A packed Croke Park. Supporters from Kildare and Meath urging every last ounce of effort from their players. The players responding – and then digging deeper to pull out something that even they didn’t know was in them.
Magical times, and they are still enough to make the hair on the back of Eddie McCormack’s neck stand on end.
“What comes to mind really was the atmosphere in Croke Park for those games, it was electric. Nobody knew at the time that it was going to go to three games but in the end, one game was better than the other. The sheer physicality and speed of those games, they probably did get the credit they deserved but they were fantastic matches. They could have went either way in the end but unfortunately it went Meath’s way but we learned an awful lot from that, we built on that going into ’98,” said McCormack, the stylish wing forward on the Kildare team.
“They were tough games, open games, two teams wanting to win. They were very open games with lots of scores and defensively it wasn’t like it was today but definitely physically and fitness wise it was just as good,” added the Clane clubman.
It’s hard to look back now and imagine that a side containing Davy Dalton, Glenn Ryan, Sos Dowling and Willie McCreery, to mention just a few, would have their mentality questioned but at time, Kildare had consistently failed to deliver on the talent within the squad.
They had displayed a here to unseen mental toughness when overcoming the early sendings off of Martin Lynch and Johnny McDonald to beat Laois in the previous round and the three games against Meath, even though they ended in defeat, showed Kildare’s new found resilience.
“Getting the two boys sent off early that day against Laois was a bit of shock but I think when we stuck it out and once we got over Laois we grew in confidence and there was a huge belief in the team that we could go on and take Meath. Even after drawing the first game we were sure we could win the second game, I know they ended up by beating us by a couple of points in the third game, and that was very disappointing for us, but we definitely grew in confidence for ’98.
“We were probably accused of not winning games that we should have at the time and that probably was a bit of an issue. Especially in the second game, they brought on a man who played out of his skin and kicked four points. It was disappointing to lose in the end because we did have chances to win it. We knew what Meath were like at the time, they were relentless and probably the hardest team in the country to beat. If you didn’t take your chances when you got them they were always going to come back and have their own period. They did have their periods in the three games but we had our periods too and stuck at it quite well, even the third game went down to the wire as well and could have went either way.
“People always harp on to me about ’98, and ’98 was a huge year for us, but for me those three games against Meath and the game against Laois in the round before will always stand out in my mind,” said McCormack.
Kildare were the underdogs against the All-Ireland champions but the fact that they could now stand toe to toe with the best in the country was a huge moment for a young team.
“They had huge players, Darren Fay, Graham Geragthy, Trevor Giles, Tommy Dowd, Colm Coyle. All these boys who had won an All-Ireland the year before and were well seasoned players. I was coming in on the back of two years with Kildare at that stage, after getting a hiding in the first round in ’96. Kildare did have experience with people like Glenn Ryan, Anthony Rainbow, Christy Byrne but they were more experienced than us at the time and that’s why we had to stand up and be counted in those matches, we had to turn from boys to men in those games and Mick O’Dwyer helped us do that,” he said.
Even with the immense physical toll that the three games in quick succession had taken on the bodies, McCormack can’t remember feeling tired during the series and instead, relished the chance to perform once again in front of a full Croke Park.
“It wasn’t that tough to recover because it was so exciting to be going back again to play these games…the atmosphere in Kildare and the coverage it was creating was fantastic. It was just about keeping yourself right during the week, we didn’t train overly hard, it was just about getting any injuries right, getting yourself mentally right and it was just a joy to go back to Croke Park and play in front of a packed house again,” said McCormack.
The series ended on a sour note for McCormack when he missed a penalty early in the second half of the third game. It wasn’t the losing or winning of the game but it was something that haunted him for some time.
“It did bother me for a while. We were practising penalties in training and I’d say I was scoring 18 out of 20 penalties against Christy Byrne, which was a feat in itself. I was hitting them really sweet and was the designated penalty taker that day. I had picked my spot, to go low to the ‘keeper’s left and it actually went high over the bar. I didn’t connect with it right but look it, if we’d won nobody would have been thinking about the penalty. It’s one of those things in football and you just have to get on with it but it did bother for a while at the time alright. The goals get smaller in Croke Park when you put the ball down to take a penalty and there’s 50,000 people screaming at you but I didn’t shrink from the challenge, I wanted to take the penalty, I was confident taking the penalty, I just hit it too high,” said McCormack.
20 years on from that wonderful series and all the enthralling memories that they evoke, one thing stands above for Kildare midfielder Willie McCreery.
“We f*****g lost,” he said bluntly when asked for his memories of the series.
And that was the crux of it for McCreery. While we can look back now with a romanticised and nostalgic view of football played in a different era losing that series of games, after the effort that had gone in, was bitterly, bitterly disappointing for Kildare.
1997 was the first year of Mick O’Dwyer’s second tenure in charge of Kildare and they still retained a nearly man tag of a team not quite able to get the job done. In the days before the Qualifiers, to go so close to beating the reigning All-Ireland only to have your season ended at the Leinster semi-final stage was gut wrenching.
The drawn games gave Kildare something to play for again and even the immense physical exertion during the games couldn’t take away from the joy of still being involved in the Championship.
“I would never call it tough because you enjoyed what you were doing and you just wanted to get back out there again. It was tough when we were beaten the third day. That was hard to take after all that had gone into it. To beat them in the Leinster final the following year was a great thrill,” said McCreery.
Once of the iconic images of the games was of McCreery lying on his back, leg in the air just after scoring what seemed to be a crucial goal in extra time of the second game. It might have looked like cramp but McCreery said it was something else.
“The leg went into shock because I scored,” he said.
