Cork v Meath here we go again !
FOR Cork football supporters it's the green and gold of Kerry that provides the great rivalry almost every year and that clash is an institution in itself. But whenever Cork have managed to get out of Munster, especially in the pre-qualifiers era, it was the green and gold of Meath that caused us most heartbreak.
Love them or hate them, you have to admire them but, boy, do we hate Meath football. Tough, hard and cynical to the extreme, it is a type of football that Cork could never handle and even when we knew what was coming down the line, we still couldn't prepare properly for it.
Six times in the past forty years Cork and Meath have met in All-Ireland finals and the score reads as four wins for Meath, one win for Cork and one draw. Yes, that win came as a really sweet one when it completed the great double of 1990 but then in 1999 it was Meath who shattered the dream of another double.
There can be no arguing that when it comes to Cork v Meath clashes, Meath clearly have the upper hand and nobody knows this better than present Cork manager, Billy Morgan. It's hard to believe that when the present great rivalry between the sides began in 1967 Morgan was a vital cog on the Cork team and that he is still the central character forty years on. If there is one man in Cork County who would probably sell his soul to beat Meath next Sunday it has to be Billy Morgan. We can only hope that the players under his charge feel the same and that his experience of Meath will have the Cork team ready for the torrid hour they will undoubtedly endure.
The great rivalry began way back in 1967 when Cork, having retained their Munster title against Kerry in a rain-sodden Athletic grounds, went to Croke Park full of confidence having beaten Cavan in the semi-final. Mick Burke was on fire at midfield that year for Cork and much rested on his broad shoulders but our first taste of what Meath football was all about came midway through the first half when the iron man, Red Collier, proved that the Mitchelstown man was only flesh and bone and a crunching tackle ended Burke's participation in the match.
His departure, and a soft Meath goal in the second half, saw Cork lose by 1-9 to 0-9 and great players like Mick Burke, Jerry Lucey, Eric Philpott, Johnny O'Mahony, Johnny Carroll, Connie Paddy O'Sullivan and Flor Hayes had to retire without that elusive medal.
Standing between the sticks for Cork that day in 1967 was none other than Billy Morgan and when the sides met again twenty years later, he was the manager of an up and coming young Cork team that was founded on the under-21 successes of the eighties and contained a Kildare man who was to become a footballing legend in Cork.
Larry Tompkins had arrived to lead Cork's young brigade on the pitch and even though Kerry's great era was brought to an end in a replayed final in 1987, Cork weren't quite ready for the tough challenge that Meath threw down and were well beaten in the All-Ireland final. Cork dominated the early exchanges but failed to put up the scores and again an injury to a vital player, full back Colman Corrigan, proved decisive as Meath pulled away in the second half to win by six points, 1-14 to 0-11, Colm O'Rourke scoring the Meath goal.
An older and wiser Cork team was back the following year and were mentally ready for the Meath challenge. Getting in their retaliation first and playing marvellous football, with Dave Barry and Dinny Long returning up front, they dominated the game but once again failed to transfer their superiority into scores. Leading by a single point in the dying seconds, they were the victims of a very controversial refereeing decision that gifted Meath an equalising point, 0-12 to 1-9.
Cork had surprised Meath by their physical approach in that drawn game but Meath were more than prepared in the replay. With as cynical a display of football as has ever been witnessed in Croke Park, having been reduced to fourteen men early on, Meath broke Cork's hearts again. In reality Cork had nobody to blame but themselves as they went under by a single point, 0-13 to 0-12, and we wondered if we would ever prove tough enough for this Meath team.
Dublin solved the problem for us the following year, 1989, relieving Meath of their Leinster title and Cork went on to win the All-Ireland title, beating a game Mayo in the final. But the doubt lingered over the victory, what if it had been Meath again?
The answer came a year later, unforgettable 1990, when Cork and Meath were back in the final. Who will ever forget the hype in Cork as the hurlers won and the double became a possibility. The pressure on the footballers to deliver was never greater. Tickets were like gold and ours was behind a pillar in the old Cusack Stand.
Meath's cynicism, on and off the pitch, surfaced again as their fans booed the Cork free-takers and Mick Lyons managed to get Colm O'Neill sent off. Now it was the opposite to the 1988 final with Cork's fourteen a point ahead at the break. Could they survive in the second half? It wasn't pretty and it will never rate as a great final but with the Cork backs and midfield in magnificent form, Meath met a team as unbending as themselves and when Larry Tompkins, magnificent despite severe injuries, mounted the rostrum to accept the Sam Maguire after a 0-11 to 0-9 victory, the whole of Cork went wild.
