped out and managed to persuade my poor mother to drive me and Ollie Murphy (Ollie was always up for any craic) towards Thurles and the last hour or two of the Feile weekend.
After about 20 miles, we flagged down a bus which was on its way to pick up revellers and a couple of hours later there we were on the debauched, drink-sodden streets of Thurles. Ollie headed off on his adventures with a naggin of vodka and I managed to sneak in to the stadium for the last two acts – I think I saw Bryan Adams and a bit of Christy Moore.
Miraculously, I found my friends but it wasn’t the same. It was a weird feeling – all your mates high on the euphoria of a weekend of music and laughs congratulating you on being a Leinster champion, and me feeling a bit of a fraud as I hadn’t really contributed on that field and had got too late to this one to be a part of the experience here either.
Meanwhile, back at the GAA ranch, missing the Leinster final celebrations for the delights of Feile did not, to put it mildly, go down well with the lads in charge of the minor team. Ironically, our trainer was called Christy Moore, a great army man and a serious motivator. I was inevitably dropped for the semi-final against Cork but I would have been dropped anyway.
Ironically the semi-final against Cork witnessed the only time when the Meath minor team really clicked and played brilliant football. We absolutely destroyed Cork and the game was over by half time. An unused sub, I remember sitting out at half time on the pitch marvelling at the crowds from Clare. They had caused a massive shock, winning the Munster football title that year and were playing the Dubs in the semi after our game. I had never seen anything like the colour and the noise and this was only half time in the minor match.
So there we were, an unheralded team still standing against all odds into an All-Ireland Minor final. Our opponents were a once in a generation team from Armagh that even in those pre-internet, pre-social media days had a serious reputation with players that were certainties for future senior stardom: Paul McGrane, Diarmuid Marsden, Des Mackin, Barry O’Hagan and others. They were expected to crush us. The final was a dog of a game – very low scoring. Armagh were in control despite a slightly lucky goal by Trevor Giles. Of course, in the midst of the stress and the emotion of such a big game, you start getting seriously agitated on the sideline hoping for a chance to maybe get on.
We were two points down and the game was slipping into injury time when I finally got the slip of paper and ran out – Number 20 – last throw of the dice. By that stage I didn’t know which way was up – charging around with what felt like pneumatic pistons going 90 in my head.
I remember Peter O’Sullivan going through and taking a shot for goal when I felt I was free inside. To my shame, I roared dogs’ abuse at him, screaming all sorts of slurs.
I ran out to midfield and managed to get my hands on a break. Got dragged back. Free in around the 45. Charged in towards goal to see if I might get on the end of something. Turned around. The free had been taken quickly and was already on its way – slightly mis-hit.
The Armagh lad marking me had the jump on me, but at the last second he lost his footing and suddenly I had the ball on my left foot at the Hill 16 goal about 10 yards out, 0-10 to 1-5 down in injury time in an All-Ireland final. I had never been a very prolific scorer – my talents were always more in the donkey work, passing sector of the GAA economy – but at that moment the goals opened up and time slowed down and it honestly seemed harder to miss – just an indescribable feeling of certainty which you experience maybe a couple of times in a lifetime of games.
The ball hit the net and we were a point up. Armagh came again but when their final 45 dropped short, we were All-Ireland Minor champions.
I had never been a hero on any team I played so it was all a bit surreal as I think you are contractually obliged to say in such circumstances.
We had a great few weeks – it was such fun visiting schools and seeing the gleam in kids’ eyes as they stared like Smaug the Dragon at the big cup, just as we had stared years ago at David Beggy and the lads up on a trailer near Bective Square in Kells with the impossibly huge Sam Maguire.
After a while, it died down and you realised you were still the exact same introverted, messed-up kid that you were before anyone had heard of you. Life goes on.
A couple of years later after I stopped playing for the UCG college team, the legendary Tony ‘Horse’ Regan used to roar at me whenever he saw me “Farrelly – nobody gives a shite what you win at underage”. As usual ‘Horse’ was right, but still, looking back 30 years and 5,000 miles away from Fyanstown, it is still a source of pride to have been a tiny footnote in Meath GAA.
Recent years have not been kind to us but like all fans of the green jersey around the world, I hope and believe that Meath will rise again and a new generation of heroes will inspire the kids the way that Ferguson, O’Connell, Gillick, Stafford, Flynn and the other lads inspired us. Come on the Royal!