Football 2020: It’s a knockout revisited – ‘You played, you lost, you went home’
Darragh Ó Sé and Kevin McStay recall days when teams got no second chance
Munster Championship Football Final 1/7/2007Kerry vs CorkKerry’s Kiernan Donaghy, Colm Cooper and Paul Galvin walk behind the marching band.Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Brian Corcoran tells a story in his autobiography of training with the Cork footballers in October of 1996. They were in Inchydoney, running their legs to stumps early in the morning and the going was brutal.
“After three runs of the circuit,” Corcoran writes, “half of us were keeled over, the other half flat on our backs.
“An English couple were walking on the beach and they asked were we some kind of football team. The lads told them we were. ‘When’s your game?’ they asked. Kevin O’Dwyer found the strength to lift his head. ‘Next June.’”
When the game came around, eight long months later, Cork’s labours were undone deep into injury time of a bitty game in Ennis. Clare’s Ger Keane snuck a quick free to Martin Daly and his low shot squirted under three Cork bodies to find the net. Referee Séamus Curley blew the long whistle while the kick-out was in the air and that was Cork’s year done.
It was a barbaric system, when you think about it. Generations of intercounty players endured month after month of preparation for 70 minutes of play. No second chances, no regrouping, no rising from the ashes. Just one afternoon, kill or be killed.
Kevin McStay played out his whole career with Mayo in the old system. Darragh Ó Sé started his in the pure knockout days and finished it winning his sixth All-Ireland with Kerry through the back door of the qualifiers. As the one-and-done format is back for one last championship, we put the pair of them on a conference call and set the tape rolling to see what they could tell us about how it was.
Kevin McStay: In 1985, we drew with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. We lost the replay but we were a young team and we were a coming team. There was no question about it – we had won the under-21 All-Ireland in ’83 and had given Kerry a fair licking in the semi-final, which is hard to believe. And in 1985, Mayo had won the minor All-Ireland. So by 1986, there was momentum in the county. Everybody could feel it.
Darragh Ó Sé: I can see where this is heading . . .
McStay: And then we went out to play Roscommon on the 15th of June and they caught us. Absolutely caught us cold. Beat us 1-11 to 0-12 and that was that. We had no excuse. We were gone.
Malachy Clerkin: And the upshot of that is all that potential had nowhere to go.
McStay: That’s exactly it. Because the way the draw fell that year, it was going to be a Connacht-Ulster All-Ireland semi-final. If you were a coming team in Connacht, you wanted to play the Ulster team in the semi-final. And it was the same in Ulster, of course. So when we were caught cold in June, it wasn’t just the year that was ruined. It was the next three years. That was how you felt. Some lads drifted off, some lads went to America, some lads were never seen again. One bad day could be so destructive like that.
Ó Sé: People now wouldn’t really understand how loose it all was. When I started in 1994, Cork beat us in Páirc Uí Chaoimh at the end of June. And after that, you break up and you might never see some of those players again. Literally never see them.
McStay: That’s it. You’d go back to your club and you’d see some of the county lads there or in local games. But if a lad from the far end of the county was on the other side of the draw, it could be the guts of six months before you came across him again. If at all.
Clerkin: In later years, Darragh, Kerry made a habit of losing to Cork early on and coming back to haunt them down the line. But at the start, it was a different story.
Ó Sé: Definitely. I was playing for Kerry for three years before we managed to beat them. And actually, by the time we did, in 1996, it was the first Kerry win over Cork since 1992. You played, you lost, you went home.
No second chance
Clerkin: And were you aggrieved at not having a second chance?
Ó Sé: No. You never questioned it. You were just so happy to be playing for Kerry. My mother still has the letter at home that came through the door the first time, saying you have been selected on the Kerry panel to play such-and-such a league game. That was what was important. The format of the championship didn’t come in it.
There was one year when we had 3½ months between our last game in the league and the start of the championship
McStay: The thing you have to remember is that there was a lovely rhythm to the intercounty year in those days. You played four league games before Christmas and they were grand matches where nobody was really doing any serious training and really nothing was at stake. You’d go for an overnight somewhere like Monaghan or Cork or Louth and you’d have the best of times.
Ó Sé: We used to go up to play Donegal in Ballyshannon and we’d stay in Brian McEniff’s hotel up there the night before. And even though McEniff was a pioneer, he made sure and warn the barmen that if they saw a Kerry player walking through the bar, they were to be set up with a free pint before they had a chance to get out the far door. And sure, you couldn’t be rude about it.
