It’s just the strangest of things. The game that’s embedded deepest in my psyche was one that I wasn’t even at.
As ever, technology is to blame.
Sometime in the winter of 1985 or the spring of 1986 a VCR domiciled itself in the front room of our home in Ballinhassig. As I was only three when it arrived I don’t know whether the full potential of the machine from a sporting perspective was understood at the time, but I have a feeling that if it was, it wasn’t readily acknowledged.
After years of only being able to watch games once and a few years of having the luxury of highlights, the VCR was an opportunity for complete immersion. It was a machine that gave you the chance to tape one thing while watching another, though that in itself didn’t completely solve differences of taste.
In general though, it was the great appeaser, soaps and sport, mother and father lived in harmony. However, when the Sunday Game was on, it only meant one thing; it was an opportunity to watch it, tape it and to re-watch it ad infinitum.
My father can present himself as a luddite when it suits him, but once he understands that technology can help with his fanatical GAA tendencies, he’s a quick learner. The VCR posed no problem. Neither did Twitter. Facebook doesn’t do live updates so it’s beyond the Pale. As for Buff Egan? We’re not quite there. Yet.
However, with necessity being the mother of invention and all that, inevitably it was my brother who ensured that the 1986 All-Ireland final was ready to watch on their return from Dublin in September ’86. I was still too young to travel, thus denying my slightly older sister the chance to (a status-quo that continued until 1988), but we did have the video.
So, every Saturday morning, I watched it, and watched it and watched it again. And so did my sister because I wasn’t very good at reasoning, but was very good at sulking.
I’ve written before how it was my first introduction to Kieran Kingston, but much more importantly, it was the beginning of the love affair.
It’s been years since I’ve seen it, but I don’t really need to see it as it’s all still there.
Of course, it was a completely different sport to the one we watch today but it was, is, just as enthralling.
Possession was ceded without thought, ground hurling was greatly appreciated, Galway’s running style wasn’t and their tactic of the third midfielder that got to them to the final proved to be their undoing, as Johnny Crowley claimed the man-of-the-match award from corner-back. He swept across the full-back line but he definitely wasn’t a sweeper.
As much as anything else, the game, the occasion oozed character and characters.
An unrecognizably, slight Michael Lester hosted from a cardboard box in the Nally Stand in the company of the great Con Roche and the late, great Joe McDonagh. Ger Canning tripped his way through the commentary, as only he can, in the company of an impossibly cantankerous Éamonn Cregan. It was a duo that was never going to last.
Early on, Canning praises the skill of John Fenton as he cuts a line-ball 200 or so yards before Cregan, ever the pragmatist, rains on his parade, lamenting how, as the ball went wide, it gave a free puck to the opposition.
Later on, the aforementioned MOTM, Johnny Crowley, is described as being ‘lost out there’ due to Cyril Farrell’s tactics. Though, to be fair, I’ve heard it said that the accolade Crowley picked up that day was the one he should have received in ’84.
Cork’s jersey was, is a garment of rare beauty, with the white crest emblazoned proudly over the left breast. Only four of the starting Cork fifteen wore helmets, and with this being 1986, face-guards were still some way off.
But even the helmets were a sign of character. Fenton’s timeless white cooper befitted a man of his grace while Conor Hayes’ space-man effort in and around the Galway square was only suitable for a full-back.
More importantly, there was a face to every name. You’d Ger Cunningham’s calming presence in goals, Denis Mulcahy with a Big Brother style mustache watching over things outside of him next to Richard Browne, Johnny Crowley visibly reading the game as it progressed, Pat Hartnett’s ferocity in the tackle and in possession, particularly when bursting out.
Then there’s Tom Cashman’s effortless grace, his brother, Jim’s, youthful enthusiasm, Denis Walsh endeavouring to survive, Teddy Mac’s star-quality, Tomás Mull’s city swagger, Tony Sull’s artistry, Kevin Hennessey’s brilliance and Ger Fitzgearld’s panache.
And Jimmy Barry Murphy.
Galway had Pete Finnerty and his cinema-screen forehead, the menace of Sylvie Linnane and Ollie Kilkenny, the mustachioed, mulleted and white-boot wearing Gerry McInerney, the enigmatic Tony Keady and the great Joe Cooney.
They also had Noel Lane (who, in an example of our bottomless wit, we christened Noel Road) and “Pierce Piggott, the man from Gort”. To this day I can’t drive past Gort without that running through my mind.
My abiding memories of the game itself are Fenton’s injury, the ‘coming together’ of Hartnett and Brendan Lynskey, Tomás Mull’s goal, Hennessey’s criminally under-rated second goal, JBM’s overhead point that was tragically called back for a free and Tom Cashman having a cut off the Lord Mayor of Galway at the end of his speech.
Not only did I nearly wear out the tape, but I also severely tested the durability of the rewind button. To borrow from Johnny Clifford’s post game interview with Canning in the dressing room, the whole thing was, is, just”marvelous Ger, marvelous, marvelous”.
Looking back, the victory brought the curtain down on Cork’s days of grandeur in the hurling world. It capped off a five-in-a-row in Munster, followed on from the seismic win in ’84 and helped ease the pain of ’82 and ’83 to some extent.
Cork have only won four All-Irelands in the intervening thirty-four years, and by the time 1990 rolled along only eight of the starting team of ’86 were still dancing. The team of 1999-2008 raised the curtain again, but we won’t bother with all the ins and outs of that period.
More than anything else, the 1986 All-Ireland hurling final was the game that made me believe that ‘Cork are Cork’ but the years since have taught me that it’s more a case of ‘Cork were Cork’.
As for the present, we are obviously living through unprecedented times. As we are all forced to spend more time at home it gives us the opportunity to think, to reflect and to reminisce.
We can think too much, get lost in a never-ending cycle of global, geo-political possibilities, false messages and things we can’t control, or we can reflect on who we are, what we can control and what’s important. The reminiscing will help us see what is.
It’s hard to see VCRs making a vinyl-like comeback, but TG4, Eir Sport and YouTube might help shorten some of the long evenings that lie ahead for us all. If they do, it’ll be a good sign.
However, when all of this is over, I want to drive out home, put on the kettle and watch that game once more with my family and all that come with us. We might even tolerate a few minutes of the ’86 football final for my wife. These are, after all, unprecedented times.
It’s important to have something to look forward to. In the interim, here we’ll be looking back as life moves on, as it always does.