TOM LYONS explains why no West Cork football team has equalled O’Donovan Rossa’s All-Ireland winning heroics in ’93
WHEN O’Donovan Rossa surprised the football world by winning the Andy Merrigan Cup, All-Ireland club senior football title, in 1993, they paved the way for all no-hopers to land the most coveted club football title in the GAA.
So, how come that no team from West Cork, the home of Cork football, has ever managed to follow their lead since?
While West Cork teams Bantry Blues, Clonakilty and Castlehaven followed Rossa by winning county senior titles in a glorious decade for West Cork football in the 1990s, and Carbery Rangers joined their ranks 20 years later, none managed to go all the way to All-Ireland glory. What did Skibb have that those other teams lacked when push came to shove? What did they do in 1992/93 that the others didn’t do?
We will readily agree that Castlehaven, who started the county ball rolling for West Cork by winning the title in 1989, were unlucky not to contest an All-Ireland final and have gone on to become Carbery’s most successful team since. However, despite their great achievement of five senior county titles and three Munster club titles, somehow the cherry is missing from the top of the Haven cake.
Clonakilty will forever cherish the memory of 1945, when they backboned Cork’s march to the Sam Maguire with nine players on the panel, and if there had been an All-Ireland club title back then, they would surely have claimed one during the period where they won five county titles in six years. But they had two cracks at the Andy Merrigan Cup, in 1996 and 2009, and fell short each time.
Bantry, winners of the county in 1995 and 1998, had a team of stars, truly talented footballers who played a superb brand of football, yet they under-achieved in the Munster championship. They had been built on success from underage upwards and they, more than any other team, were equipped to follow in Skibb’s footsteps but what was lacking?
Carbery Rangers, like Rossa, only won a single county senior title, in 2016, but some would hold that they were past their best at that stage as they had enjoyed tremendous success at junior and intermediate levels. In fact, they were crowned All-Ireland club champions in 2005 but it was at intermediate level and 2016 seemed to come too late to replicate that achievement at senior. Yet, they can hold their heads high as to what they achieved.
Where stands West Cork now as regards the chances of ever again bringing the Andy Merrigan Cup to the division? To pin-point a few reasons why Skibb stands alone, we need to look at that team in action. Luckily, we had the good fortune to share in almost every step of their glorious journey in those years.
Like most successful senior teams, Skibb’s rise to fame came through the underage ranks when Dermot O’Donovan put a great bunch of young footballers together in the primary school in the 1970s. They won county titles all the way up through the grades, right to U21 but then it stopped. The leap from underage to adult was anything but easy and the club actually failed to win a county junior football title. The decision was taken to go up to intermediate but again success proved elusive as it took three final attempts before that title was won in 1985. It was into senior ranks then with a young, developing team and it was anything but instant success. The team was gaining experience and improving, and when the Barr’s beat them in Ballinascarthy in 1991, the signs were promising. They had talented underage players who were improving all the time and the patience to allow them to develop.
In 1992, we saw the second part of the jigsaw falling into place, the addition of outstanding outsiders to join the team. Think Larry Tompkins in Castlehaven, Paddy Barrett in Clonakilty, Shea Fahy in Nemo Rangers, Mick Finn and Jack Cahalane in the Clon team of the 1940s, every winning team has some blow-ins to bring them that extra step. With Skibb, it was Gene O’Driscoll making the short journey from Caheragh to become player-coach, and John Brady from Cavan to become the class forward as support for ‘Small’ Mick McCarthy.
Part three of the jigsaw, a forward who is guaranteed to kick a hatful of scores in almost every game, a real opportunist. In Mick McCarthy, Rossas had one of the greatest, an opportunist and a wonderful footballer, a magician on the pitch who was adored by the supporters.
In the 1992/93 campaign, 11 championship matches, McCarthy scored 5-60 and Brady 3-17. Add in Don and Pat Davis, Joe O’Driscoll, Brian Carmody and Neville Murphy and Rossas had a forward sextet capable of outscoring any side. Those forwards went into the cauldron that was Ballinascreen against Lavey in the All-Ireland semi-final and emerged from that battle with 2-10 to their credit. In the All-Ireland final replay, another physical battle, they took their scores in style while Éire Óg kicked their chances away.
Where Rossa aced out, part four of the jigsaw, was that they had a defence to match their talented forwards. In that battle against Lavey, they held the opposition to 0-4. They nodded in the All-Ireland final first day out in Croke Park when they conceded three goals to Éire Óg but nerves, over-confidence and an early injury to the pivotal Gene O’Driscoll, saw a substandard performance from the whole team, bar Mick McCarthy with 1-9 to his credit, and wing-back Ian Breen.
Amends were made in the never-to-be-forgotten replay in Limerick. Kevin O’Dwyer, a county goalkeeper; John Evans, the veteran and spiritual leader, John O’Driscoll, lord of the square, and the dynamic Frank McCarthy in the full-back line; the record-breaking Tony Davis, inspirational leader Gene O’Driscoll, and final man-of-the-match, Ian Breen, in the best half back line in club football that year.
For part five, you throw in the big-hearted, never-say-die Denis ‘Skinner’ O’Driscoll and the high-fielding, goal-scoring Brian O’Donovan at midfield and they had a team without a weak link, full of football and speed, backed up by subs like Michael McCarthy and Darragh Whooley.
Back up the talent with part six, a fierce self-belief that had the team backing themselves as 33/1 outsiders to win the county and, for part seven, throw in something that Skibbereen teams had never been noted for, an incredible spirit and will to win. Victories over double county champions Duhallow, Cork kingpins Nemo Rangers, All-Ireland champions Dr Crokes, misguided Lavey and an amazing battle for survival in Croke Park against a flying Éire Óg side when they came with three late McCarthy points to force a draw, showed time and again that this team was made of special steel. They were true champions, tested over ten championship games like few teams had ever been. They were not found wanting.
Of course, for part eight, they had the one vital ingredient that all champions need, Lady Luck was on their side on more than one occasion, never more that in injury time in the replayed final, two points up after Éire Óg had missed several clearcut chances of scores in the closing minutes, when the Carlow men thought they had scored a winning goal only for the referee to disallow it for a square infringement. A lot of Skibb hearts stopped at that moment in time.
So, why has no other West Cork team won the Andy Merrigan Cup? Because they just didn’t possess all the above ingredients that the Rossa team had in abundance that incredible year. Yes, they had some but never all, the Haven, in particular, just missing out on the luck factor. When a team again emerges from West Cork with all those jigsaw pieces fitted together, then we will really look forward to their journey to glory. Right now, unfortunately, it looks a long way off.