McStay: There was one year when we had 3½ months between our last game in the league and the start of the championship. So you had plenty of time to tail off and then to ramp up.
Ó Sé: It was actually quite comfortable in that respect. I wouldn’t change those days for the world.
McStay: You took your football seriously. Don’t imagine it was all just a bit of craic – it wasn’t. But it was a different time.
Ó Sé: There was also an element of you not really being public property back then the way players are now. Not to the same extent anyway.
McStay: Nothing like it is today, definitely not.
Ó Sé: I remember going for a quiet pint on the Wednesday after the 2002 final when Armagh beat us. I had been captain and my father had passed away during the championship so I wasn’t in great form. There was an old man sitting up at the counter and he says, ‘Did you go to Dublin on Sunday?’ I said I did. And he goes, ‘Well, that was a wasted trip anyway. We were never going to win that one, not with Páidí in charge and his nephews in the team. We were bound to lose it.’ I started laughing and said, ‘You know what? You’re probably right.’
Ó Sé: The new system had come in by then and we used it to full effect. We went playing Wicklow and Fermanagh and Kildare. And the pre-Christmas league games were long gone. So it was all getting that bit more serious every year. But my man inside in the bar in Tralee didn’t place me, so there was still a chance to keep a bit back for yourself.
Clerkin: Was the football different when it was straight knockout?
McStay: It was more frantic, I would say. A bit more reckless. Fellas were willing to do anything. You went into those games not only with a chance to win but also a chance to bury the other crowd. That was the thing that disappeared, I’d say. A win was still a win but it removed that element of being able to inflict real agony on your dearest rivals.
Ó Sé: The opposite side of the coin was that when the qualifiers came in, you now had the chance of retribution. That’s what sport is about. If you give me a chasing at training on a Tuesday night, I will lose sleep right up until Friday night comes around so that I can get you back. It was the same any year Cork beat us in Munster. We’d go away thinking, ‘Right, let’s keep the show on the road here until we get a chance to put them away above in Croke Park.’
McStay: In that respect, it was a much better way of identifying a team’s true level. I would look back and say there is no doubt we were a better team than we showed in 1986 and again in 1990. We had lost the All-Ireland final in 1989 and we were gunning to go one better in 1990. But we had a 3½ month wait for our first game and Galway were better than us on the day and we were gone. That team was better than having just one game to show for their year.
You’d be coming through Portarlington or Athlone and looking out the window and the finality of it would hit you
Ó Sé: There’s closure in a second defeat. We played Sligo in Tralee in 2009 and they had a last-minute penalty to win it. As it was being lined up, I was standing there thinking, ‘Right, where am I going to disappear to for the next week?’ And before it was taken, I had my mind made up that I was going to go to Sligo. There was no way I could have stayed in Kerry. At least if I went to Sligo, I could hide out among people who were happy.
McStay: But as you say, Darragh, at least with a second defeat you have closure. You didn’t get that with the straight knockout. It was demoralising. I used to be on the train back the next day or maybe the Tuesday, and you’d be coming through Portarlington or Athlone and you’d be looking out the window and the finality of it would hit you. Just like that, you’re back at the foot of Nephin. Back at the bottom of that feckin’ mountain.
Ó Sé: You lose all momentum when that happens. The manager changes, players change, you start again from further back the following year.
McStay: I was reading recently about the debate at Congress when the qualifiers were coming in. There was a lot of talk about how it would devalue the All-Ireland if the champions lost a game along the way. I would guess that doesn’t come into it at all.
Ó Sé: Not a bit of it. Kevin, you’ve woken up the morning of an All-Ireland final. You’re nervous, you haven’t slept well, you can’t get your breakfast into you. You don’t enjoy the day one little bit. But it’s nerves for what lies ahead. It’s not nerves because you lost a game a couple of months ago. That doesn’t come into it.
McStay: It has never devalued the championship one little bit. It improved it immeasurably. It’s okay to go back to knockout this year, given the circumstances. But there’s no doubt this was the better way.
Darragh Ó Sé and Malachy Clerkin will be joined by Jim McGuinness and Seán Moran on Friday night to give the inside track on how this year's unique battle for the All-Ireland Football Championship could unfold over the next seven weeks in an exclusive Irish Times virtual event ‘The Battle for Sam’. The event throws in at 7pm with tickets from €7.50. To register your place click here.