It’s 20 years since Bantry Blues won the Cork SFC title. TOM LYONS looks back on that famous day
THEY talked of the ‘old Blues’ of the 1930s, great players like Timmy Cotter, Tim Harrington and Danny McCarthy, for generations until new heroes arrived on the scene in the 1970s.
Declan Barron and Donal Hunt built a tradition that made the name of Bantry synonymous with all that was great in Gaelic football. It was a tradition that was difficult to live up to but the Blues of the 1990s managed to surpass what had gone before.
It all began at underage level in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a talented group of players delivered Carbery and county titles in all grades. In 1993, the club won the premier minor and U21A county titles and a very young team, captained by Cork star Mark O’Connor, won the county intermediate title. The county U21 title was again won in 1994.
While an adaptational period might have been expected at senior level, Bantry delivered the Andy Scannell Cup in 1995, when the talented Damien O’Neill, the ‘new Barron’, captained the team to a glorious 0-10 to 0-8 victory over Muskerry in the final.
The sky was now the limit for this young Bantry team as they looked set to dominate Cork football for years to come but it didn’t happen that way. A lack of focus and serious injuries knocked the team off track for the next two years. At the beginning of 1998, so worried was chairman Dr Denis Cotter by the attitude of the club in general that a special three-man sub-committee was set up to investigate problems in the club and to put structures in place. The improvement was almost instantaneous.
Terry O’Neill was the manager of the senior footballers and he had the players training in the gym in January and outdoors in February. With Terry doing the training and coaching, the team was the one of the fittest ever to come out of Bantry. Assisting Terry as selectors were Dr Cotter and Florrie O’Mahony, who had been involved with the county winning junior team of 1972 and the intermediate team of 1975 as well as being involved with Blackrock SHC-winning teams. He travelled from Ballincollig each night for training and was a real motivating factor behind the team. Getting the injured players back into shape was physio, Sinéad Gallagher.
The good news was that Damien O’Neill, the most elegant footballer and best fielder in the county at the time, was on the way back after his cruciate injury the previous season, while young Philip Clifford was also recovering from his serious knee injury.
Bantry were paired with Na Piarsigh in the first round of the county. This was the third year in a row for the clubs to meet, with the city team having eliminated Bantry in 1997.
There was no mistake this time as Bantry, with new young players like Colman Keohane, Graham Canty, Philip Clifford, Jeremy Canty, Declan O’Shea and Eric Sheehan to the fore, won by 3-14 to 1-10.
Next were CIT and after a great start, Bantry were put to the pin of their collar to win by 1-16 to 3-7, with a question mark over the defence. The quarter-final was no contest as Imokilly were beaten by 0-19 to 0-6.
The clash all West Cork wanted to see arrived in the semi-final when Bantry faced 1997 county finalists and Munster champions Castlehaven in Dunmanway. The Haven had hammered Clonakilty and beaten O’Donovan Rossa by double scores but on the day, in front of a huge crowd, Bantry were in a different class as they surged to a 1-13 to 0-6 victory, the only black spot being the 15 wides. Bantry were in the final and the apathy that had worried Dr Cotter back in January was now but a fading memory as the drive to bring back the Andy Scannell Cup surpassed even that of 1995.
The opponents in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on October 4th were Duhallow, county champions in 1990 and 1991, trained by John Fintan Daly and backboned by county stars Mark O’Sullivan, John Buckley and Danny Culloty. They had beaten Aghada and Carbery and knocked out Nemo Rangers in a replayed semi-final.
The Bantry team was now at its prime, with Mark O’Connor at 29 the oldest player. Des McAuley was the outstanding goalkeeper while O’Connor was full-back, flanked by the energetic army cadet Niall Twomey and Eamon McCarthy. The experienced Pádraig O’Regan, a ball of action, was centre back, with young Graham Canty, soon to become a legend in his own right, and Eric Sheehan on the wings.
Midfield was where Bantry won most of the games with the majestic O’Neill, captain again in 1998, partnered by the dynamic Mick Moran, an incredible worker and a great favourite of the crowd, but taken from us at far too young an age.
Up front, 19-year old Philip Clifford was the real star at corner forward, alongside the elusive Jeremy Canty and Declan O’Shea. The Bantry supporters had a new chant that season, ‘Olé, olé, O’Shea, O’Shea.’
Three superb footballers, the classy Seán McCarthy, leader Stephen Dineen, and impressive import Paul O’Rourke, formed a dynamic half forward line that loved to play pure football. The unlucky player was the dynamic defender, another staunch Blue, Timmy O’Mahony, who was out injured for the season.
Not only were Bantry impressive in every position, plus class subs like Andy O’Shea, Gerdi Barry, Colman Keohane, Kieran Cronin, Eugene Connolly, Shane O’Neill, Michael Lynch, Shamie Culloty and Alan Farrelly, but football supporters loved them because they played a wonderful brand of pure football, so reminiscent of Bantry teams of old. Bantry loved to kick the ball but they played at a ferocious pace. When they got it right, they were poetry in motion and a joy to watch.
Get it right they certainly did in the final, and they needed to against a Duhallow side that gave it everything on the day. The game, in front of more than 14,000 spectators, was an absorbing contest played at a blistering pace from start to finish. With seven of their players sharing in the scoring and the O’Neill-Moran axis dominating, Bantry were 0-11 to 1-1 in front in the third quarter before Duhallow launched a marvellous comeback that cut the lead to a single point, 0-12 to 2-5. They were nervous moments for the Blues but they finished in the true style of champions to record a glorious 0-17 to 2-6 victory.
Despite losing the Munster semi-final unexpectedly, to Moyle Rovers of Tipperary, in atrocious conditions in Dunmanway, having beaten Kerry champions, Laune Rangers in the quarter final, the Bantry Blues of 1998 had truly earned immortality for themselves in the annals of Bantry and Cork football. The flame slowly flickered and died over the following years but Damien O’Neill and his marvellous team of pure footballers will never be forgotten.
We eagerly await the next batch of Bantry footballing heroes.