Twenty years have passed since Beara climbed to the top of the Cork senior football championship, ending the division’s 30-year wait for glory. We tell their story
Twenty years have passed since Beara climbed to the top of the Cork senior football championship, ending the division’s 30-year wait for glory. That triumph was a culmination of talent, commitment, hard work and a fearlessness that defined that particular group of players. KIERAN McCARTHY talks to some of that side’s key figures to share their incredible story
OLLIE RUA O’Sullivan refers to it as the training camp without any training. Donal O’Sullivan says it was ten days of good fun under the Spanish sun. For Brendan Jer O’Sullivan it was his first time on an aeroplane and leaving this country. But all three men agree it was a fitting reward to mark a very special achievement.
After Beara won the Cork senior football championship crown in November 1997, beating Castlehaven in a replay to end a 30-year wait for the Andy Scannell Cup, the winter that year was shortened by the party that followed.
And it rolled into the following January when Beara footballers, their better halves, management, board members and some of its loyal supporters chartered a private jet to fly from Cork to Malaga for a sun-kissed break.
‘We raised the finance ourselves,’ explained Donal O’Sullivan, manager of that last Beara team to win the Cork SFC.
‘We took a chance – and many people don’t realise this – and we made a fly-on-the-wall video of the day of the final, which is still available. A guy from Macroom, LTV Productions, followed us to the grounds, the match and afterwards.
‘We did a fly-on-the-wall video long before it was fashionable, and that video was sold and we raised a lot out of it.’
Enough rolled in to reward the heroes of ’97 who also got spending money for the jaunt while Beara’s Bord na nÓg and ladies’ board were also looked after.
O’Sullivan quips that they could have had even more spending money in Malaga, if it wasn’t for a horse, Corkette, owned by the late Johnny Barry from Glengarriff, one of Beara’s great characters and main sponsor (Johnny Barry’s Bar) of the team, falling at the last in Tipperary the day the travelling Beara party flew out.
‘We were putting on £10, £20, or £30, small bets, and we backed his horse from 25/1 into favourite. He was 12 lengths clear approaching the last. We stood to win a small fortune but he shipped the jockey on the last fence!’ O’Sullivan laughed.
That mattered little because Beara football was back where it wanted to be, on top of the pile. And with its first senior football title since 1967. The wait was over.
This wasn’t an overnight, flash-in-the-pan success. Beara had been building for a few years.
In the mid 1990s there was a strong crop of young footballers coming through who were regularly winning counties and when these were mixed with the seasoned pros already in place, the most westerly division in the county had the raw materials in place to challenge for the big prize.
Beara reached the SFC quarter-final in ’95 when Duhallow beat them, went a step further the next season when they lost to UCC by a point in the semi-final, a match that sticks in the mind of Donal O’Sullivan, who was joined in the management team by Barry Murphy and Johnny Houlihan.
He can still hear the muffled chants of ‘We’re the Boys from UCC’ hailing from the UCC dressing-room at Wolfe Tone Park in Bantry after the college’s 1-13 to 1-12 win.
‘We were disgusted to lose that one by a point,’ O’Sullivan said.
‘We felt we had enough football to beat them, and that was a team that had Seamus Moynihan, Johnny Crowley, Micheál Ó Croinín and Jason Whooley.
‘When Clon beat them after in the final it proved to us that we were good enough to win a county.’
In the crowd in Bantry on the August Sunday in ’96 was Brendan Jer O’Sullivan, about to start his Leaving Cert year and yet to play for the Beara seniors. He thought to himself that this Beara team wasn’t too far off the mark. Little did he realise the role he would eventually play the following season.
In the mid to late 90s the Beara U21s were dominant, winning three county titles in five years (1996, ’97 and ’99) and these young guns were to play a central role in the division’s march to glory.
In fact, a week after Beara beat Castlehaven in the ’97 senior replay, Beara U21s brought the U21 county title back to the peninsula for the second year in a row, beating Bishopstown in the final. That team featured seven who played in the senior decider against Haven the week before: Timmy O’Shea (Adrigole), Paudie B O’Sullivan (Garnish), Donagh Wiseman (Castletownbere), Sean Walsh (Garnish), Sean Deane (Castletownbere), Brendan Jer O’Sullivan (Adrigole) and Alan O’Regan (Castletownbere).
