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Royals v Rebels

Once, the enmity was real and personal but three decades on the veterans are no longer at war, open hostilities have been replaced by mutual respect and friendship, even though it took a death to finally bury the hatchet

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TAKE THAT: Conor Counihan of Cork and Meath’s Bernard Flynn get up close and personal in the 1990 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

TAKE THAT: Conor Counihan of Cork and Meath’s Bernard Flynn get up close and personal in the 1990 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

TAKE THAT: Conor Counihan of Cork and Meath’s Bernard Flynn get up close and personal in the 1990 All-Ireland SFC final. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

The long-demolished dressing-rooms in the old Croke Park paid covert witness to many weird and wonderful events. The sight of Billy Morgan, on bended knee, praying that Meath would reach the 1990 All-Ireland football final is possibly one of the stranger ones.

It was April 15, 1990 - almost 30 years ago to the day - and Morgan's beloved Cork had just succumbed to their Royal oppressor. Again.

This time it was 'only' a National League semi-final. Unlike in 1987 and '88, Sam Maguire was not on the line.

But, as Larry Tompkins recalls, it was "a real battle. A lot of physical stuff, on and off the ball."

Cork and Meath - the Ali and Frazier of their day, in whatever order you prefer - were not in the business of shadow boxing. This enmity was real. And personal.

In many ways, that semi-final is a forgotten relic of this famously febrile rivalry. Seán Boylan's men won by 0-14 to 0-10. Most of the detail has escaped the algorithmic grasp of Google. But the protagonists still remember.

"No one was giving an inch," says Meath's most decorated defender, Martin O'Connell. "They were All-Ireland champions in '89 and we decided, 'Here we go, we want to make sure we beat these.'"

According to his team-mate Bernard Flynn, referees of that era allowed for very different rules of engagement in spring battle.

"You'd get away with almost anything in league games," he says.

"While they didn't play particularly well," Flynn adds, "I remember speaking to Cork players years afterwards - they felt they turned a corner physically that day. They physically really stared Meath down and met them, blow for blow, if you like.

"I don't think anyone was sent off. I'd say half-a-dozen could have been sent off."

Tompkins again: "There was a lot of aggro afterwards. The crowd at the old dressing-room coming down through the wire, and there was a lot of aggro going under the tunnel.

"There was a fair boiling point in our dressing-room. I just remember Billy Morgan getting down on his knees … he was hoping and praying to our Lord that they'd end up in the (All-Ireland) final. We were going to be there anyway."

The Lord was listening.

RIVALRY UNLEASHED

Three decades on, those Royal and Rebel veterans are no longer at war. Open hostilities have been replaced by mutual respect and friendship, even if it took John Kerins' funeral in 2001 to hasten the outbreak of peace, as old sparring rivals united to mourn the death of Cork's former goalkeeper.

The Meath-Cork dynamic has changed in one other fundamental way. Cork's standing has shrivelled since capturing Sam in 2010, even if green shoots were spied last summer and in their seemingly imminent escape from Division 3 before the grim intrusion of Covid-19.

Meanwhile, 21 years since Boylan's fourth and final All-Ireland, again at Cork's expense, Meath have been left for dust by Dublin in Leinster. In a nutshell, today's teams have little reason to fear and loathe each other.

Yet a similar indifference prevailed before this epic rivalry erupted. They had dovetailed in Division 1 for two seasons in the mid-eighties but there was little or no back story. The 1987 All-Ireland constituted their first SFC collision since Meath had won the '67 decider.

Dinny Allen wasn't part of the Cork squad in '87 but he had been playing county football, with the odd break, since 1972 and he could never recall facing Meath in any match.

"This is my theory how the rivalry started so fast - we didn't know each other," he speculates.

Allen knew many of his Kerry opponents on personal terms, but Cork and Meath were "all strangers to each other" and they played the game differently too.

"We were saying, 'Jaysus, they're f***king half-mad!' But 'twas just their style."

Flynn has an alternative theory: that the inter-county transfer of Tompkins and Shea Fahy from Kildare, such a familiar adversary of Meath, "ignited" the rivalry more quickly. Both became leaders on Leeside, Tompkins their unrivalled talisman.

