Flashback: 1991 Munster SHC Final replay - Tipperary v Cork
By Cian O’Connell
It remains one of the great Irish sporting comebacks – that burst of blue and gold brilliance which led to goals, celebrations, and pitch invasions on an unforgettable Semple Stadium afternoon.
Few games will replicate the drama and excitement. Cork led by nine points in the second period, but Tipperary responded with a memorable flurry of scores.
Nearly three decades later Colm Bonnar recalls and acknowledges the importance of the victory for Tipperary.
The Munster Championship famine was ended in 1987 and Tipp’s flag was back on the summit of the southern game with an All Ireland collected in 1989 too.
Still 1990 brought one of those daring campaigns which the Cork hurlers and Down footballers patented: the unexpected and thrilling almost overnight success.
“We looked in desperate, desperate bother,” Colm Bonnar recalls. “We were hell bent on trying to reverse the 1990 result. We had been All Ireland champions in 1989, it took us a long road to get there. Then Cork overturned us in the 1990 Munster Final when we went in as red hot favourites.
“The way Championship went then that was it. We lost Munster Finals so we had to wait until the following year. We had started slowly, but built up to Cork in the Munster Final.
“Obviously the replay in Thurles was just huge satisfaction for that team. It put us on the road for a second All Ireland. For that team not to have done that it would have been a disaster for us. If we had lost that God knows what would have happened?”
For most of the 1980s Cork set the standard in Munster. The red and white outfit were the team to beat. Tipp were amongst the many sufferers, but something changed in 1987.
Underage titles had been secured, belief was entering Tipperary again. There was always tradition, but the Killarney triumph was precisely the injection of momentum required.
Suddenly the dynamic changed in Tipperary, but valuable lessons were learned when Cork came thundering back in 1990 with a mixture of emerging and established performers under the shrewd guidance of Canon Michael O’Brien.
“I remember in 1987, Cork were going for six in a row or something in terms of Munster titles,” Bonnar states.
“That went to a replay from Thurles down to Killarney, that was the start of getting the upper hand on Cork. Tipp had been in the doldrums for 17 years before that, on the wrong end of all of the results.
“So when '87 came along we got going, we won it better in '88, and in '89 we were definitely the dominant team.
“It looked like that Cork were on the slide down, but fair play to Father O'Brien, he brought them out of nowhere, that 1990 team.
“They built on it, they won the All Ireland and we had thought Galway were going to be our rivals over the next four or five years. Cork slipped in there to win an All Ireland Final, that is what Cork do.
“Sometimes they can be down, but they have that tradition where they can just come from nowhere. They just have so many hurlers down there, it is about getting the balance.”
The drawn Munster decider in 1991 went the distance and Thurles was packed for the eagerly anticipated replay. Everything was on the line, but Cork were setting the tone and agenda.
So '91 was huge, we were All Ireland champions in '89, they were champions in '90, the two of us meeting in '91 it couldn't have been bigger in terms of what lay ahead - Cork looked to have the game wrapped up,” Bonnar reflects.
Tipp were in bother all over the field: firefighting exercises were being implemented. “I was put on Tony Sullivan to mark him,” Bonnar states. “I was told no matter where he goes to stay with him and not to mind where the ball is.
“I remember John Fitzgibbon getting a ball, he was going in the opposite direction and Tony was moving, so I stayed with Tony. I didn't bother with John Fitzgibbon. The next thing Tony Sullivan sidestepped John Fitzgibbon, (Paul) Delaney, who had been running in the opposite direction. The next thing Delaney and myself met head on, straight down on the 21, the two of us collapsed.
“John Fitzgibbon looked behind us and tapped it over the bar. That looked like things were really going bad for Tipp. This was maybe a point to put them eight or nine up.”
Something stirred in Tipperary, though, and a forward line dripping with intent began to get some joy. Aidan Ryan was in doing what he did best: making an impact. Michael Cleary and Pat Fox were in wizard mode too.
“It looked desperate on our behalf surely, but Aidan Ryan scored one of the best goals I've seen in terms of blocking someone down, following it up, kicking it on, and sticking it in the back of the net,” Bonnar remarks.
