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Flashback: 1990 All-Ireland SFC Final - Cork v Meath

By John Harrington

On this day 30 years ago, Cork completed a historic double when they won the All-Ireland Football Final two weeks after winning the All-Ireland Hurling Final.

The fact that they defeated their arch-rivals Meath in the Football Final made the achievement all the more special.

Because as far as everyone in the Cork football camp was concerned, this day had been a long time coming.

They’d lost to Meath in the 1987 and 1988 (after a replay) All-Ireland Finals, and more salt was applied to still raw wounds when they were defeated by the Royals in a bad-tempered 1990 League semi-final.

After that match Cork manager Billy Morgan fell to his knees in the dressing-room, raised his hands in supplication, and prayed that Meath would make it through to the All-Ireland Final because he was convinced his own team would be there.

By then the rivalry between the two counties was much more than a tribal thing, it had captured the entire nation’s imagination.

As child growing up in Tipperary I even had figurines of gaelic footballers in red and green jersies who more often than not were pitted against one another in mortal combat rather than sport.

That was pretty much child’s play imitating life. One of the reasons the Meath-Cork rivalry was such a national story was because when they butted heads it was as much a physical contest as a sporting one.

“Meath and Cork became the two most dominant teams then in that era and the games then were playing ferociously, with an air of discontent in some ways,” admits Cork captain in 1990, Larry Tompkins.

“Both sets of players, there was a lot of aggro - players didn't get on.

“There was a lot of tension in those games. That kind of spilled from one game to the next and the more we met them it got worse.”

The Meath team of that ere were especially renowned for their take no prisoners approach to the game.

They had no shortage of fine footballers too, but their ruthless physicality was something they also took pride in.

"'In training we just hammered each other to death," said former Meath midfielder, Liam Hayes, in Adrian Russell’s excellent book, ‘The Double: How Cork Made GAA History’.

"I always say, we had two psychopaths on our team. Most teams are lucky if they had one. And we had two. I never name them because I don't want to libel them, but we had two fully fledged psychopaths and Seán knew that too. If you've got two psychopaths, there's an upside and a downside to that. They do damage to the other team and they'll do things that you can never prepare for. They could do anything at any stage. The downside is they could do something and get caught and get sent off."

Cork manager Billy Morgan, centre, celebrates at the final whistle of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final match between Cork and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. 
Cork manager Billy Morgan, centre, celebrates at the final whistle of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final match between Cork and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. 

After losing to Meath in the ’87 All-Ireland Final, Billy Morgan believed the only way that Cork could turn the tables in the ’88 Final would be if they met Meath’s physical approach head on.

In his book, ‘Rebel Rebel’, Cork coach Billy Morgan recalled how his players were under orders to fight fire with fire.

“If there’s a row the whole team should pile in, not necessarily throwing digs but backing each other up,” said Morgan. “But throw digs if you have to.”

Cork were the better team in the drawn Final in ’88, but Meath dug deep and hit a late equaliser to bring the game to a replay.

It was a bruising encounter, and Meath were sore over some of the treatment dished out by Cork, specifically incidents involving their players Colm O’Rourke, Mick Lyons and Brian Stafford.

Dinny Allen, Barry Coffey and Niall Cahalane were accused of dirty play in incidents involving Mick Lyons, Colm O’Rourke and Brian Stafford and the Royals were keen to settle the score.

“There was a feeling among the Meath camp that Cork had muscled them out of it in the drawn game,” recalled Meath’s Bernard Flynn.

"They were determined to rectify matters in the replay.”

Meath won the replay by two points and very much set the agenda in the physicality stakes, much to the chagrin of Billy Morgan.

He had ordered his players to avoid off-the-ball exchanges and instead focus on playing the ball in the replay, and realised too late he’d made a terrible error.

“It was the biggest mistake of my footballing life," said Morgan.

“Meath roughed us up afterwards and the boys didn’t respond in kind because of my instructions. It was like giving them guns without ammunition.”

Cork captain Larry Tompkins leads Cork out before the 1990 All-Ireland SFC Final against Meath. 
Cork captain Larry Tompkins leads Cork out before the 1990 All-Ireland SFC Final against Meath. 

