I was out for a run earlier this week which took me up the northside of Dublin. Running along the canal, the huge spectre of Croke Park rose in front of me. Croke Park is the Mecca of Irish sport, the headquarters of our two main games, Gaelic football and hurling, and since its recent redevelopment now the third biggest stadium in Europe. Even though I was blocked from seeing the pitch as I ran past the side of the stadium, my imagination and memory drifted to all the great games that had been played on that pitch, and to one in particular which was a pretty childhood-defining moment - the famous-four-in-a-row between Meath (my home county) and Dublin in 1991.
Just as in soccer, Gaelic football has both a league and a knock-out competition; unlike soccer it is the knockout competition - the All-Ireland Championship - that is more prestigious by far. The early stages of this competition consist of four provincial competitions, the winners of which go on to battle it out for the ultimate honours. Now, a certain amount of staleness had set into this format in the last ten years, because a seeding system had ensured a duopoly of power in each of the two strongest provinces: Meath and Dublin were invariably sure to contest the final in Leinster, Cork and Kerry would grace final day in Munster, and the ultimate honours would invariably fall to one of these four (out of a total of 32 counties). In 1990, the entire nation was captivated by our exploits in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and voices were heard muttering that before long, Gaelic football would be relegated to the sidelines of Irish sporting life as soccer mania took over.
So in 1991 seeding was abolished. And guess what? Dublin and Meath, the two strongest teams in the country, were drawn to face each other in the very first round.
(Perhaps a quick summary of the rules of Gaelic football might be in order here - the ball can be held in the hand and is usually passed around by being kicked from the hand or handpassed. The goals look rather like those in rugby - a goal counts for three points whereas kicking it over the bar counts for one.)
As the teams met on that sunny day in June, it was not only the open draw that provided the novelty value; there in tiny writing on the player's jerseys was a sponsor's name, the very first game where this was allowed (and the tiny writing - one inch maximum - was stipulated by rule!). My memories are quite dim of this game, except I remember that Meath didn't play well at all, and there was quite a moment of drama when, with seconds left in the game, Meath player P.J. Gillic kicked in a speculative ball towards the goal which eluded everyone, goalkeeper included, and bounced in such a way that no-one knew where it was going - goal? point? wide? - untill it bounced over the bar for the equalising point. And so everyone went home, glad of another day.
Unfortunately for us, we were due to go on holiday to Montpelier, in the South of France at the time the replay was due to take place. There was no satellite down in the South of France in them days, and so we crowded around a phone to be told the result in a few words.
Another draw. Extra time was played. Still a draw. The game would go to a second replay. Drawn games are a good deal rarer in Gaelic football than in soccer, and second replays were almost unthinkable - in fact only five had occured in the entire 104 year history of the championship, most of those dating back to a long long time ago.
Well, the third game was also scheduled to be played during our French soiree, but the Magee family were having none of that, all seven of us piling into the jeep and booting it the whole way up the motorways of France to arrive back in Ireland on the Sunday morning of the game.
Another draw. Extra time was played. Tiredness set in. The referee went down with cramp and had to have his leg stretched by one of the players. Still a draw. Unbelievable.
By now, interest in the series of games had spread far beyond these two counties and gripped the Irish imagination. On one side, the men of the Royal County of Meath, home of the ancient capital of Ireland, and on the other, Dublin, the modern capital. If you were a Meathman living anywhere in the south east, the chances were you were commuting into Dublin to earn your crust, and there was plenty of opportunities for banter and teasing. Green and gold flags would be found decorating telephone poles along every back country road in Meath; the blue of Dublin adorning council flats and lamposts all over the city. It wasn't uncommon for whole families to be split down the middle if the husband came from Dublin and the wife from Meath or vice versa. Wives anxious to have Sundays restored to normal family life argued for the whole affair to be settled by the toss of a coin.
And so on June 6, 34 days after they first met, Meath and Dublin came together for the fourth game.
It didn't start out well for us at all. And it didn't continue well either. As time ticked on in the second half, we were six points behind, and Meath didn't look like doing much to rectify it. I was sitting in the Cusack stand, surrounded by other Meath supporters, and I remember looking around and seeing how everyone had lost hope; the atmosphere was reminiscent of a funeral. And then they got a penalty, a chance to kill us off completely, and drove it wide. And then we got a goal, and quite implausibly, with seconds left we were three points behind. But still no-one thought we'd pull it back.
And then this happened.
The scorer was Kevin Foley, a defender who (legend has it) was making his first ever foray into the other side of the pitch out of desperation. 13 out of the 15 Meath players on the field were involved in moving the ball up the field; we might have lost hope, but they hadn't.
We had pulled level, but that was not all; with the Dublin players still recovering from shock, Meath scored a last-minute point. The final whistle blew. Meath had won by one point. To my dying day I will recall the total silence in Croke Park, as seventy thousand gobsmacked spectators tried to come to terms with what had just happened.
Gaelic football has retained its position as the premier sport in the country, and many people credit these series of matches for injecting new life into the sport and kickstarting a renaissance of sorts. As for the players, my dad tells me that the Meath and Dublin teams who played those matches meet up each year for a game of golf and a chance to reminisce about those magic days.
- Top 20 GAA moments - Kevin Foley's goal was featured as one of the top moments in GAA history. This clip is introduced by Micheal O Muircheartaigh of whom I have spoken very highly of on this blog before....