‘The young lads were winning and they were feeding the senior team,’ explained Ollie Rua.
‘You had Paudie Bernard, Sean Walsh, Brendan Jer and a few more, they were chomping at the bit, fearless as well.’
Fearless: that’s a word we’ll hear again,
Brendan Jer knew nothing but winning at the time.
‘Winning was normal to us,’ he said, ‘We didn’t know any different. We won three U21 counties. We could have won five in a row.’
Along with that infusion of youth, at the time Beara’s ranks were already impressive. They boasted county star Ciarán O’Sullivan (Urhan) in his prime, captain Ollie O’Sullivan (Garnish) who had been in with Cork, there were the elder statesmen of Paul Hanley (Urhan), Rory O’Dwyer (Urhan), the latter having transferred back from the Barr’s and whose father Riobaird was goalkeeper on Beara’s 1967 team, Padraig Crowley (Castletownbere), Neil Murphy (Castletownbere), Martin O’Sullivan (Castletownbere), and there was Michael Harrington (Adrigole) and Seamus Spencer (Castletownbere), too.
There were leaders in every line, very strong characters.
‘The mix was just right,’ said Ciáran O’Sullivan, the man who held the key – if he was on form, Beara played well.
‘We had experience, fellas in their prime and the young lads coming through. And fellas knew we were on the verge of something.
‘The Tuesday night before the 1997 county final there were 42 lads training in Droum, Castletownbere’s football pitch – that’s the momentum it had built.
‘If a division builds momentum anything can happen; it did for us.’
Donal O’Sullivan repeatedly told his troops that they had nothing to fear and were as good as the best.
‘We had that collective belief that we’d give anyone a run for their money. We were fearless,’ Ollie Rua said.
Former Beara manager DJ O’Shea from Urhan started this job, pointing Beara in the right direction, putting the foundation in place, bringing the team together, breaking down barriers, and Donal O’Sullivan then took it to the next level.
‘For divisional sides it can be hard to get that collectiveness when you’re going into battle against one another in the local championship,’ Ollie Rua explained.
‘But we all went should to shoulder to win for Beara.
‘For a few years before ’97 there had been some momentum building within the team. DJ O’Shea started that job. When we came together in the Beara dressing-room, he got rid of anything between the clubs. That was left outside. Otherwise you weren’t welcome.
‘It was very competitive in Beara at the time, the clubs were strong, and that stood to us and then we a great U21 team at the time too so there was a lot of momentum there.
‘Donal came in after DJ O’Shea, he carried on what was started and also brought a sharpness and belief.’
Games, games, games and more games.
In 1996 and ’97, Beara lined out in the Kelleher Shield – that was to prove a masterstroke as the divisional side was benefitting from a constant supply of competitive games against the top clubs in the county.
‘People say we were mad to enter the Kelleher Shield but we knew those games would stand to us,’ Donal O’Sullivan said.
‘We went to the county board and asked could we enter a team, it worked out in terms of numbers and we were in.’
‘We tried to get as many games into the legs as possible rather than training.’
Ciarán O’Sullivan adds: ‘Playing in the Kelleher Shield was a blessing. That gave us competitive games all the time; that stood to us. We didn’t fear anyone because we knew we were as good as them all on our day.’
The belief was growing all the time.
‘We saw Bantry, Castlehaven, Clonakilty, Skibbereen all winning the county championship and we knew we were as good as them and that if we could get it right that we had every chance,’ explained Brendan Jer who is back home in West Cork this summer, on holidays from Saudi Arabia where he and the family have set up camp for a few years.
Castletownbere were also going well at the time in the intermediate grade, reaching the final that year, and the working relationship between the local clubs and the division was another big factor. Games came thick and fast but everyone worked together for the greater good.
The 1997 campaign got off to an inauspicious start, Beara barely passing Clyda Rovers (0-13 to 1-9) in Dunmanway, Ciarán O’Sullivan kicking nine frees that day, the precursor to an incident-packed quarter-final against Na Piarsaigh that included a second half with four penalties as well as the sending-off of Beara captain Ollie O’Sullivan – a game that brings a smile to face of Brendan Jer for one reason....
‘The first game I played was against Na Piarsaigh down in Dunmanway,’ he recalled.
‘There was a gang of U21s on the team and we didn’t know what to expect.