By the time the 1990 All-Ireland Final came around, familiarity had bred a deep contempt between the two teams.

Even when they both travelled to the same destination at the same time on team holidays, they went out of their way to avoid one another.

Larry Tompkins, a Kildare native, was one of the few Cork players who would even consider fraternising with the enemy.

“I would have known a lot of those Meath fellas playing in Kildare,” Tompkins told GAA.ie. “I would have grown up playing against Meath, in a Leinster minor final in 1980, playing against the likes of Liam Hayes, McEntee and all these fellas.

“I would have known all these guys coming through playing them numerous times with Kildare at National League level. Then I played Railway Cup with Leinster for nearly five years and I played with Colm (O'Rourke), Mick Lyons, Martin O'Connell - I'd have played with every one of those Meath players so I knew them inside out.

“We used to go on holidays and at that time you weren't going on holidays to New Zealand or Australia, you were going to the Canaries - that's as far as we got. And both teams happened to end up there together and no talking.

“You'd be staying in the same holiday resort area and you'd be in the same hotels. You'd be coming down the elevator and there could be Colm Coyle, PJ Gillick or Colm O'Rourke (in there) with Cork fellas and no-one talking to each other! It was just incredible. But I suppose that was the tension that was there at the matches.

“I think Liam Hayes wrote a book and mentioned that they were coming and going and the only fella that was talking to them was myself. I just knew them and they were fine fellas. Look, they'd beaten us in 87 and 88 after a replay, and I suppose there was a lot of aggro on and off the field.

“There was a lot of words spoken and different things. We played them in a National League semi-final and there was a lot of aggro at that match.

“Every time we played them there was tension so that built into when the Cork fellas met them then, there was no give. So, there was no talk really, but I talked to them alright!”

Conor Counihan of Cork in action against Bernard Flynn of Meath during the 1990 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final between Cork and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. 
Conor Counihan of Cork in action against Bernard Flynn of Meath during the 1990 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final between Cork and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. 

Meath were caught on the hop by Dublin in Leinster in 1989 so Cork didn’t get to play their great rivals on the way to winning the All-Ireland title that year.

The fact that some people felt this devalued Cork’s All-Ireland win was used as a source of motivation by Billy Morgan ahead of the 1990 campaign.

“I think after the ’89 final, there was a few comments,” said Morgan.

“Mick O’Dwyer might have said that it was a Mickey Mouse Final. Liam Hayes and I think Colm O’Rourke made comments like it was a soft All-Ireland.

“So we went into ’90, we were delighted we’d won the All-Ireland, but we hadn’t beaten Meath.”

They finally got the chance to gain the vengeance they so desperately wanted when the two heavyweights squared up to one another in that 1990 All-Ireland Final.

Cork had to do it the hard way after Colm O’Neill was given his marching orders in the first half for boxing his marker Mick Lyons in the jaw.

But even though they played most of the match with a man less, Cork simply refused to be beaten again by their great enemies and they ground out a hard-won victory after another ferociously physical contest.

"Funny enough - and I mean this - but in 1990 if Meath had beaten us I was going to go into Seán Boylan and the lads in the Meath dressingroom and just say to them, 'Lads, why don't the whole lot of us go for a drink?'”, Billy Morgan revealed in an interview with the Irish Times in 2007.

“I would have said to Seán, 'Let's all go.' We won though and it might have seemed like triumphalism. So I didn't do it."

Unfortunately it took the premature death of Cork goalkeeper John Kerins in 2001 to finally take the heat out of rivalry between both sets of players.

“There was a bit of bad blood between the teams,” said Meath wing-back Martin O’Connell in the book, 'The Boylan Years'. “The thing that changed it all was John Kerins’s death. Gerry McEntee was actually treating John for his illness. Then he rang me when John died to say that a few of the lads were organising to go down to the funeral.

“There were eight or 10 of us that went. A lot went down on the plane on the Thursday night for the removal and myself and Mickey McQuillan drove down together on the Friday morning.

“Gerry McEntee was down, Liam Hayes, Bob O’Malley, I think Bernard Flynn as well, Joe Cassells and Colm O’Rourke. Unfortunately it took a death to break the ice between Meath and Cork. That puts it all in perspective.”

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