Going into the 2021 All-Ireland Gaelic Football campaign, it appears as if this current Dublin will continue adding to their collection. Having won the All-Ireland Championship last year, without looking as if they were seriously tested, likely challengers to take their crown appear to be few and far between. With their victory in the 2020 Championship, Dublin have put together six All-Ireland titles in a row since 2015, and who knows how many more they will accumulate over the next few years.
The closest a county team has come to this level of dominance of Gaelic Football in the last few decades is the great Kerry team of the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Between the years 1975 and 1986, that Kerry team won 8 All-Irelands, including a 4-in-a-row and a 3-in-a-row. From Pat Spillane and Páidí O’Sé to Eoin “The Bomber” Liston, Mikey Sheehy and Jack O’Shea, this team was filled with stars, whose names are considered among the true “greats” of the sport. They were led by a living legend in Mick O’Dwyer (“Micko”). However, their most famous moment was not in victory but in defeat – in the 1982 All Ireland Final.
This article will provide an insight into and relive one of the most famous matches in GAA history. Much of the information for this article comes from the excellent book “Kings of September: The Day Offaly Denied Kerry Five in a Row” by Michael Foley (printed by O’Brien Press Ltd.). That book is reviewed in more detail at the end of this article. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. A link for the book can be found here: https://www.obrien.ie/kings-of-september
Kerry – the Invincibles – Chasing the Dream
Kerry is „The Kingdom“ when it comes to Gaelic Football. With 37 titles and 23 runners-up finishes, Kerry has been a dominant force for much of the history of Gaelic Football. The GAA Team of the Millennium – chosen in the year 1999 – featured no fewer than six Kerry footballers, including two who played in the 1982 All-Ireland Final (Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy). The team led by Mick O’Dwyer was arguably their greatest group of players.
Kerry is located in the southwest of Ireland, in the province of Munster, and whereas hurling is the main sport in the five other counties of Munster (Cork, Waterford, Tipperary, Limerick and Clare) Gaelic Football is the clear winner in Kerry. The precursor of Gaelic Football is a sport referred to as caid ,and it was a very popular game in Kerry (and particularly around Corca Dhuibhne / the Dingle Peninsula). This name is still used by many of those in Corca Dhuibhne when referring to modern Gaelic Football.
The Kerry team of the late 1970s and early 1980s had an aura of invincibility. Their manager Mick O’Dwyer was a legendary figure in Kerry. He played for the county for 16 years and was known for his toughness. A successful playing career saw him win four All-Irelands, eight National Leagues and twelve Munster titles. Over time he became even more well-known for his management success. He brought his toughness and high standards with him when training the Kerry senior team. The players he had knew they would have to keep up with the levels he expected to have any chance of making the team.
The high demands placed on the Kerry team by Micko ensured that the players‘ competitiveness and demand for more success wouldn’t let up. All-Ireland after All-Ireland followed as in 1978 Kerry trounced Dublin by a score of 5-11 to 0-09, they comfortably beat the same opposition in the 1979 final. In 1980 they put aside the challenge of Roscommon (they beat Offaly by a score of 4-15 to 4-10 in the All Ireland Semi-Final) and in 1981 Offaly fell to them by a seven point margin (1-12 to 0-08).
On the way to the 1982 Final, they did have a contest from Cork in the Munster Final where the first match ended level before Kerry put them aside in the Replay. Following that blip. Kerry looked as good as ever. The Five-in-a-Row seemed like such a sure thing that the band Galleon released a song in the build-up to the final called „Five in a Row“. With star players across the team, a confidence which only Kerry can bring to the table and Mick O’Dwyer in the dug-out, most teams lost before the match even started. Offaly was a good team, that was true, but no one was really giving them a chance against this Kerry team…
Offaly – the Challengers – Determined to Make History
They may have been the major underdogs going into the final, but this group of Offaly players under Eugene McGee were a serious team. McGee became manager of Offaly in 1976 following a very successful period in charge of the UCD (University College Dublin) team, and by the time the 1982 Final came around, he had put his stamp on the team. Under his watch, Offaly established themselves as a force to be reckoned with as they put together three Leinster titles in a row (1980, 1981 and 1982). However, they were knocked out by Kerry in both 1980 and 1981, losing the All-Ireland Final in 1981. Whereas Kerry was facing immortality with the Five-in-a-Row, Offaly was aiming to prevent three Championship defeats in a row to Kerry.