"Moving county wasn't the thing to do at the time," he points out. "And the lads being such good footballers, particularly Tompkins. Kildare and Meath had a huge rivalry… that was a factor."

Flynn also cites the influence of two "very strong-minded managers" and Cork's under-rated physicality.

"Meath would have been labelled with that tag, but Cork were much more physical than they were given credit for," he maintains.

"All the players could look after each other and didn't mind shoving it into you when they got half a chance."

Tompkins had grown up playing against Mick Lyons, Gerry McEntee, Liam Hayes, Joe Cassells and Colm O'Rourke - and sometimes with them.

"I would have played Railway Cup with all of those fellas," he says. "It was just that two giants of football came head-on together. There was a collision course."

THE ANIMUS OF '88

In the final of '87, Cork exploded from the traps but then, as O'Connell remembers: "Jimmy Kerrigan ran straight down the middle with the ball, Mick Lyons came out of nowhere and blocked it… and we went down the field and got a point. From the moment of that Mick Lyons block, I think we dominated that game."

So it showed on the scoreboard: Meath 1-14, Cork 0-11.

Twelve months on, as proof of the adage equating familiarity with contempt, things were getting cranky. Animus spilled over both All-Irelands, even if Tompkins stresses that the drawn final was "really competitive and compelling".

The Royal version is that Cork, perhaps for the first time, were more villain than victim.

O'CONNELL: "They kind of softened up a few of our fellas. I remember Brian Stafford had to get stitches in his lip, and Mick Lyons was down on the ground. They were really hitting fairly hard. And then we went out the next day and said this wasn't going to happen the second time."

FLYNN: "Oh, they bullied us that day… we had many chats and meetings after, that it wouldn't happen again."

ALLEN: "Billy said before the match, 'Let's not get involved with these guys' … and at half-time he came in, with guns flying, because a lot of fellas were after getting a few thumps, and we weren't being successful in our style of football either. So he said, 'Look, forget all I said before the match, and go out and tear into them and let's see what happens.'"

Afterwards, though, Cork anger was directed not towards Meath but Kerry - in the guise of man in black Tommy Sugrue.

When Dave Barry drew a late free just inside the 45, Tompkins faced into the Canal End hoping to land his eighth point of the day.

Turning to Hill 16, where Cork fans were congregated: "I blessed myself and I turned around - and the minute I struck the ball I knew it was going over the bar. Dave Barry jumped up on my shoulder thinking the game was over."

Except it wasn't. Meath won a sideline ball and, with RTÉ's clock about to hit 70 minutes, O'Connell kicked hard and long towards a congested goalmouth. Dave Beggy went to ground, winning the fateful free ("for absolutely nothing," Allen claims) that produced Stafford's eighth point and parity.

"Sure, Dave would tell you it was no more a free than the man on the moon," echoes Tompkins.

"I thought it was a genuine push in the back and definitely a free-in," O'Connell counters. "Now, I'm saying that with a smile on my face!"

That one crucial decision masked another undeniable truth: "It was ourselves to blame too," admits Allen, saying Cork should have been three or four ahead.

In the midst of controversy came another melodrama. Tompkins went into the final with a hamstring niggle and, before long, had "torn it to bits. I was heading for the sideline after 15 minutes to tell Billy my hamstring was gone, and Billy at the same time was telling me to go midfield. I just turned and said to myself, if it was my last game ever, I wanted to beat them f***ers anyway!"

On to the replay, where two rival sports conspired to help Tompkins win his fitness battle. A decision to avoid clashing with cycling's Nissan Classic gave Cork's No 11 a three-week window. Just enough time for Manchester United physiotherapist Jim McGregor to work his magic.

"I ended up going to Old Trafford for three weeks," he says. "I was getting treatment three times a day and, you know, it was serious stuff."

Ultimately to no avail, despite the early tonic of Meath going down to 14 men.

"Gerry McEntee being sent off in the replay probably helped us," reckons Flynn.

"Probably one of my best games," says man of the match O'Connell. "When Gerry McEntee was sent off, all the lads knuckled down."

