Wexford v Tipp – 2001 semi-final replay: ‘It was all a bit surreal’
While the game ebbed and flowed, Brian O’Meara's red card was major talking point
Referee Pat Horan sends off Tipperary’s Brian O’Meara and Wexford’s Liam Dunne during the 2001 All-Ireland hurling final replay. The decision would cost O’Meara the chance to play in the All-Ireland victory over Galway. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Brian O’Meara takes the call and God bless him for it.
There’s no particular upside in this for him. A newspaper busybody ferreting around in the bad, black stuff of an 18-year-old suspension is hardly anyone’s idea of a good time. That he’s up for doing it at all says plenty for his sense of perspective.
“You needn’t feel bad about bringing it up because it’s the only thing I’m remembered for,” he says. “Everybody who talks to me about hurling goes, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the guy who missed the final that time!’”
He is. Oh, how he is. Now, he is plenty more besides.
He played for Tipperary for a decade, starting in 1994. He actually did play in an All-Ireland final, the 1997 one against Clare. It was O’Meara who drew the cover and played John Leahy in at the death in that final with Tipp a point behind. Leahy went for goal rather than take the handier equalising point and it was only Davy Fitzgerald’s reflexes that kept O’Meara from being feted for his part in history.
He drove Mullinahone to their only county title in 2002 and captained Tipperary the following year as a result. He retired in 2004 with an All-Ireland medal, a Munster medal and two National Leagues, far from a bad haul for someone who by his own admission was essentially a converted footballer. But it’s also true, so brutally true, that he is remembered for one thing above all.
Dateline, August 2001. It was the last time Tipperary and Wexford met in an All-Ireland semi-final, hence the bad manners of The Irish Times in dredging it up again.
They went score for score to draw initially and then had to go again six days later. The replay took place in a monsoon, with the pitch cutting up like coffee cake underneath them and loosening the bounds of self-control around the place ever so slightly. Throw in the natural dash of spite brought on by a repeat encounter and you had a game that was starting to get cranky in the run up to half-time.
Next thing you know, there’s a break in play. And suddenly Offaly referee Pat Horan is cocking an ear to his linesman, Pat Aherne from Carlow. Whatever has happened has gone on off the ball and when Aherne has said his piece, he exits stage left and leaves Horan to whip his book out. In front of him are O’Meara and his marker, Wexford’s Liam Dunne, ready to take their scolding.
“Yeah, the two of them will be booked here,” says Cyril Farrell on the TV commentary. “They’re at one another, jabbin’ and stabbin’ with their hurls. He’ll book both of them and give them yellow cards. Ger, if they’re not careful, some of them are going to get a second yellow . . .”
But instead, the card Horan produces is red. Gone, the pair of them. They trudge to the sideline, fully aware of what it means. A straight red means at least a four-week ban. The final is three weeks away. It won’t matter to the man whose team loses. It’s a catastrophe for the one whose side wins.
And for what? For nothing, pretty much. Dunne and O’Meara had been rutting and jabbing at each other’s sides with their hurleys but that was the extent of it. It was the sort of thing hurlers had been doing since the first ash trees were felled and nobody could remember ever having to walk for it. It fell squarely into the category of messing, the sort of thing a yellow cards apiece kills in an instant. A red card was a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
“It was all a bit surreal at the time,” O’Meara says now.
“You’re in the middle of it and there are so many different options being thrown at you. At the back of it, you realise that you’re likely to miss the All-Ireland but there’s still a lot of hope there from different quarters. There’s a lot of, ‘Ah no, we’ll appeal it, you have a good case’. And then there’s a lot of public sympathy thrown into the mix as well and you’re kind of thinking, ‘Yeah, there’s a chance I might play this match.’”
Okay, stop. Rewind. This thing needs a bit of context before we go any further. First off, O’Meara was 28 at the time and he hadn’t been sent off once in his life. Never was again, come to that. He couldn’t in all good conscience swear that he’d never been booked before but, if he had, he couldn’t remember it.
In truth, it was actually seen in Tipp at the time as a bit of a weakness in his game. He was a grand big strapping wing-forward, with plenty of him to go around – if he was only of a mind to go and do some damage with it. But he was honest as they day was long and mostly just played what was in front of him.
This day was different because of a mistake he’d made in the build-up. Bless him father, for he had sinned. He had played an intermediate football match for Mullinahone, during the course of which he cracked a rib. The pain, he could take. Having to tell Nicky English was the true penance.
“I didn’t say anything when I went to training on the Tuesday but Nicky could see that I was in a bit of bother and he called me over and asked what was up. So I had to come clean. He was just looking up at the heavens and going, ‘For f**k’s sake. . .’ And I said, ‘No, I’m fine, I’m fine.’ I trained away and took painkillers and didn’t go for an X-ray because I didn’t want to know. I just ploughed on.
“And that was the only reason I reacted to Liam Dunne on the day. I’ve been poked in the side countless times in hurling and I never reacted to it. Sure it was pointless. But I had a broken rib and every time he poked me, the pain was obvious and he was just going to keep doing it so I decided I had to defend myself.”
Aherne saw them tangling and called Horan over. And O’Meara’s world fell through the floor.
“I just had to put up with Pat Horan’s decision. I remember at the time that he really looked like a man under pressure. It was like he was thinking the game was getting away from him.”