Whatever it was, the sight of one of Kildare’s fittest players limping out of the game that day, to be replaced by Dermot Earley for just his second Kildare appearance, summed up just how just how physical demanding those games were.
McCreery was used to doing plenty of running as he fondly remembers doing the running of two men in midfield when he was partnered by the mercurial Niall Buckley.
“He was a lazy b******s, I did all the running but he was a finesse man. He used to call me Shergar. He could have won the first game when a 45 dropped just short with the last kick of the game. I see young kids now kicking 45s as if they are 20 yard frees, Nuxer always used to say that if he kicked a 45 it was a bonus,” said McCreery.
Although the defeat at the end of the series hurt, Kildare’s trials and tribulations that year, including beating Laois in the quarter-final despite having two men sent off within the first ten minutes, set them up for the glory that was to follow in 1998.
“The win with the 13 players was the start of it all. Those three games against Meath then gave us the belief that we could be up there with anybody. I think if we had got by Meath that year we could have gone a long way. Everybody around the county started to believe in us then and get behind us. In our time we had huge, huge support. I think there were very few changes going from ’97 to ’98. There a few younger lads like Dermot who came in full time in ’98 but it was pretty much the same team for those few years,” said McCreery.
The game gives a chance to reflect back on some of the more offbeat memories of those games 20 years ago
“The funniest part of that series, I remember marking Jimmy McGuinness in the second drawn game. He was taken off in normal time and came back for the start of extra time. He started hitting me a few shoulders before the ball was even thrown in, I said ‘f**k off Jimmy, I’m after playing a full match here’. About ten minutes into extra time he got the curly finger again. He was raging and was shouting over to the sideline ‘what the f**k are you taking me off for? Sure, Trevor hasn’t touched the ball yet!’. That’s one of my abiding memories of the game, I can’t remember scoring but I remember the craic we had,” said McCreery.
EVEN now, 20 years on from that trilogy of games, the mere mention of the name Jody Devine is enough to send a shiver down the spine of Kildare supporters.
His surname and role as an impact sub were a headline writer’s dream but his performance in Croke Park during extra time in that second drawn game was the stuff of nightmares for Kildare.
The performance of Devine on that sweltering hot day in Croke Park in late July, 1997 is well etched in supporter’s memory. Kildare had already seen victory snatched from them once when Trevor Giles’ late dramatic goal sent the game into extra time but they recovered superbly. Willie McCreery netted as Kildare scored 1-3 in the first half of extra time to seemingly set themselves on course to a first Leinster final since 1993.
Enter Jody Devine, who came into the game as replacement for PJ Gillic during normal time.
He scored four points, including three in a row at one stage, as Meath kicked seven successive points to go ahead. The fact that Paul McCormack equalised deep into injury and forced a third game barely diminished the impact of Meath’s super sub.
“It’s hard to believe how quickly 20 years has gone,” said Devine.
“They were great games, very tough games, if they were played nowadays you’d probably be only left with the two goalkeepers, there would be that many cards shown. They were tough and hard but they were fair as well and everybody just got on with it. They were great games, Kildare had their chances and were in the lead a couple of times but couldn’t see it out and we came back. In the third game we got on top and were able to see it out, that was the way it was, they were very tight games,” he added.
Football 20 years ago was a very a different game and the sheer physicality of games still stick in the mind.
“All over the field there were lads putting their bodies on the line. I remember Glenn Ryan walking off the field, I had become friendly with Glenn playing in New York in 1994 so I knew him, his jersey was torn, he was hobbling, there was blood coming from his nose and he was just went into the dressing room got himself patched up and was back out the next day. He didn’t complain, didn’t whinge, didn’t moan, same with our side, fellas got hit and just got on with it. It added to the spectacle that it was,” said Devine.
Even now, his heroics that day in Croke Park are still well remembered, for very different reasons, on both sides of the county border.
“You’d talk to people around the country and there are still people who remember me from that game. I’d still know a few Kildare people and they would be slagging me about it, you’re always reminded about it.
“It was just one of those days, on another day I might have kicked one or two of them and the others would have went wide but it just happened to go right for me on the day, in the last ten or 15 minutes nothing could go wrong for me. It was just part of an amazing three game series.
“I think it was 45-50,000 in Croke Park for that game. There was a slight breeze into the Canal End. The first shot I had went over the bar and things just went on from there. If I was asked to do it again I’d probably never do it again even I had 100 chances to do it. It was just one of those things, on that particular day everything seemed to go right,” said Devine.
Looking at the players who played in those games, it’s easy to see why the quality of the matches are still so highly regarded.
“You don’t realise at the time but from the Meath side of things but when you look back now and see the players we had. We had a great side, Darren Fay, Mark O’Reilly and Paddy Reynolds in the full back line, they were the new kids on the block coming from the underage teams. Then you had John McDermott in midfield, Trevor Giles, all these guys that anybody would be happy to have in their team today,” said Devine.
Getting over Kildare took a lot out of the then defending All-Ireland Champions and they were stunned by Offaly in the Leinster final
“Darren Fay, Graham Geraghty, Mark O’Reilly were all suspended and we had a couple of injuries too. Offaly were probably fresh and were fresher on the day. We might have taken our eye off the ball a little though, after beating Dublin and Kildare we thought we were probably going to win it. It just shows you can never underestimate a team, not that we underestimated them but I think everything just took its toll going into that Leinster final,” said Devine.
They also lost the final the following year in 1998 when Kildare gained revenge for those games in 1997.
“There was very little in that game too. Trevor Giles got hurt which didn’t help us but we always knew it was going to be hard to beat Kildare, they were going to be looking for revenge. Naturally they were going to get that someday,” said Devine.