Former Sligo captain sets the record straight

Sat, Aug 4, 2007, 01:00

All-Ireland SFC Quarter-finals: Ian O'Riordantalks to Barnes Murphy, captain of the 1975 Connacht title-winning Sligo team

The championship still breeds on romantic tales of innocence, and they don't come much better than Sligo's last visit to Croke Park as holders of the Connacht football title.

It was 1975, and Sligo had just landed their first provincial crown since 1928 - and only second ever. Celebrations ran wild for the week. Their trip to Croke Park for the semi-final was like a walk on the moon, and facing up against a young but no less daunting Kerry team meant expectations were minimal.

So Sligo simply enjoyed it. They waved to the crowd throughout the pre-match parade with the look of a team happy just to be there. Kerry sensed their weakness, moved promptly in for the kill, and it ended in a massacre: Kerry 3-13 Sligo 0-5.

Since then, it's been a handy reference for complacency, and all harmless enough - if only it were true. Nostalgia often distorts reality, and for the members of that Sligo team what actually happened in Croke Park 32 years ago is a different tale.

"I certainly wasn't waving to the crowd," says Barnes Murphy, the 1975 captain, trainer, and team mentor. "And nobody behind me was waving.

"Maybe one or two players acknowledged a person or two, but there definitely weren't any arms waving about, or this idea that Sligo went in there waving their hands about to everybody.

"That's not dreaming about it either. We went up to beat Kerry, and no matter what anybody thinks, we were a lot closer than that final score.

"And I was very annoyed to hear Pat Spillane going on about that again recently, saying that about this Sligo team, that we were waving to the crowd. Sure Pat Spillane was a great footballer, but he can be very insulting as well, to a lot of counties."

As Murphy hastens to explain, Sligo had little to fear about that 1975 Kerry team. They had just beaten a highly-regarded Mayo team in the Connacht final, and who themselves had beaten most of the Kerry team in the All-Ireland under-21 final the year before. Murphy had been a Sligo player since 1967, and with the experience of losing the 1971 Connacht final to Galway, was determined to make the most of the 1975 success.

"It was our first title in 47 years," he adds, "and of course people were going absolutely crazy. As trainer and coach it was my job to call a halt, and get people back training. And we were back training the following weekend.

"Since the Connacht final had gone to a replay, we had only three weeks before the Kerry game, instead of five. So we'd really only one week, because the week before you can't do much, only talk about what you'll do, and things like that.

"But we were still on a high going up to Croke Park, really looking forward to it. We knew if Mayo had beaten us they'd have been very confident of beating Kerry, and we felt the same."

Murphy also did his homework. As the All Star centre back in 1974, he'd travelled on the tour to San Francisco and Los Angeles in April of 1975, and got to know a range of successful players, such as Galway's John Tobin, Cork's Billy Morgan, Dublin's David Hickey and Anton O'Toole, and also the Dublin manager, Kevin Heffernan.

"I got to know Heffernan quite well, and when I knew I was taking over Sligo's training I talked to a lot of others as well, such as Brian McEniff in Donegal and John "Tull" Dunne in Galway. Anyone in that position would look to experience for help, and give them a little more confidence.

"So we were pretty confident, and in no way overawed, not at all. We went up there with a good balanced team, some younger players, and some around for a while. Like Matty Hoey, Francie Henry, Dessie Kearns, all six foot two or three, and Mick Laffey. James Kearins was just after coming in, and we'd Micky Kearins as well.

"Micky was coming to the end of his career, had been playing for Sligo since 1961. And he wasn't going to play in 1975 except I'd taken over the team, and asked him to play, coaxed him back, and he did add a lot to us. In fairness to Kearins, he was a little past his best, but he still played very well for us."

Murphy even brought "Tull" Dunne and McEniff to Croke Park for additional experience - "although some of our friends in Sligo weren't too happy about that" - and Sligo, he felt, were ready to put it up to Kerry.

"We got a penalty early on and missed it. We got a 21-yard free and missed that too, which was kicked into the hands of John O'Keeffe, and came back up the field for a Kerry point.

"But midway through the second half there were still only five points in it, until some bright spark on the sideline made some changes, like brought out the full back, John Brennan, to midfield, our midfielder to corner back, and a few other things we shouldn't have done.

"Then the floodgates opened. John Egan hadn't got a kick before that, and ended up making three goals for Kerry. I would have gone to midfield, because John would never have gone to midfield. That was made by one of the selectors on the sideline. But for 12 months afterwards no one would admit it."

Another problem, says Murphy, was neither "Tull" Dunne nor McEniff were able to pass on the half-time advice he was looking for: "And I can tell you why, because they were snubbed. They wanted to make a few changes, and I was wondering where these men where, to give us some advice.

"I've often said it, that despite what anyone else thinks, we know it ourselves we could have gone three points clear in that game, if say Kearins had scored that penalty. So there are some regrets, definitely. A few of us would talk about that when we meet, and that we didn't get any credit for the way we played against Kerry.

"But halfway through the second half it was 0-11 to 0-5 to Kerry. I remember Kevin Heffernan came to our function afterwards, and told us Dublin were going to wipe that Kerry team off the field in the final. And Kerry had them beaten after 15 minutes. They didn't do that to us, not until the last 10 minutes."

Despite all the positives Sligo drew from that year, tomorrow's All-Ireland quarter-final against Cork marks their first return to Croke Park as Connacht champions since 1975 - although they have made a few notable return trips in the qualifiers.

For Murphy, it's obviously been 32 years too long.

"After 1975, I thought we'd be winning Connacht finals every two or three years. Our captain from 1928 was there, and he was an old man with a stick, and I remember thinking to myself I won't be an old man like that when the next captain comes along. But for the last few years there I thought I might.

"Part of it has been this inferiority complex in Sligo. What opened my eyes was the All Star trip in 1975, and the way, say, the Galway or Mayo players saw Sligo. They'd say to us we're playing in the Connacht championship, that Sligo would play well for 50 minutes, but they'd beat us in the last 20. That's what was happening. I came back and was telling our lads this, that there was no way they were going to beat us.

"And I remember Bobby Doyle, a lovely fella, but on the field he was just a hard player. Other people would tell you this and that. I realised they were just normal fellas like us, loved their football like us, but just played it a bit different."

This Sligo team, says Murphy, have finally put that inferiority complex aside. Celebrations after the provincial title were minimal and with the pressure of Connacht success out of way he believes Sligo have yet to play their best football.

"There was a civic reception organised for the team after winning Connacht, but that was put off until the end of the season. These players have a lot more on their mind than that.

"And Sligo won't be afraid of Cork. They're a hard-working team. I know Cork are very talented footballers, but we should match them in the middle of the field.

"If Sligo are in striking distance halfway through the second half then Cork better watch out. Sligo fear no one, and there's no way they're going up just for the day."

No less than Murphy and his team were in 1975.