“Obviously Pat Fox too. It was a huge game for us. It put us back into the All Ireland series which is what we wanted. We never got much credit for beating Antrim, who had been a good team.
“We were hell bent on getting back to Croke Park. The only way we could do that was by beating Cork. It was a helluva of a game. What a comeback. Huge scores.”
With questions being posed about their resolve Babs Keating’s charges simply found a way to win. Two months later another All Ireland was added to the collection. Reclaiming the Liam MacCarthy Cup was the ultimate motivation according to Bonnar.
“It was desperate stakes,” Bonnar replies. “It looked like Cork had all of the answers, they had built on 1990, the surprise win. They would have loved to say that the famine is back, to have kept Tipp down.
“That team really was too good to be dominated for too long, but we did it the hard way. I even remember someone in a wheelchair being pushed on, it was incredible scenes with the crowd on the sideline. What a way to come back to win a game.
“It was huge for that Tipperary team because there was so much at stake, especially with what happened the year before and the expectations.
“We had been on the wrong end of the results against Galway in '87 and in '88 in the All Ireland final. When we finally got there we thought we could stay there for a couple of years, but Cork put us in our box in 1990 and nearly did it again in '91. Great years.
At that time teams were winning from everywhere. Cork slipped in for a few All Irelands, Offaly slipped in for a few, Tipp slipped in, Clare slipped in. Over those 10 or 12 years a lot of counties did. There was no real dominant team out there. Galway slipped in for two.
“It was very even, it didn't take much for a team to get on top, but nobody dominated to the extent that they were winning four or five All Irelands over that time from when I started in 85 to when I finished in 98.
“Everybody more or less finished up with two All Irelands over those years, maybe six counties won two All Irelands each in that period.”
It was a time when hope existed throughout the country. Offaly, Clare, and Wexford would later collect national titles to much fanfare.
Tipperary, though, relished that 1989-1991 era and that three Bonnar brothers from Cashel King Cormacs were involved was pleasant for the highly regarded hurling family.
All were deeply respected figures. Colm Bonnar continues to make a mark as a serious coach, Conal delivered for Tipperary, and the Viking Cormac remains a cherished figure in the county.
“Cormac was only brought in late in 88,” Colm Bonnar remembers. “Against Cork in the 88 Munster Final he came on to score a goal, it turned the game in our favour. We won that game in 88.
“When he got that line going with Cormac, Nicky (English), and (Pat) Fox it became a lethal full forward line. Over two or three years they were the best line that we had. We depended on them to finish a lot of the scores.
“Conal was younger, he is 10 years younger than Cormac. To see the two of them playing together was always special. There was always a chance I'd be playing with Cormac being five years younger, and there is five years between Conal and myself.
“There was always a chance I'd play with either of them, but for the three of us it was just unbelievable. Conal was a sub I think for the All Ireland in 88, after that in 89 he made wing back his own. Conal established himself in 89, Cormac only established himself in 89 as well.”
How the Viking led the charge at full-forward, creating and causing mayhem, is still fondly debated around Tipperary.
“Cormac was about 31 when he got his first full Championship game for Tipperary,” his proud younger brother adds.
“He had power and pace. When he got the ball in his hand there was only one way he was going. He wasn't sidestepping anyone. He was going straight through them. He had huge power.
“Tipperary loved that style, an attacking full forward driving at defenders. He had that finesse to leave off the final pass to English and Fox.
“For him the three years he played ‘89, ‘90, and ‘91 he won two All Irelands, three Munsters, and two All Stars. That was in a three year period, you couldn't write a better end script for himself in terms of how it went for him.
“Obviously Conal started off very well, they won an All Ireland Under 21 in ‘89, the same year as we won the senior. Things looked very rosy for them, it looked like they would be around for a while.
“After ‘91, I know we won the Munster Final in ‘93, but they were great times ‘89 and ‘91. For that particular team they were the years we won something, but we didn't really grow on it.
“That win in ‘91 was the stepping stone to get back into Croke Park because we desperately needed another All Ireland Final to put with the one we got against Antrim in '89.”
A sizzling afternoon at the end of July in 1991 kept them on course. The All Ireland mission was subsequently accomplished at GAA headquarters.