They had Teddy McCarthy.
We had Mick Lyons. And Liam Harnan. We had Liam Hayes, Colm O’Rourke, Brian Stafford and Bernard Flynn too. Yes, they had Larry Tompkins, Conor Counihan and Niall Cahalane. But they had Teddy McCarthy. And there was something different about Teddy McCarthy.
Firstly, two weeks before the 1990 All-Ireland senior football final he was blazing across our TV screens helping Cork beat Galway in the hurling decider. On his way to history. For some Meath folk, that annual live hurling game on the first Sunday of September was kind of like the pubs closing on Good Friday: you didn’t fully understand it, nevertheless every year the tradition was observed. Hurling would be watched.
Just 12 months earlier we had been on our couches for the Nicky English final, the afternoon Tipperary supporters enveloped the pitch long before the final whistle as their hurlers vanquished Antrim.
It’s fair to surmise that in September 1990 Meath fans who cared anything for the hurling final wanted Galway to win it. Or, more accurately, they wanted Cork to lose. Because in that era Meath and Cork lived in each other’s heads.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s the counties shared a bitter and brutal rivalry in which bouts of football occasionally broke out. Mostly, it was attritional warfare.
The passing of time, and sadly also of some players, has over the years helped mend fences between the squads. In recent days there have been texts and calls between some old sparring partners.
“They are just devastated,” says Bernard Flynn, the former Meath forward. “They’ve lost John Kerins, Mick McCarthy, now Teddy. It’s a lot for a group, especially at such young ages.”
Flynn met McCarthy over the years, when they would trade war stories and chat easily about life after the game. But long before friendships formed, within the Meath dressingroom there was an undoubted respect for McCarthy.
“If you ask anybody in our squad, the way he was revered and thought of with our fellahs, particularly our leaders, that is one of the biggest tributes I can give him,” says Flynn.
“He was massively regarded. In every game, every moment, he gave everything of himself. If he made a mistake he went at it again. He tackled the same way every single time, as if his life depended on it.
“And he was unbelievably strong, he was one of the only guys who could always break a tackle, it didn’t matter who was in front of him. Off the field he was great fun, he was a maverick who did it his own way.”
Of all the traits that made McCarthy a special player, perhaps his aerial ability was the most eye-catching. It was as if he had been blessed with mini trampolines on the soles of his feet, allowing him to spring above everybody else on the pitch. And when airborne, McCarthy would appear to hover there until the ball nestled in his grasp. Nowadays we’d call it hang-time, but back then it looked kind of otherworldly.
In his book, Out Of Our Skins, former Meath footballer Liam Hayes wrote about their efforts to try prevent McCarthy using his superpower in the middle of the field.
“McCarthy’s fielding is incredible, and if he gets any sort of short run up to the catch he’ll be difficult to stop,” stated Hayes, before describing how Gerry McEntee might try to halt the Cork midfielder. “I know what he’ll try to do, he’ll work so hard around the field that he’ll drive McCarthy to distraction, and he’ll try to tangle with him at every kick out.”
Meath got the better of Cork in the 1987 and 1988 All-Ireland senior football finals.
Then, on September 2nd, 1990 we watched McCarthy on our TV screens as McCarthy pulled balls from the clouds above Croke Park in the All-Ireland hurling final. He scored three points. Cork and McCarthy would not be beaten that day.
Nor would they be denied two weeks later as Meath became a footnote in the history-making achievement of the first man to win All-Ireland senior medals in both codes in the same year.
Denis Walsh was also part of both Cork panels in 1990 but as an unused sub in the final against Meath he did not receive a football medal. McCarthy finished his career with two senior All-Irelands in both hurling and football, and was selected at midfield on the 1989 All Star football team. But it is that fortnight in September 1990 that set him apart.
Among the tributes doing the rounds on social media on Tuesday night was a story of an encounter Anthony Daly had in a bar one night many years ago. Daly was asked how many All-Irelands he had garnered during his career, and on informing the inquisitor he had two, the Clare hurler was told it had taken a chap in Cork just two weeks to win the same amount.
Irish sport lost a genuine trailblazing superstar on Tuesday. Gone much too young. He is survived by his wife Oonagh, sons Cian and Niall, daughter Sinead, brothers Pat and Denis and sisters Breda, Philly and Mary.
He remains the GAA’s unrivalled dual star.
We had Mick Lyons. And Liam Harnan. We had Liam Hayes, Colm O’Rourke, Brian Stafford and Bernard Flynn too.
But they had Teddy McCarthy.
And nowhere but Cork was there a player like Teddy McCarthy.