‘THE dressing room was not a pleasant place to be. All the effort we had put in over the winter had come to nothing. There was nothing to say – what can you say? I came out of the ground and I was devastated’ – they are the words Larry Tompkins reached for, in his 2020 autobiography, Believe, to describe the aftermath of one of his lowest moments in football.
Even now, 26 years on, it still stings Tompkins.
In his first season as Cork senior football manager, he rocked up at Cusack Park in Ennis with his band of Rebels for the 1997 Munster Senior Football Championship semi-final. The expectation was a Cork win en route to a traditional battle of the bluebloods against Kerry in the provincial final.
But Clare played the spoilsport.
It wasn’t a stone that felled Goliath on this June Sunday, it was Martin Daly, and hips Shakira would be proud of, who slalomed his way through the Cork defence to sensationally score the injury-time goal that knocked the Rebels out.
72:34 – that was the time on the clock when Daly’s low effort whizzed past Cork shot-stopper Kevin O’Dwyer to send the home fans into raptures.
The last kick in a game that had seen wasteful Cork kick 17 wides.
Clare 1-14 Cork 1-13.
‘We just left ourselves exposed,’ Tompkins tells The Southern Star.
‘We could have been ten points up at that stage but we left ourselves vulnerable.
‘I felt going into the game that we were in a good position but just on the day, we gave it to Clare. I know they snatched it at the end but we kicked 17 wides, had been completely dominant but we didn’t take our chances.’
While Martin Daly’s match-winning goal dominated the national headlines, Cork’s wastefulness was not excused either. The Southern Star report of that shock loss highlighted the ‘appalling inaccuracy’ of a Cork team that ‘threw it away’. They were five points up at half time, had the wind in the second half, but kicked 12 wides in the second period alone.
It left Tompkins’ side wide open to a late ambush.
Clare, down by two, won a late free. Ger Keane flicked it into Martin Daly. He slipped his marker, and evaded several Cork challenges to create the space for a shot across goal that raced past Kevin O’Dwyer.
This was the football world before the back-door. No second chances. Cork were out.
‘We were a little naive in relation to our defending. It was a one-two and it shouldn’t have happened. There were a load of people back and a load of defenders and the shot went through a lot of bodies, and into the corner. We had no time to respond,’ Tompkins says.
‘The next two weeks, I hardly came out into the fresh air, it was a fairly numb feeling. When you put in so much work and so much time with players, a defeat like that hurts.’
Fachtna Collins was on the pitch when Daly scored that Clare goal. The Ilen Rovers man leans on one word to describe the feeling afterwards: devastated.
‘We had been in the league final against Kerry, had been going well so we were going into the championship fairly confident,’ Collins explains.
‘We put a lot into that season. We trained a lot. I remember a session at Inchydoney on St Stephen’s Day. We didn’t take Clare lightly but we backed ourselves, and we should have had them put away before what happened. We had the chances.
‘It was heartbreaking in the end. We should never have been in that position.’
Collins wasn’t on the Cork panel for the Division 1 league final, but got his opportunity for the championship after Bantry Blues footballer Damian O’Neill tore his ACL in club action on May 18th. That was a big blow as O’Neill was flying and a key man in Tompkins’ Cork plans. An all West Cork partnership manned the midfield against Clare, as Collins stood alongside Pat Hegarty of Tadhg MacCarthaigh.
But it was a West Cork footballer who didn’t play that day that could have made a difference.
‘When I look back and think what could I have done differently, I probably left Niall (Cahalane) on the line and he could have given us a good bit of experience. I probably should have started him; it was a mistake not to,’ Tompkins admits.
Ronan McCarthy was another experienced figure left on the sideline for the Clare clash, with both players paying the price for their performances in the league final defeat to Kerry.
‘They probably didn’t have their best days in the league final and we changed the team around a little bit. If I had my way again I certainly would be starting Niall and Ronan. Looking back, if those two players were on the field I think it wouldn't have happened,’ Tompkins muses, as this was one that got away.
Clare, who has pushed Cork to a replay in 1996, put it up to Páide Ó Sé’s Kerry in the Munster final, but the Kingdom advanced to join Mayo, Cavan and Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-finals. The neighbours across the county bounds ultimately went all the way.
‘I felt we would have given Kerry a good rattle,’ Fachtna Collins says.
‘There was no Meath, no Dublin, Kerry were building, Cavan had come out of Ulster, Offaly out of Leinster, so it was a big chance lost to do something.
‘I was only 24 years old at the time and we felt we’d have another chance the next year, but chances like that don’t come around too often.
‘You have to take every chance when it comes. We didn’t that day against Clare, and we were out before we knew it.’
Tompkins agrees it was a missed opportunity.
‘I felt we could have gone a long way that year. Kerry went on to win the All-Ireland, and we weren’t far away from them. It was a massive downer. It took a while to recover from that, considering what we had put into the year,’ he says.
The Rebels had to wait until 1999 for their next Munster SFC success, and since then Cork have won only five more provincial titles (2002, ’06, ’08, ’09 and ’12). The wait goes on. The current group, also under Castlehaven stewardship like the ’97 team, begin their Munster campaign at Cusack Park this Sunday, confident they’ll get off to a winning start, like the Rebels 26 years ago. The lesson, as Facthna Collins says, is to take your chances, and don’t leave yourself open to heartbreak.