‘Ollie was unreal in the dressing-room and in the warm-up, he must have said, “Nice guys win fuck all lads, nice guys win fuck all”, 100 times. He came saying it over and over and over.
‘We were going berserk, pumped up.
‘Ninety seconds into the second half Ollie got sent off …
‘It was a straight red.
‘We gave him an awful mocking for the rest of the season and for years afterwards.
‘But, in fairness, he was the best captain I ever played under.’
Not even O’Sullivan’s red card and the concession of three second-half penalties derailed Beara, as Na Piarsaigh missed two, Ciarán O’Sullivan scored Beara’s, and the western warriors survived, 2-10 to 1-7. Momentum was building.
Rivals Duhallow were next up in the county semi-final in Macroom but before a ball was kicked that Sunday (August 24th), Beara got a big, albeit controversial, boost.
The game was originally pencilled in for August 23rd, meaning the suspended Ollie O’Sullivan would have missed out. But, as The Southern Star at the time recalls, ‘at county board, Beara succeeded, on a vote, on having the game put back 24 hours thus enabling Ollie to play.’
‘I was fortunate. I’d a good defence team, there was some great Beara men, including Ger Batt O’Sullivan, in the county board at the time,’ Ollie Rua now smiles.
There was mention of no late ferries from Bere Island on the Saturday as a reason for the match to be pushed back until the Sunday …
That game was also notable for another reason: the recall of Paul Hanley.
‘Paul was just unreal when he came back in. He was brilliant that night. He was mighty in the finals, too. With him and Ciarán playing we knew we were good enough,’ Brendan Jer said.
Beara shocked a Duhallow team that included Danny Culloty and Jerome Walsh, and won by 0-15 to 0-7 to get back in a county senior football final for the first time since 1967.
Momentum was building and Donal O’Sullivan was confident.
‘After we won that game, I knew we had a good chance in the final, even if it was against Castlehaven,’ he said.
‘We treated every game like an All-Ireland final.’
Underdogs going into the county final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Beara used whatever leverage they could to gain an edge.
On the day of the drawn final against Castlehaven on October 12th, the players flicked through the match programme beforehand, stopping on a prediction that, Ollie Rua recalls, tipped ‘Castlehaven to shade it’.
‘We all left the programmes in a heap on the ground,’ he said, ‘we got our edges from small things like that.’
We’ll show this f*ckers was the attitude. David was fearless. Goliath never scared them.
Ollie Rua, Ciarán and Brendan Jer all agree on one point: Beara were lucky to come away with a draw in the first county final against Castlehaven in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, a match that drew over 16,000 supporters.
Castlehaven were expected to win, slight favourites in most peoples’ eyes. They had Larry Tompkins, Niall, Dinny and Francis Cahalane and John Cleary in their ranks.
‘On paper they looked untouchable,’ Donal O’Sullivan admits.
And with the scores tied in injury time, 0-10 apiece, one of the game’s finest long distance free-takers, Tompkins, stepped up to kick a 45 that would win the county final for the Haven.
‘He was able to kick 45s, 55s, 65s, whatever was put his way, so if you were a betting man you’d have backed him to score,’ Ciarán O’Sullivan said.
‘It would have been a horrendous way to lose, the last kick of the game.’
Donal O’Sullivan remembers exactly where he was when Tompkins lined up that kick.
‘I was doing the old stand side, there was a slight breeze, conditions were tricky under foot, he lined it up perfectly, it stayed on the trajectory he wanted it to but the ball just drifted a yard wide,’ he recalled.
‘We got out of jail that day.’
Beara got a large slice of luck that all good teams need.
The champagne was on ice.
‘Jesus Christ, perform’ – that was what was going through Donal O’Sullivan’s mind ahead of the replay.
The drawn game confirmed to him that Beara could compete against Castlehaven; now they needed to take their chance.
The replay a couple of weeks later couldn’t come fast enough.
‘Paul Hanley, he played well in the drawn game but played out of his skin in the replay. He had no doubt leaving Urhan that morning that we were going to deliver. He lorded midfield that day from start to finish, pure power,’ Brendan Jer said.
Hanley was man of the match in the replay, a day where Beara had heroes all over the pitch.
‘The conditions were appalling for the replay. I don’t know how it went ahead. If it was to be played today it wouldn’t have gone ahead. It was a mud bath,’ Ciarán O’Sullivan recalls.