Success was not instantaneous for McGee with Offaly and it took a few years to put the team together. Although without a tradition of great success in Gaelic Football (unlike the Gaelic Football royalty of Kerry), Offaly was successful in the early 1970s as they won two All-Irelands back-to-back. McGee transitioned from that team to create his team in the 1980s. That Offaly team was built around a series of brothers – the Lowrys (Brendan, Mick and Seán), the Fitzgeralds (Mick and Pat), the Darbys (Séamus and Stephen) and two sets of Connor brothers (Liam and Thomas, Richie and Matt). Matt and Richie Connor’s brother (Murt) was an essential part of the successful Offaly team in the early 1970s. These close bonds ensured there was a great understanding on the pitch.
The tables had turned
In the early years, the aim for Offaly was to become “Top Dogs” in Leinster, and that meant getting the better of Dublin. For McGee, this meant even more to him following his years as manager of UCD, and his disputes and interactions with many of the key people in Dublin GAA. In 1979 they had the better of the play in the Leinster Final but managed to lose it by two points with a goal by Bernard Brogan (the other Bernards’s father) in the last minute.
In 1980, Offaly had their revenge as they beat Dublin by a score of 1-10 to 1-08. The tables had turned in Leinster, and Offaly was now in the ascendency. This match was also one where a true legend of the game in Matt Connor exploded to life. He scored 1-07 of Offaly’s 1-10 and over the next few years would win All-Stars and finish top scorer in the All-Ireland Championship three years in a row. Offaly were a strong, solid team and in Matt Connor they had one of the greatest players to ever play Gaelic Football.
The Match – The All-Ireland Final 1982
The fear going into the All-Ireland Final was that it would be a damp squib of a match. In the previous year’s final, Kerry beat Offaly by seven points and very few people outside of the Offaly camp gave the team much of a chance against a team of legends. For that match McGee had adopted a more defensive approach to try and contain Kerry but in turn it reduced his own team’s scoring output. This can be seen by the 1-12 to 0-08 score line.
For the 1982 Final, McGee placed more trust in his players and instilled a deep belief in them that they could match this Kerry team. He worked on this throughout the weeks leading up to the final. There was, of course, the chance that Kerry could lift themselves even higher, but McGee wanted to make sure that Offaly would not roll over. He believed in the talent within his group of players and he knew how hard they had worked to reach this final. Kerry would have to earn their Five-in-a-Row.
The fears that Offaly would not turn up or would be overawed by the occasion were misplaced as they made Kerry work for what they could get. Offaly’s forwards roved and moved around the forward line with star forward Matt Connor turned up in the half-forward line to give Kerry something else to think about. Offaly were matching the great Kerry team and attacking them from all over the pitch.
Leading up to half-time Offaly’s whole half-back line had scored. Matt Connor was well-marshalled by Kerry full-back John O’Keefe, but still popped up with a fantastic point 15 minutes into the game. Brendan Lowry scored another great point soon afterwards. Offaly trusted themselves to better their opposition and the game itself is a great example of open football and old-style catch-and-kick Gaelic Football. However, for all Offaly’s skill and for all that they had played so well, at half-time they were only one point ahead (0-10 to 0-09).
The second half involved Kerry showing their skill and determination as they moved ahead of Offaly with points from Mikey Sheehy and Pat Spillane. Offaly went over ten minutes without scoring before Matt Connor put them back on the scoreboard. Kerry come back at them with another score. It appeared as if disaster had hit Offaly when Stephen Darby fouled John Egan leading to a Kerry penalty. This was it. This penalty should seal immortality. The ball was placed in Mikey Sheehy’s hands and he stepped up to take responsibility.
However, the penalty was saved by goalkeeper Martin Furlong! Offaly was still in with a chance! Following the penalty, Offaly scored another point but then Kerry started to pull away again. Their experience and fitness appeared as if it would get them over the finishing line, however, the key moment of this final was still to be played out…
Séamus Darby’s name is one of the most well-known across GAA history. Whereas other greats of the game such as Pat Spillane, Colm Cooper, Peter Canavan, Bernard Brogan, Mick O’Connell and Darby’s teammate Matt Connor can point to many moments, matches and events in their respective careers, for Darby it is one moment which he is most famous for. He has gone down in history as the man who scored the most famous goal in GAA history. The goal which denied the 5-in-a-Row.
