Picture it. Waterford. 1991. Since we had won our first ever title in 1929, we had managed to win something – anything – in every decade. Until the 1980’s, that is, when we had not only won nothing but had plumbed the depths of Division Three hurling and been massacred in our three Munster final appearances. We’d even had the privilege of watching the team implode live on national television in the 1989 final. Not a good time to be following the Déise.
The 80’s had been a grim time for the GAA. An All-Ireland hurling semi-final had been attended by a mere nine thousand souls (Galway – Cork in 1985) and the Ulster and Connacht football championships were utterly bankrupt – the champions of those provinces had not beaten a team from Leinster or Munster since Galway in 1973. It’s hard to sustain interest in a sport when there is so little competition among all teams in general and from your own in particular. Add in the thrill of Italia ’90, and people were asking in all seriousness where the GAA was to go from here.
The first step in the rehabilitation of the GAA came from Meath, or specifically the sensational clash between Meath and Dublin in the 1991 Leinster championship that captured the imagination of a nation. It was so all-consuming that even my mother sat down to watch the fourth and decisive match. I had developed a loathing of the Royal County in the preceding years, fuelled by paternal links with Cork and the cast of, er, characters that populated Sean Boylan’s team. Every match you’d watch hoping they’d trip up, every time they’d sail close to the wind, and every time they’d squeeze through. They were behind for most of the semi-final against Roscommon but with a mixture of grit, nerve and (I can admit this nearly 20 years on) talent, they were ahead at the finish. Another failure from the Connacht crew. It was galling, and all the more compelling for that.
Meanwhile in the other half of the draw, Kerry had sucker-punched a previously dominant Cork to come out of Munster. No one was thinking they were world beaters – the hiding they had taken in the 1990 final and the less-than-stellar manner in which they had disposed of Limerick saw to that – but they were still Kerry, right? Yes, they were and while Down had a cute record of never having lost to Kerry in the championship, they were still from Ulster and thus were going to fill their appointed role as the Munster team’s bitch. Even leading for much of the game did not change that. Had Tyrone not done the same in 1986?
Then it happened. It may not have played out exactly as I remember it, but the sentiment is what matters. A slick Down move saw Peter Withnall put clear through on Charlie Nelligan and he smashed the ball to the net with aplomb. Suddenly Down were in a winning position and they never faltered in the remaining time, belief that they would do it coursing through every action. Watching it at home, I was gobsmacked. A minnow could put it up to one of the kingpins of Gaelic games and succeed.
Five weeks later Down were back in Croke Park against the evil Meed, and it was clear they meant business. The sea of red and black that rippled across Hill 16 was utterly inspirational, one Tricolour-wielding fool only slightly marring the beauty. Down duly shot down Meath, even withstanding one of those famous zombie-like comebacks. For the first time in my lifetime, a team who had no expectation at the start of the year to winning the All-Ireland had won the All-Ireland.
A year later another county would unexpectedly taste success. I genuinely don’t think this is a coincidence. Could Donegal and Derry have won Sam Maguire if Down had not shown them the way? And why should such a transmission of belief stop at the Ulster border? Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot for Down. They showed the rest of the GAA world that it could be done. And more importantly, they showed me that it could be done, something has sustained me to this day.