‘We were up against it, they were ahead, we needed something to turn the game for us.’
In the 42nd minute, with the scores tied 0-7 apiece, Colin Crowley goaled for Castlehaven, as they hit the front.
But Beara didn’t panic. They had been waiting for this moment, building for years.
‘Seamus Spencer was a fella I had known since he was 13, 14, so I knew him well,’ Donal O’Sullivan explains.
‘Things weren’t running his way in the final. People were screaming at me, ‘Take him off!’, but I knew he was an opportunist and a goal scorer, and he popped up with the winning goal.
‘If you were going on stats he’d have been whipped off in the first half but he got the goal that turned the game.’
That decisive blow, a peach of a goal, was landed in the 52nd minute as Beara came up with all the answers in the final quarter.
Neil Murphy was a rock in defence, the stylish Ciarán O’Sullivan and Paul Hanley lording midfield, Alan O’Regan a constant danger in attack, Spencer coming good in the last quarter, Brendan Jer O’Sullivan and Michael Harrington also to the fore.
Beara had to bring on teenage goalkeeper Timmy O’Shea, too, after regular number one Padraig O’Sullivan went down with a knee injury, but even this didn’t upset their rhythm.
For Brendan Jer, a teenager in his first season, just finished his Leaving Cert months earlier, it was the stuff of dreams.
‘I was on Dinny Cahalane for most of it, Niall Cahalane for a spell, but Dinny was tough as nails as well. Ciarán, Cahalane and Tompkins would have been my three heroes growing up watching football so to play with one and against two was fairly special,’ he said.
‘I always felt that we were that bit better on the second day. Maybe we gained that bit of experience in the draw,’ Ciarán O’Sullivan adds.
Beara won 1-10 to 1-7 in front of a crowd of over 12,000.
The 30-year wait was over. The gap to ’67 was bridged.
This was a victory for the people of Beara, too, for every corner and club of the peninsula that had come together to play its part in this success.
The party was just getting started.
The west was awake.
(Incidentally, Castlehaven still went on to compete in the Munster club championship that year as Beara, a divisional team, couldn’t)
‘If ever there was a county celebrated, this was it,’ Brendan Jer laughs, and Beara did celebrate that winter, right into January and that holiday in Malaga – the first time Brendan Jer left the country and was on an aeroplane.
But the hangover caught up with them in 1998.
‘Unfortunately Beara didn’t build on ’97. The seniors and U21s won the county the same year (1997) – but we haven’t won it since,’ Ciarán O’Sullivan said, shaking his head.
‘We would have been in our prime.
‘I don’t know whether people were content with winning just one, maybe the same drive wasn’t there – but it should have been.’
The sense of regret is there.
That Beara team should have kicked on. They had the players, the winning mentality, experience, confidence and had shaken the monkey off their back with the ’97 triumph. But Nemo knocked them out in a second round replay in ’98.
The first day, Stephen O’Brien scored a late equaliser in the 1-8 to 0-11 draw in Skibbereen before Nemo’s demolition job in the replay knocked Beara out cold (2-14 to 0-5).
‘We should have won comfortably the first day. As Nemo do, they beat us the second day,’ Donal O’Sullivan said.
‘We were disappointed that we didn’t get another run at senior level because it would have brought a lot of those guys on even further.
‘We were four, five years on the go by then and that’s long for a divisional side and it does take its toll.’
An opportunity was missed.
After the success of ’97, his first senior campaign, Brendan Jer thought winning a county title was normal, that Beara would win one every year – but 20 years on they’re still waiting for a seventh Cork SFC.
That wait will go on for some time yet as Beara’s current stock doesn’t suggest a repeat of the mid 1990s is on the cards.
But that ’97 team showed what was possible when the stars aligned – a division united and, fearless, beat the best in the county.
Almost twenty years have passed since the November Sunday in mucky Páirc Uí Chaoimh when they lowered Castlehaven’s colours but to all involved the memories are still fresh. The clock stops when they all meet.
The Beara board is organising a victory celebration dance for the 1997 senior and U21 county champions and the senior winning ’67 heroes on Friday, October 27th in Castletownbere – another chance to relive the glory days and the fun they had.
No doubt the trip to Malaga will come up, a holiday that was 30 years in the making.