Northern Ireland

All-Ireland final 1991: Down's knickerbocker glory

Down and Meath fans at the 1991 All-Ireland final
Image caption Down defeated Meath in the 1991 All-Ireland final in front of a packed Croke Park

Before each All-Ireland final - football or hurling - the champions from 25 years before the fixture are given an on-field reception at Croke Park in Dublin.

This year will be the turn of the Down football team of 1991.

By that year, no Ulster side had won the Sam Maguire Cup since Down themselves had in 1968.

It was a drought that coincided roughly with Northern Ireland's Troubles.

In the intervening 23 years, an Ulster side had managed to make the final just twice - being well beaten on both occasions.

Gates of glory

Down's '91 team ended the wait, unlocking the gates of glory for subsequent victories by Ulster counties.

For me, and for most other nine-year-olds I knew at the time, the Down players were my heroes.

And they gave me, sitting beside my dad in the Cusack Stand, one of my fondest childhood memories.

Image caption Down manager Pete McGrath hailed by Down fans during their run to All-Ireland glory in 1991

I have my late father Dominic to blame for my Down GAA fanaticism.

I had been brought up on stories of the Down team from the '60s - contemporaries of my father - who made history by bringing the Sam Maguire Cup across the border for the first time.

Pete McGrath, Down's 1991 All-Ireland winning manager

What made them winners was their belief, their ability, their character, their courage.

All of those things were required in very large measure to beat Meath that day.

We were against a very hardened, experienced and durable team with some marvellous footballers.

All the qualities they had as players and as people were tested to the full that day in what was a brilliant game.

Heart-stopping stuff!

But for me they were distant men from another time.

The men of 1991 were in front of me, vividly blazing their own trail.

Donegal defeated

That heady summer began with a horrible match played in horrible conditions against Armagh in the so-called Marshes in Newry.

A penalty from Mickey Linden saw Down through to the next round.

Image caption Down fans take to the pitch after winning the Ulster Championship

I remember hearing someone remark as we filed, sodden, out of the ground: "The pick of those two teams couldn't win an All-Ireland."

I thought: "I'd pick the fifteen in red and black."

Colm O'Rourke, one of Meath's greatest players, who appeared in the 1991 final

The hallmark of a great team is that when the gun is put to their head on the biggest day in September they are able to produce a game of quality and skill.

Down played better football on the day and they had a very exciting, skilful team.

They had great forwards - Mickey Linden, Greg Blaney, James McCartan - and they bored holes in us.

Pete McGrath had them in the shape of their lives, and the thing that distinguishes any great teams is that they peak on the right day.

They were worthy winners, a marvellous football team and they will be remembered as such.

Down beat Derry, after a replay, and won the Ulster title roundly beating reigning champions Donegal.

I had the serious business of an All-Ireland semi-final to look forward to.

Image caption Down captain Paddy O'Rourke lifts the Anglo-Celt Cup after Down beat Donegal in the Ulster Championship final

In August 1991 my brother got married.

He and his new wife honeymooned in Kerry, the county that would be Down's opponents in the All-Ireland semi-final.

The newlyweds took a trip to a hotel in Waterville and got talking to the owner, Mick O'Dwyer.

In GAA terms, the word legend probably doesn't do Micko justice - a multiple All-Ireland winner as a player and manager with Kerry, he had tussled with the Down teams of the '60s.

I was sent a letter from Kerry that August in the run up to the semi-final. It included an autograph from Micko, with the advice: "Watch Down."

It was advice the Kerry team might have found useful.

Gaelic giants

I was in the Hogan Stand as Down tore the giants of gaelic football apart.

I remember bright sunshine, two goals from Peter Withnell, the Kingdom humbled and Down fans celebrating on the pitch.

That was capped off with a knickerbocker glory ice cream, a luxury my father had discovered following the Down teams of the '60s.

Image caption The 1991 All-Ireland win broke a 23-year drought for Down fans

Then there was the realisation that I was going to see a Down team in an All-Ireland final.

My big stress in life - I was nine, remember - was whether I was going to watch it on TV or get a ticket.

Talk of tickets dominated late August and early September that year.

In the week before the game, I remember a meeting of my local GAA club - there was to be a raffle.

The formula was simple - if your name was called you would be allocated tickets.

I was hoisted up on to a windowsill, condensation running down the glass, and told to be quiet.

The tension was brutal. But the news was good and I knew I would be at the All-Ireland final.

Another knickerbocker glory

Meath were the opponents, a superb side filled with players who had featured in the previous year's final and won titles in '87 and '88.

They had come through a bruising four-game encounter with Dublin earlier in the year and became known as "the team who couldn't be beaten".

Image caption Down manager Pete McGrath (right) and Meath manager Seán Boylan are interviewed after the 1991 All-Ireland final

Not too many gave Down much of a chance.

After all, Ulster counties didn't "do" All-Ireland finals.

And the last Ulster win had been a generation before.

The Down players did not seem to have received that memo, as they opened up a huge lead and survived an impressive comeback to win my county's fourth All-Ireland title.

I remember a sea of red and black on Hill 16, thinking my brothers were in there somewhere.

I remember the sheer pandemonium among Down fans when Barry Breen scored his goal, the nerves as Meath mounted their comeback.

I remember the final whistle and my dad grabbing my arms, leaping and celebrating, as giddy and elated as his nine-year-old son.

And I remember another knickerbocker glory ice cream.

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