„…and here they come. This is Liam Connor – the full-back. A high, lobbing, dropping ball in towards the goalmouth. A shot. A goal! A goal! A goal for Offaly… A goal… Oh what a goal!“Mícheál Ó hEithir commentary
At this point in his career, Darby was a squad player for the team. At 32 years of age, Darby had two All-Ireland medals in his pocket having been part of the successful Offaly teams of the early 1970s. In 1971 he was breaking into the panel and team when Offaly won their very first All-Ireland Football Championship – by a score of 1-14 to 2-08 against Galway.
At 21, he played in the All-Ireland of 1972 where Offaly beat Kerry after a replay. In the following years, as McGee shaped the team, Darby spent a few years in the wilderness before his form for his club, Rhode, forced the manager to reconsider him for the 1982 season. Darby was considered to be a bit of a “luxury player”, a goal-poacher, in a panel where the manager was not keen on players not willing to put the hard yards in. Darby had to adapt.
The 1982 season saw Darby come in and out of the team. He had a big impact on the Leinster Final where his goal and three points saw Offaly beat the Dubs by a score of 1-16 to 1-07. Although he displayed great form in the lead-up to the All-Ireland Semi Final, an injury caused him to miss the important win over Galway. His loss was Johnny Mooney’s chance, Mooney returned from a few months working in San Francisco to deliver a vintage performance. Offaly almost threw away a match they were expected to win, but in the end won by a single point (1-12 to 1-11).
In the All-Ireland Final, Darby did not make the starting XV. He had to be patient and wait for his opportunity, an opportunity which almost did not come about. Looking to change the match, the choice was between the experienced goal-poacher, in Darby, and the young fella with a bit of energy and speed in Martin Fitzpatrick. McGee was impressed with Fitzpatrick throughout the summer but eventually the management team decided on the experience of Darby. The rest really is history…
Upon his introduction, Darby did not even get a sniff at a ball… Following a couple of points from their star forward, Matt Connor, the gap between the teams had been reduced to that most dangerous of leads – 2 points – as Kerry were leading by 0-17 to 0-15. The breakup of a dangerous Kerry attack led to the Offaly full-back, Liam Connor, driving out with the ball before delivering the “lobbing, dropping ball towards the goalmouth”. Darby used all his experience to get his hands on the ball, as Tommy Doyle from Kerry, showed his lack of corner-back skills by letting the ball go over his head.
Doyle was usually a wing-back – a position where aggressively attacking the ball is a virtue – and he would normally have had someone covering behind him. Not this time.
Once Darby had his hands on the ball, he took a first-time shot which looped over Charlie Nelligan in the Kerry goal. Looking at that shot, there is no way that it was meant. It was a hit-and-hope, a shot that should not have gone anywhere. However, this time it went in.
Once that goal went in, Offaly had a few minutes more to hold out and it energised them to do so. The finish line was in sight! In the end, Offaly held out and won the game by a score of 1-15 to 0-17. Goliath was down and Offaly had denied the Five-in-a-Row.
“The Goal” changed so many lives and not least of all Darby himself. His name has gone into GAA folklore and overnight he became known all over Ireland and beyond. He was invited to events all over Offaly and Ireland following “the Goal” and ended up spending a lot of time at dinners and other events. His fame interfered with his ability to train and he never reached his previous heights.
He retired from football two years later, which he has stated he regretted as he should have retired after that All-Ireland Final as his real drive had gone. He had his own hardware business in Edenderry but the downturn in the economy and unsuccessful business ventures in Ireland eventually led him to moving to London at the age of thirty-nine and working in a pub over there. His autobiography, “About That Goal”, came out last year and is available here: https://www.mayobooks.ie/Darby,%20Offaly,%20Goal,%20GAA .