History in the making, the great double achieved and Teddy McCarthy a man apart. They were great days and central to it all was Billy Morgan, the Cork manager. Remember the history-making team? Kerins, Nation, O'Brien, Cahalane, Slocum, Counihan, Coffey, Fahy, Culloty, Barry, Tompkins, McCarthy (Teddy), McGrath, O'Neill, McCarthy (Mick). Subs: O'Driscoll, Hayes, Cleary. And the Meath players whom we had no liking for in those years: O'Rourke, O'Malley, Lyons, Foley, Hayes, O'Connell, McEntee, Beggy, Gillic, Coyle, Ferguson, Cassels, Flynn, Stafford, great players but a pity about the method.
The years marched on and Meath disappeared from the scene as Cork stayed competitive but under a new manager, Larry Tompkins, with the 1993 final being controversially lost to Derry. The heroes of 1990 slipped into retirement and in 1999 an entirely new fifteen faced the very same situation as their counterparts in 1990. Cork hurlers winning an unexpected All-Ireland title on a wet, memorable day against Kilkenny and the footballers reaching the final meant only Meath stood between the Rebels and another glorious double.
Could it be done again? Just as in 1990 it was a case of the backs playing well, midfield coping but the forwards again failing to deliver. Cork were well on top for the opening twenty minutes but kicked some bad wides and found themselves trailing by 1-5 to 0-5 at the break following an Ollie Murphy goal. When Joe Kavanagh kicked a magnificent goal in the 39th minute to give Cork the lead our hopes rose but were slowly dashed again by a hard-tackling and no-nonsense Meath defence which just smothered the Cork attack in the closing quarter.
In the end it finished 1-11 to 1-8 in Meath's favour and we can still vividly recall the rain lashing down as we mournfully left Croke Park, our heads bowed in defeat. Once again Meath had shattered our dreams.
Only two players from that Cork team still remain, Anthony Lynch and Owen Sexton, and they will undoubtedly let their team-mates in no doubt as to what it takes to beat any Meath team in Croke Park. This Meath team has appeared from nowhere but are deserving wearers of the jerseys and worthy successors of the men of the eighties with their all-action, hard-hitting, never say die spirit. Little was expected of their young side this season but they have improved in leaps and bounds and their performance in ousting Tyrone last time out has installed them as favourites on Sunday next. In fact, many people now view them as potential All-Ireland winners.
Cork, on the other hand, go into this game on the back of two fairly dismal performances against Louth and Sligo. After their Munster final showing against Kerry, a game they could have won, hopes were high of something good to come but their form has dipped alarmingly and, following a pretty dismal league campaign, Cork supporters are now wondering just what the potential of the team really is.
The injury to Masters has been a big blow and his place is likely to be filled by Kevin O'Sullivan with the rest of the team as it was against Sligo. One wonders why under-21 star, Daniel Goulding, is not being given a protracted run on the side as he looks a proven score-getter.
If Cork are to win this semi-final, their third in a row, they will have to leave their poor Croke Park form behind. This team has failed to ignite once they travel outside Munster and away wins in the league are pretty rare too. The back line, which was water-tight a few seasons back, seems to be springing leaks all season and some of the established stars have not been setting the world on fire.
One hopes that Graham Canty will restore the mean streak that was there in the past. Nicholas Murphy has been slow to get going at midfield this season but was back to his best in recent games. However, he can be guaranteed some special treatment from meath, just like Kerry last year, and, hopefully, Cork will have a contingency plan in place if anything does happen to Cork's best ball-winner.
The present Cork forwards are possibly the best the county has had for a long time but don't seem to be able to turn it on as a unit. With Masters missing, the other forwards will need to step up to the plate and deliver the scores. How they use Cussens at full forward will be vital and since the Killarney game Cork seem to be betwixt and between as to the best way to involve him in the action. The quality of the ball he receives will have to be much better than in recent games if he is to be a problem to a very tight Meath defence.
Most of all Cork will have to be physically and mentally prepared for the intensity of the game, an intensity they have yet to meet this season. Meath love Croke Park and they will play with a ferocious fervour that has always proved difficult for Cork to handle. This Cork team loves to play neat, decisive football but you can be assured that is the last thing Meath will allow on the day. Unless Cork can match Meath in intensity and desire to win then our third semi-final in a row won't prove third time lucky.
Cork have nothing to lose in this game as they go in as complete underdogs. They should be capable of giving it a real lash. Anything less than 100% will see the supporters quickly giving up on this particular team which has promised much more than it has delivered under Billy Morgan. Now is the time to deliver.
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