It’s 25 years since Bantry Blues captured the club’s first-ever Cork senior football title. KIERAN McCARTHY chats to three players from that team – Paraic O’Regan, Des McAuley and Paul O’Rourke – to find out what made that young band of Blues brothers just so good
THERE wasn’t much wiggle room in the old, cramped Páirc Uí Chaoimh dressing-rooms, but there was still enough space for Paraic O’Regan to scratch out a game of noughts and crosses on the worn tile floor just before the 1995 Cork senior football final.
The Bantry Blues team had squeezed together in a pre-match huddle. Captain fantastic Damien O’Neill was in the middle, shouting and roaring and inspiring, getting them going, while in one corner O’Regan slowly scraped four rough lines on the floor with the steel studs on his boots, two horizontal and two vertical, and then added the first X before nudging team-mate Paul O’Rourke beside him, as much to say, ‘go on, it’s your go.’
‘That’s how cool that man was, he’s some character, nothing fazed him,’ O’Rourke says now, ‘but the entire team wasn’t fazed by being in the county final.’
Whatever was thrown at them, this young team took it in their stride. All the way up they were used to winning finals and titles; they won the Cork U21 football championship in 1993 and ’94, and the county intermediate title in ’93. Go back as far as the 1986 Bantry U12 team that won the county title, seven of them were involved in the 1995 senior adventure. These lads knew how to win games and the county senior final was just another game to them.
In another corner of the dressing-room, away from the noughts and crosses, young goalkeeper Des McAuley (19) was involved in a very different game: How to Squeeze into an Old Jersey That’s Too Small. The Bantry number one had been wearing his usual white jersey but before they left the dressing-room a county board official came in to say that Muskerry were wearing white so McAuley couldn’t.
‘We didn’t bring the second goalkeeper’s jersey which was green,’ McAuley recalls.
‘There was a jersey at the bottom of the jersey bag that had been there for 20 years, I’d say. It was light blue, said Gorm Bantry on it, it was small but I had no other choice.’
Just before they left the dressing-room McAuley and centre forward Paddy Goggin were pulling and stretching and dragging the old jersey so McAuley could squeeze into it. Eventually, he did.
‘It didn’t fit me, but I had to wear it – and it looked like a tank top on me,’ he laughs.
Again, he wasn’t fazed. He just got on with it. As did O’Regan, who never finished that game of noughts and crosses. It was time to go to work. There was a match to play and a job to do: win Bantry Blues’ first-ever Cork senior football title.
Pre-championship, Bantry weren’t tipped to go far. It was their second season up from intermediate, they were a young team that needed time to mature and find their feet at senior level, and there were some really strong teams around at that time too, especially in West Cork; Castlehaven and O’Donovan Rossa had won two of the previous three senior titles. In the 1994 championship Bantry lost to O’Donovan Rossa, who had been All-Ireland champions the previous year. Still, the Blues were confident they’d pack a punch.
Pre-season started in October ’94, led by the late Dr Denis Cotter, then manager.
‘In our first training session Dr Cotter said that we’d win the county,’ Des McAuley remembers, ‘and there were a few lads looking around at each other, but from the start we were in the zone and we felt we’d go a long way.’
Dr Cotter assembled a very strong backroom team. Noel Crowley and Jerry Sheehan were his selectors, while the influential Sean McGrath, who had graduated from the University of Limerick with a Bachelor of Arts in Physical Education, was brought in as the coach. McGrath would go on to become the team trainer for the Cork senior hurlers that won All-Irelands in 2004 and ’05, but a decade earlier he turned heads in Bantry.
‘I was involved with Cork and what we were doing with Bantry then, Cork weren’t even doing. We were years ahead of everyone else,’ explains Paraic O’Regan, a ball of energy in the half-back line.
Bantry’s professionalism was impressive. Players had individual fitness tests in pre-season. Blood and urine samples were taken. Iron levels were checked. So too were fat levels. There were V02 max tests. Plyometric testing and training. Dr Cotter brought in an osteopath and there was a psychologist available to chat to, too. Remember, this was 1994. It all shaped their tailored winter-training programme so by the time Bantry got on the pitch in early ’95, they were hopping off the ground and they knew they were fitter than every other team – and that gave them huge confidence in every game.
‘When Sean coached Cork, they had the same characteristics as we had – we used to grind teams down and in the last five minutes every 50-50 ball became a 70-30 ball in our favour because we were finely tuned,’ Des McAuley says.
‘There was different training for different positions. The middle eight players were doing one type of training because in the game they are always on the go but not always at top pace, whereas the corner backs and corner forwards make quick, hard, fast runs and then recover for a few minutes.
‘Sean was all about the basics too. We did a lot of kicking and catching in training, and then we did it at speed. If you could do the basics very well and if you are fitter than the next fella, with five minutes to go in a game there is a good chance you’ll come out on top.’