And yet a cloud hung over Meath's 0-13 to 0-12 victory, the back-to-back champions first in the firing line after that foul-ridden sequel.

Critical comments from GAA president John Dowling, at Monday's post-final lunch in the Royal Hospital, fanned the flames further.

"There was a little bit of an atmosphere," O'Connell remembers. "Some lads were talking; some lads weren't talking… we just couldn't wait to get out. And I'd say Cork couldn't wait to get out either."

A few months later, transported from Kilmainham to Gran Canaria, many still weren't talking. In a spectacular example of karmic coincidence, these implacable foes booked team holidays in Playa del Ingles - at the same time.

It gets worse. O'Connell's recall is that most of the Meath crew were in the Corona Roja but a few were billeted in its sister hotel, Corona Blanca - where Cork were staying.

"The Cork boys were on one side of the pool, we were on the other side," he says. "We wouldn't even get into the pool, we wouldn't walk around to see them, they wouldn't come to us. We'd go to the bar ourselves; they'd go themselves.

"It was just like two rams banging the heads off each other. When you look back, it was an absolute disaster."

Not everyone, though, blanked each other.

TOMPKINS: "I told Billy Morgan I wasn't going to not talk to them. I knew all the Meath fellas well - so why not talk to them? They were good mates of mine over a long period."

FLYNN: "I went out a few nights with Shea Fahy, had great craic, went night-clubbing and everything with him. Absolutely. And Shea will tell you that."

REBEL REVENGE

EVEN in defeat, Tompkins reckons that 1990 league semi-final proved a blessing.

"Not that we needed any great spur to beat Meath when it really mattered. But if there was a game that woke up a few fellas, and toughened them up, well that was the game," he surmises.

Five months later, Morgan's prayers were answered. For the third year in four, the last two standing were Meath and Cork.

The previous season Allen had finally discovered the holy grail when, aged 37, he skippered Cork to victory over Mayo.

Now he was retired, doing an RTÉ radio gig with Des Cahill and Mattie Kerrigan, and still every bit as nervous, worried that another defeat to Meath would "spoil last year and spoil everything for us".

His mood doubtless wasn't helped when Colm O'Neill, having earlier walloped the crossbar, this time connected with Mick Lyons. Now it was Cork's turn to play with 14.

O'CONNELL: "I often look back on that tape… we gave a lot of ball away. I gave two balls away to Shea Fahy and Shea kicked them over the bar and we were beaten by two."

TOMPKINS: "By God, if you got a point, you earned it. There were hard tussles everywhere on the field… everyone was going to go through the wall to win, and that's what we did."

It was far too chaotic to be a classic, but Cork's 0-11 to 0-9 victory brought belated validation - and levelled the 1987-'90 audit at two All-Irelands apiece.

Overall, Flynn reckons the considerable skill-sets of both squads were negated, whenever they collided, by too much emphasis on "physicality and the macho and the hitting".

But for however long it lasted, it remains one of those iconic GAA rivalries.

"Even to this day," says O'Connell, "you could meet Billy at different functions and he still hasn't changed a whole pile. He still has that bit of venom in him and all the rest, which is great to see. And everyone thinks Seán was quiet, but there's another side to Seán.

"At the end of the day, they wore their heart on their sleeve and they were two fair ma nagers, you have to say."

UNITED IN GRIEF

It took the death of John Kerins, 19 years ago, to finally bury any festering recrimination.

"Everything before that all crumbled, and we have very good friends up there now," says Allen.

O'Connell drove down with Mickey McQuillan to attend the funeral, preceded by a large Meath group who had flown down for the removal the previous evening.

"They met all the Cork fellas and they stayed in the hotels and had a few drinks and a bit of a chat," O'Connell explains.

"We met up with them on the Friday morning, and it was as if we were best buddies. Unfortunately, it took a bereavement and a tragedy to unite us."

l Larry Tompkins' epic footballing life story will be told in a book due for release later this summer, published by his old Meath adversary Liam Hayes of Hero Books, who also published Martin O'Connell's autobiography, 'Royal Blood', last autumn.