My biggest disappointment was my parents not seeing me win the All-Ireland on the pitch
There’s a back-story to Horan’s involvement too. He wasn’t supposed to be there, for a start. He had done three matches in that year’s Munster championship including the final, as well as an All-Ireland quarter-final. When the authorities didn’t put him down for either semi-final but told him to keep his fitness levels up, the obvious conclusion, accepted by all, was that he was going to get the final.
But then Tipp and Wexford drew and he was called in for the replay. And then the rains came. And then the match got spicy and it became clear that a bit of law needed to be laid down. And next thing you know, his linesman has called him across and told him these two players were striking each other. Tick, tick, tick . . . disaster. For everyone.
“I had been really, really sick the day before and I didn’t want to do it,” Horan says now. “But they insisted that I do it. I went out anyway and did it. It was terrible. I know Brian lost an All-Ireland final over it but so did I. I took so much stick over it but I could only go on what I was told by the linesman.
“I didn’t see the incident. The linesman called me over and told me they had struck one another and that meant they had to go. Even on the television that night, I looked at it and went, ‘Oh my God’. There was nothing I could do about it. All I could do was put them down in the report for dangerous play rather than striking.
“But that still carried a month’s suspension and it meant he’d miss the All-Ireland anyway. Even my umpires said to me afterwards, ‘Why didn’t you call us? We would have told you just to give them two yellow cards and carry on’. But I had to go on what I was told.”
It should be said, of course, that Aherne wasn’t wrong to tell Horan he’d seen them striking each other. In the days and weeks of outcry that followed in the run-up to the final, there was plenty of counterpoint commentary to the effect that the decision had been technically correct. Just because hurlers had stood side by side jabbing at each other forever didn’t mean it was right. It was striking, it was outside the rules, it was impossible to argue otherwise.
But equally, it was fundamentally true that not a single voice would have been raised in objection had Horan flashed yellow at the two players and told them to behave themselves. And to go nuclear, to deprive a player of an All-Ireland final appearance because of it, seemed downright draconian.
O’Meara’s predicament became the dominant story in the build-up to the 2001 final. First came the outrage, then came the intrigue. He was taking his case to the Games Administration Committee. No dice. There was talk of a mercy committee bringing a scheduled meeting forward by a week so he could make a representation there but it came to nothing either. The final step was a possible High Court injunction and though the Tipperary County Board were horrified at the notion, O’Meara did give it plenty of thought.
“In my mind, the big problem there was the effect on the collective. Never mind the county board, it was what sort of pressure it would put Nicky and the management team under? What sort of a distraction would it be? How would it affect the preparations for the All-Ireland final?
“I was sitting with Nicky, discussing all of that. I thought of my parents and thought of a few people in my local club and I just reckoned, ‘You know what? It’s not worth getting an injunction’. That was the decision I made. I said I would stick by the GAA rules and just go with it.”
And so the day Brian O’Meara won his All-Ireland medal turned into the most complicated emotional stew imaginable. They had to half-smuggle him in because he wasn’t part of the match-day squad so they threw him a bib and got him to pretend to be on water duty. It got him onto the sideline so he had the closest possible view of what felt like his worst nightmare.
“I have a really vivid memory of Eddie Enright going past me with the ball, running down the sideline at one point in the game and just really feeling so low. Just going, ‘I wish, I wish that was me.’”
The rhythm of the final was established early, with Tipp streaking into a six-point lead that Galway were never quite able to chase down. Late on, three between the sides and Galway in need of a goal to tie it up, a half-chance presented itself. And for a fleeting moment, O’Meara found himself lurching to an unthinkable place.
“It looked like Galway were in for a goal and I can remember thinking, ‘I hope he scores it’. That flashed into my head on the sideline. A goal then and it would have been a draw and I’d have been free for the replay. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I certainly didn’t want us to lose it but I do remember that split-second thinking, ‘Jesus, there could be a replay here’.”
If I had been asked, I would have said the incident deserved two yellow cards, not red ones
Tipp cleared the danger and Liam MacCarthy was theirs. O’Meara is only human and though he hugged and smiled his way through the presentation, it took until later that evening for him to shake the sadness. By the time they were in their suits and getting wired into the banquet, he was fine again. And though it lingered for a while, he was able to let it wash off him in time.
“Ah yeah, I’m over it a long time,” he says. “I really am, absolutely. It didn’t stay with me for years afterwards or anything. My biggest disappointment was my parents not seeing me win the All-Ireland on the pitch. That was the biggest thing about it really.
“Parents are the key to you. They do so much for you in hurling from the very start all the way up. Every player has the same story about their parents. And my father actually died the following April. So that was really one of the biggest disappointments for me. That I wasn’t able to do that for him.”
Horan didn’t get to do the final, with the authorities deciding – not unreasonably – that the Tipp crowd would only be waiting for him to make one false move on the day before getting on his case. Eighteen years on, he fully accepts that the call was wrong, for what it’s worth. Also, he points out that it wouldn’t happen now.
“Nowadays, they’d ask you to take another look at the match and see did you want to change your decision on it,” Horan says. “But that mechanism wasn’t in play back then. If I had been asked, I would have said the incident deserved two yellow cards, not red ones. But they weren’t really into the video thing back then.”