The evidence is in the results in Bantry’s triumphant 1995 Cork senior football championship campaign:
- In the last ten minutes of the quarter-final replay against Carbery, they turned a one-point lead into a five-point win, 1-8 to 0-6.
- In the semi-final against Duhallow, Bantry trailed by two points very late on, but then rattled off four points in four magical minutes, kick-started by a Kevin Harrington point in the 57th minute, to win 1-8 to 0-9.
- In the county final, Muskerry led 0-8 to 0-6 at the three-quarter stage, but the familiar Bantry charge then arrived – they held the divisional side scoreless while kicking four points of their own in the last ten minutes to win 0-10 to 0-8.
‘We were beating teams in the last ten minutes. When they ran out of steam, we kicked on,’ Paul O’Rourke says, but as well as being able to run the legs off their opposition, Bantry had some superb footballers in their ranks.
There were no prima donnas on that Bantry team. If any fella got notions of himself, he was immediately chopped back down.
‘There was no bullshit, everyone got on with it. If some fella acted up, he wasn’t long told to cop on,’ Paraic O’Regan says.
The bulk of this Bantry team came up through the ranks together, from U12 to senior. There was a rhythm that they played with. They knew what fellas could do and couldn’t do.
From the Bantry team that won the 1994 Cork U21 title, defending the crown they’d won the previous season, seven started in the 1995 senior team: Des McAuley in goal, Timmy O’Mahony, Paraic O’Regan and Niall Twomey in defence, Damien O’Neill and the late Mick Moran in midfield, and Kevin Harrington in attack. Add in more seasoned seniors like full back Mark O’Connor, centre forward Paddy Goggin, Gerdie Barry on the wing, full forward Stephen Dineen, and the like of Liam O’Brien who came on as a sub in the county final, and there was a good mix. There is no argument over who was the main man on that Bantry team, though.
‘Stay out of my way, Rourke’ – that was the message from Damien O’Neill to Paul O’Rourke during a game against Dohenys. With O’Neill’s regular midfield partner Mick Moran missing, O’Rourke was dropped back into midfield.
‘The first ball was kicked out and I went up to win it. There was no sign of Damien, but the next thing, this fella flying through the air hit me in the back of my head with his knees, caught the ball and fell on the ground. He just said to me: ‘stay out of my way, Rourke’. So I did!’ O’Rourke says.
Most people did stay out of O’Neill’s way, not by choice but because he was such a force in the middle of the park. He was a different level to the rest and an incredible fielder of the ball; that was in his DNA as his uncle is the Bantry great Declan Barron legend who lorded the skies. O’Neill won an All-Ireland minor title in 1990, captained the Cork U21s to All-Ireland glory in 1994, and was a born leader for Bantry teams, from U12 to senior, and his broad shoulders carried that pressure and expectation. The captain. The leader. The midfield general. The main man. It’s a shame that injuries robbed O’Neill of the chance to fulfil his promise with Cork, but his place in the Bantry Hall of Fame is assured.
‘Damien led by example. He was almost like a Roy Keane, he demanded a lot from everyone. He set high standards and we all had to keep up to it because he wouldn’t be long telling you if you didn’t,’ Paraic O’Regan explains.
O’Neill’s team talks are the stuff of legend, too. He has hands like shovels. Tables didn’t stand a chance. Neither did the opposition.
‘I remember we were in a huddle before the quarter-final against Carbery in Skibbereen, and his father Terry was manager of Carbery, and Damien was trying to get lads going, “are you ready for this?” and he’d hit them in the chest. They did well to stay standing!’ Des McAuley says.
That game stands out for McAuley. He saved a first-half penalty from Barry Harte that was hit at the right height to favour a goalkeeper. It was a local derby. Skibb was heaving. And Carbery had the inside track on the Bantry men.
At the time Paul O’Rourke lived in 84 Merrion Court, Montenotte. So did Paraic O’Regan. And Carbery footballer Pat Hegarty of Tadhg MacCarthaigh. Brian Murphy from Clonakilty and O’Donovan Rossa’s Kevin O’Dwyer were there too. It was a football house. They were all part of the Cork U21 team that won the All-Ireland title in ’94, with Damien O’Neill as captain.
O’Rourke was the designated driver of the house, the link between the city and Bantry for several of the Blues in college in Cork. His green Toyota Corolla would travel from Cork to Bantry – via Clonakilty where he’d pick up Stephen Moloney – for training twice a week. The craic in the car was good, Paraic O’Regan made sure of that, and the banter in Merrion Court was lively too ahead of the quarter-final between Bantry and Carbery. It pitted housemates against each other: O’Rourke and O’Regan up against Pat Hegarty, who left the Bantry duo in on a little secret.
