I have often state here in this column and on Radio that the greatest game of Gaelic football I have ever seen was the re-play and extra time of the 1976 Munster final. Most observers have said that the greatest game ever in the history of the GAA was the 1977 All Ireland semi final when Dublin beat Kerry as they scored two late goals, however I don't go along with that. It may be all of twenty four long years ago but I have vivid memories of sitting in the stand and experiencing the pulsating excitement as both sides gave their all in sweltering conditions. I will never forget the closing minutes as both sides strived for victory. The supporters in the stand were on their feet and the Kingdom followers were chanting, Kerry, Kerry, Kerry. I have never heard this before or since at a Munster final. The tension in the air, the thunderous cheering of supporters from both sides and the non stop action on the field as the play surged from end to end. One man just a few rows from me couldn't take the tension any more and simply collapsed in his eat. The medics came rushing to the scent and he was eventually whisked of to an ambulance. I later learned that he was a Kerryman who was known to me. He had suffered a mild heart attack and made a full recovery and now an old man he has never attended a game since.
So when I was given a present of a new book a few days ago entitled "Rebels-Cork GAA since 1950" by the renowned Irish Examiner journalist Michael Moynihan I went straight to the chapter covering that game which has and will for ever remain etched in my memory. The 1976 Munster football final re-play. And the author has captured a wonderful insight into the minds of the Cork players involved in that mighty struggle for Munster supremacy. Under a chapter entitled Watershed, Michael begins. "Its usually dangerous to isolate a single game as the fork in the road for a team, or even a player, but the participants in the 1976 Munster football final, particularly the men in the red jerseys, are unequivocal in their belief that this was a turning point in fortunes". So straight away the reader is made aware that this was a very special moment in the history of Kerry/Cork clashes. And for me it copper fastened the belief I have always harbored that there was something very special about that game.
Cork had the spine of the team which had won the 1973 All Ireland. Kerry were the reigning champions having shocked Dublin in 1975 with a team of young bachelors'. They had wintered well and celebrations had gone on all over the place as this brilliant side under Mick o Dwyer took the field for the defense of their title. In many ways this match defined the future of Kerry football at the time. Interviews in the book given by some Cork players that day emphasized the massive importance of that result. It would prove to be the most controversial game I have ever witnessed. And Cork came out the worse of all that controversy. Cork defender John Coleman recalled. "The extra time defeat to Kerry was a turning point; A hundred and ten minutes of sheer tension, the likes of which you couldn't imagine and which knocked the stuffing out of the Cork team for all time". This is a very strong statement after all these years. The great dual Cork player Jimmy Barry Murphy is even more forthright. "It was the defining moment of our careers" he says. "My personal opinion would be that we were robbed of a Munster title that day. I'd go so far as to say that a whole generation of Cork footballers had their careers seriously affected by decisions made that day". Murphy's statement here is in any mans language pretty dramatic stuff.
That 1976 drawn final was the first played at the newly opened Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Some 10,000 people got in free and a massive crowd crowded on to the side lines. Unlike the re-play and extra time the first game was a dull affair. To the re-play and those two hightly controversial and crucial decisions. Pat Spillane whose point send the teams into extra time reflects decads later on what happened. "It was daylight robbery" he says. "We were haunted. We got the rub of the green in a couple of refereeing decisions, Declan Barons goal especially". I myself have vivid memories of those incidents. Five minutes left, Cork were four points ahead when a Sean Walsh effort for goal was saved on the line by Brian Murphy. The umpire decide that Murphy had stepped back over the line with the ball. The goal was awarded. I would swear myself that the decision was wrong. Cork swept up field where Declan Barron rose majestically high in the Kerry square to punch to the net. The goal was ruled out for a square ball. A very marginal decision and if I was asked to swear on a stack of bibles I would say it was a legitimate goal. This was a swing of six points to Kerry.
Cork were stunned, they never recovered and in extra time Kerry surged to the title, 3-20 to 2-19.
But now all these years later I can reveal a fascinating sequel to that famous (or infamous) final. The year was 1983. I refereed the opening game, the Munster minor final Cork and Tipperary in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. After the game I was togging off and the late John Moloney was along side me getting ready to officiate in the senior final. We were chatting when a well known Cork official stuck his head in the dressing room door and remarked to John. "Hope you give us fair play today Moloney". It was evident he was referring to the 1976 controversy. I could see John; a gentleman of the highest caliber was visibly upset. Michaels Moynihan's book beautifully covers what happened that day late in game of 1983. Corks Dinny Allen recalls the closing minutes. "Paudie o Se was right behind me but I picked it off the ground. I just didn't have the energy to get my toe under the ball. I picked it straight in front of Moloney, but Paudie wrapped his arms around me and the whistle went for a free in. I don't know if Moloney felt sorry for us for '76 or what but he gave the free when it should have gone the other way. Amazing given what came out of it". Tadgh Murphy got the ball and goaled of the butt of the post and Kerry were beaten. I also believe Murphy was in the Kerry square when he gained possession of the ball and a free out should have ben awarded. Match winning decisions had now gone Corks way. You draw your own conclusions in relation to Dinny Allen's comments. Rebels-Cork GAA since 1950 was a fascinating read. What it contains has only copper fastened my view that 1976 was the greatest game of Gaelic football I have seen since my first final in 1955.