The victory in 1982 was the high point for that Offaly team. As a county, Offaly has not won a Gaelic Football All-Ireland title since then. In an interview with The Irish Examiner from December 2019, Séamus Darby states: “Matt Connor… said that Offaly were trying to win the All-Ireland for so many years that we lost our hunger after ’82. And I think he was spot on with that analysis.” Eugene McGee wanted them to put a second All-Ireland to prove that they were one of the great teams in Gaelic Football, but a loss to Dublin in the 1983 Leinster Final knocked the stuffing out of them. This team did not win another All-Ireland or Leinster title and Offaly’s only Leinster title in Gaelic Football since then came in 1997.
In December 1984 disaster hit when their star player Matt Connor was involved in a car accident which forced him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He worked as a Garda in Tullamore Garda Station and was returning home from work when the accident happened.
He lost control of the car and it ended up hitting a tree, causing Connor to have spinal injuries. He was 25 when this happened, and he never played football for Offaly again after this event. Connor is one of the true greats of Gaelic Football and is ranked amongst the greatest to ever play the game. His injury was one of the key factors to Offaly never recovering their glory following the 1982 victory.
„After (the 1982 Final) I was inconsolable for months and months, but it was only fitting that Matt Connor should win an All-Ireland medal. He was a brilliant footballer and if he had been playing for Kerry we might have won ten-in-a-row.“Kerry manager Mick O’Dwyer from „Mick O’Dwyer: The Authorised Biography“ by Owen McCrohan
The Offaly manager, Eugene McGee, died in 2019. After his success with Offaly, he managed Cavan from 1984 to 1988. McGee also managed the Ireland team in the International Rules series of 1990 against Australia. He was a successful journalist and he wrote for The Longford Leader, The Irish Press, The Sunday Press, Sunday Tribune and Irish Independent.
As for Kerry? Mick O’Dwyer stayed as manager until 1989. Following the defeat in 1982, Kerry lost in the 1983 Munster Final to Cork – their first loss in nine years to their neighbours – which led to Dublin winning the All-Ireland title. However, in 1984 the Empire struck back, as a rejuvenated Kerry team put together a 3-in-a-row from 1984 to 1986.
This team had a spine of the great players from the 1982 group along with new, hungry players, including Ambrose O’Donovan who was captain in 1984 and Ger Lynch. Pat Spillane, Ger Power, Denis “Ogie” Moran, Páidí Ó Sé and Mikey Sheehy all finished their careers with 8 All-Ireland medals. This feat has now been equalled by current Dublin players James McCarthy and Stephen Cluxton (who started in all 8 of the All-Ireland Finals), as well as Michael Darragh McAuley, Michael Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon and Kevin McManamon.
Mick O’Dwyer is a living legend and following his success with Kerry, he had successful periods managing Kildare and Laois. He led Kildare to an All-Ireland Final in 1998 where they lost out to Galway. With Laois, Micko led them to their first Leinster title in 2003. Prior to that victory, Laois hadn’t won in Leinster since 1946! However, he never did forget the 1982 All Ireland Final as can be seen from this documentary „Micko“ from 2018.
“Kings of September: The Day Offaly Denied Kerry Five in a Row” by Michael Foley
“Kings of September” by Michael Foley is one of the great modern GAA books. Published in 2007, 25 years after the famous match, it explores the build-up to the match, the match itself and the aftermath by telling the story from a multitude of perspectives. It is a very human story with one team facing immortality – the chance to be seen as the greatest of all Gaelic Football teams (up to that point) against a team determined to make their own history.
The book is easily accessible, and it is one that is very difficult to put down. “Kings of September” highlights the joy of success and the pain of defeat. It takes us through what is needed for a team to move itself from a good group of players to a truly great team. The book also highlights the hard-work and sacrifice put in by all those involved in bringing us these epic clashes in our summers. All the players bring their whole story to that pitch and they are as human as the rest of us. As fans we should never forget this aspect.
From the stories of the respective managers – the truly legendary Mick O’Dwyer against the revolutionary Eugene McGee – to those of the individuals involved. From struggles over who should captain the “5-in-a-Row” team, and the recounting of the grueling training regimes, to the aftermath of arguably the most famous All-Ireland Final of all, this book describes the whole story. It is definitely one for those who want to find out more about these great games which take over an Irish summer.
The O’Brien Press – Kings of September – The Day Offaly Denied Kerry Five in a Row By Michael Foley (link to the book from „O’Brien Press).
Header image: Ring of Kerry – photo: kidmoses / 75 images (pixabay)