‘Terry O’Neill gave every Carbery player a profile of the Bantry lads! That’s how good Terry was, he was ahead of his time too. He’d have known us all, being from Bantry, so he wrote player profiles on us, on our strengths and weaknesses,’ says Paraic O’Regan.
Paul O’Rourke remembers what the summary of him said: ‘very lively, but gets very nervous on the big day, and not really a concern!’
Bantry were lucky to salvage a draw, 0-11 to 1-8, with Mick Moran grabbing a late equalising point to earn the Blues a second chance.
‘That was our toughest match,’ McAuley says.
‘They were on top of us and they were the better team – but we got lucky in the end. Our free-taker Kevin Harrington, who was unbelievable, miss-hit his kick, it landed in Mick Moran’s hands and he blew it over the bar – and that saved us.’
Bantry made amends in the replay and won 1-8 to 0-6. Then they took care of Duhallow in the semi-final, 1-8 to 0-9, thanks to another final-quarter surge and that sent them into the county final against Muskerry, who had taken out Nemo Rangers on the other side.
Now, Bantry were one win away from the club’s first-ever senior county title, having come close twice previously, losing the county senior finals in 1981 and 1909. Third time lucky, perhaps?
Denis Cotter was adamant that this Bantry team wouldn’t make the same mistakes as the 1981 side that lost, 3-11 to 0-6, the county senior final to Nemo. Before the ’81 final, everyone was too excited about possibly winning the club’s first-ever senior county title. The players got new jerseys, shorts, socks, gearbags and even new boots. Before the game the players had lunch at the Imperial Hotel and it’s said half of Bantry was there too. The performance didn’t match the build-up. Cotter felt there were lessons to be learned from that experience.
Ahead of the ’95 final, local businesses in Bantry town offered to sponsor new gear or whatever was needed, but Cotter refused. He wanted a low key build-up. And it was, apart from the training session when he turned up with a car-full of over-sized Pittsburgh Steelers’ gear for the Bantry players.
‘Usually when you get to a county final you get a load of gear – and we got all American football gear! We were all going around in Steelers’ jerseys that were way too big for us,’ Paraic O’Regan laughs.
Not surprisingly the link between the Steelers’ gear and the Bantry footballers was Dr Cotter. He had become friendly with American Chuck Daly – a former aid to American President John F Kennedy – who had bought a house in Bantry. Daly was friends with the late Dan Rooney who owned the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the two would play golf in Bantry. Cotter saw an opening, asked for some gear and Rooney arranged it.
That was the only new gear the Bantry team got in the build-up, and in the 1995 final against Muskerry the Blues lined out in the shorts and socks they had worn all seasons. There was no-one getting ahead of themselves. Cotter kept them grounded and they prepared meticulously.
Bantry changed their kick-out strategy for the county final. In O’Neill and Moran, they had a superb pairing, and they were going up against Paul Coleman and Peadar Concannon, who had got the better of Nemo’s Shay Fahy and Stephen O’Brien in their semi-final. The feeling in the build-up was that Bantry had to win midfield to have any chance of winning.
‘Our plan was to open the pitch in Páirc Uí Chaoimh out wide and stretch them. All the kick-outs were kept out of the middle and aimed for halfway between sideline and centre,’ goalkeeper Des McAuley explains.
‘Back then there wasn’t a whole pile on kick-out strategies and the main plan was to drive it as long as possible but we tweaked it that day.’
The plan worked. The powerfully elegant Damien O’Neill was immense – he won midfield and the man-of-the-match award.
That was a vital piece in this jigsaw. The game itself wasn’t great. It never ignited, but that didn’t bother Bantry who came from two points down in the final quarter to win by two, 0-10 to 0-8. With Mark O’Connor keeping tabs on John O’Driscoll and Paraic O’Regan getting to grips with Aidan Dorgan, Bantry turned the screw late on, as they had done all campaign. Mick Moran, Stephen Dineen, Paul O’Rourke and Kevin Harrington all scored in that final quarter, and it was Bantry on the front foot to the end.
‘I am very right legged and Kevin is very left legged. I scored off my left late on and he went on and kicked one with his left, and took the gloss off my score! If you could get Kevin the ball he would cause wreck; he was incredibly good,’ says Paul O’Rourke, who had joined Bantry that season and made an impact.
The wait was over. Bantry were county senior champions for the first time. This young team came of age on the big stage. The celebrations were helped by a pay-out from a city bookmaker after the Bantry players had chipped in, before a ball was kicked in the championship, to back themselves to go all the way. They got good odds and a handsome pay-out that went towards a team holiday in Lanzarote.
‘It’s only when you look back now that you realise how good fellas were and how good that team was,’ Paraic O’Regan adds. Bantry would win a second senior county title in 1998, with an even better team, but that first success in 1995 was a breakthrough moment for the club.