Sean O’Neill could see it coming. His team-mate, James McCartan senior, had won possession on the “40” and was barrelling towards goal.
The Croke Park crowd rose to their feet, roaring in anticipation. At the same time, legendary Offaly hard-man Paddy McCormack was steaming towards McCartan at right angles. O’Neill, running a few yards behind McCartan in support, saw the hit coming and shouted a warning to his friend.
“Watch out James, look left!”
The roar of the crowd drowned him out and the two men hit each other at full speed. McCormack was knocked unconscious and McCartan somehow ploughed through for a score. The crowd went wild.
“Did you see him coming?” asked O’Neill as they walked back to their positions for the kickout.
“When Paddy McCormack is on the other side, I make a point of seeing him coming” said McCartan.
Ulster went on to win that Railway Cup final in front of 60,000 enthralled supporters. “In those days Joe, it was almost like an All-Ireland,” O’Neill told me during the week, his eyes shining at the very thought of it.
Thirty years later, it was Wee James McCartan barrelling through the defence, as I charged through in support. Only that day, you could hear the birds circling overhead. There were a few hundred people there, watching one of the greatest games I ever took part in. I was the imposter in the full forward line alongside Canavan and Linden. I thought I was a flying machine, but Linden made me look like the white man in the 100 metres.
Munster boasted Maurice and Moynihan and Cinneide. I got a goal in the first half after an astonishing overhead pass from Canavan. As I trotted out smiling I got busted from the side by the corner back.
The blood geysered from my shattered nose. Dazed, I tried to fire back and got hit again. My saviour was unlikely. Derry and Tyrone were sworn enemies at the time, but in the blink of an eye, wee Peter was in to help, throwing a flurry of punches that drove my attacker back. Brian McEniff, our manager, ran across the field, pumping his fist at us.
The game went to new heights. Moynihan and Canavan went man to man, two modern greats pushing each other to the limits. The game went to extra-time. By this stage, it was life or death. McCartan soloed through for a brilliant goal. Fitzgerald responded in kind. After 30 minutes we remained deadlocked.
Afterwards, I stunned the Munster men by walking into their changing room and handing my blood drenched jersey to their number 4. “You can wash it,” I said to him!
We shook hands and he gave me his shirt, which I still have in my cupboard.
One theory is that the advent of television killed it. Paddy Kielty memorably recalls his family sitting round the wireless listening intently to the big games. He described the great excitement in their kitchen as Michael O’Hehir painted a magical picture in their minds.
“He hops it on the left, he hops it on the right. This man is a ball of fire. If he went any faster he’d break the speed limit!”
As a child, Kielty imagined a blazing man, scorching through the field like a superhero from a sci-fi comic. “The first time I was brought to Croke Park to see for myself,” he said, ” It was a terrible anti-climax. There wasn’t a burning man in sight.”
In the 40s, 50s and 60s the only way to see these legendary men was to watch them in the flesh. By the mid-70s, however, every home had a television set and the mystique was stripped away. There were other, more important factors.
In 1971, the first All-Ireland Club Championship series was held. By the late 80s, the club finals had bumped the Railway Cup showpiece from that precious St. Patrick’s Day slot. The popularity of the Inter-Pros nose-dived and the GAA did nothing to reverse the decline.
The hierarchy simply shrugged their shoulders. Inevitably, apathy spread. By 2001, Paraic Duffy – then the GAC chairman – was publicly advocating that it be dropped all together from the schedule, saying “Quite simply, we can’t see where the Railway Cup can be fitted in.”
Paraic is now the most powerful GAA man in the country. Last year the GAA’s official website (gaa.ie) did not have so much as a mention of the Railway Cup. It is an astounding indictment.
Worse still, the GAA centrally does not spend a penny on the tournament. A marketing budget of nil guarantees a nil return.
Ryan Feeney, the Ulster Council’s Head of Strategy and Development makes a simple point: “Any game that’s marketed well and priced well, will attract a crowd.”
Ryan should know. He has been a central figure in the strategy that has increased McKenna Cup attendances by over 100 per cent in the space of four years. He has also overseen a 25 per cent increase in Ulster Championship attendances in just two years.
In October past, Feeney got a chance to put his money where his mouth was when Mickey Harte approached him and asked if the Ulster Council would help to organise a match in memory of his beloved daughter Michaela.
In the space of six weeks, with a marketing budget of just £20,000, the ‘Match for Michaela’ was played under the Casement Park floodlights. Over 20,000 people packed into the venue to watch Donegal playing an Ulster Select. It was impossible to find a hotel room in the city.
The following week, the Ulster Council presented the profits from the game to the Michaela Foundation, a whopping £154,000.
While the hierarchy has wasted enormous sums of money on the irrelevant Aussie Rules venture, it has set its face against the Railway Cup.
The GAA’s 2012 accounts reveal that E1,028,547 was spent on the International Rules Series in 2010. That is not a misprint.
Last year’s Railway Cup Final in the Athletic Grounds attracted an attendance of 4,000 people. They were treated to the game of the year, a beathtaking spectacle between Ulster and Munster, won in the dying seconds by a goal from Donegal’s Neil McGee.
When team captain Darren Hughes, the brilliant Monaghan defender, raised the cup, his face was shining with pride. He will never win an All-Ireland, but this competition lets him rub shoulders with the very best.
On Sunday past, the small crowd of just under 2,000 at the semi-final between Ulster and Munster was treated to another superb exhibition, with the Ulster men squeaking through courtesy of Ciaran McKeever’s hob nailed boot!
The Railway Cup is an excellent exhibition series, vastly superior to the ugly Aussie Rules experiment. Yet the GAA has spent enormous amounts of money on marketing the latter, ensuring that crowds in excess of 50,000 attend the home internationals.
At the same time, zilch has been spent on the provincial series. The solution is obvious. Abandon the Rules. Market the Railway Cup. It is a win-win situation.