The Cork Commander, The Big Apple and Tears for Donegal

I recall a sunny day in Galway some years past. I think it was an All Ireland football final, a brief respite from final year exams. The television screen was on, but we were listening to the Gaelic games seanachai and poetic octaves of Michéal O’Muircheartaigh.

I recall a sunny day in Galway some years past. I think it was an All Ireland football final, a brief respite from final year exams. The television screen was on, but we were listening to the Gaelic games seanachai and poetic octaves of Michéal O’Muircheartaigh.

A typical commentary with rapier like precision stuck out, just like the player himself. It went something like this: “Larry Tompkins, born in Kildare, played for Wicklow and went to America and played for Donegal, now he’s back home in Castlehaven where he plays for Cork. You could call Larry a well travelled man and he is travelling up the field now at speed . . .” And that was all in the one intake of breath.

The legendary Larry Tompkins was one of the greatest players to don the Cork football jersey. As a Commander and leader on the field, he can rightfully share the same Cork GAA platform with the likes of Jack Lynch, Christy Ring, Jimmy Barry Murphy and Teddy McCarthy.

Not bad for a Kildare man, or the aforementioned “well travelled man”.

His footballing pedigree is as impressive as his affable manner and knowledge of the game. He played in four consecutive All Ireland finals – 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990.

He captained the Cork team to All-Ireland victory in 1990, having already picked up his first All Ireland senior medal the year before.

He won three All-Stars, has six Munster championships and was named on the best Munster team in the 25 years from 1984-2009. Later as Cork manager, he won two more Munster titles and brought them to the All Ireland final of 1999, only to be defeated by Meath.

But such kudos are not even mentioned in conversation by the modest man, when we spoke this week in advance of a first ever senior championship clash between the Leesiders and the Tirconaillites in the penultimate stage of the 2012 All-Ireland.

“It will be an intriguing clash. Donegal have made serious strides in the last couple of years. They’ve done back-to-back Ulster titles which is a major thing in that province,” he said.

“Considering the fact that last year it was Donegal’s first appearance at this stage in a long while. There was a great victory over Kildare in the quarter final after extra time and some would say they were then unlucky not to beat Dublin in the semi final. This year, they seem to have blossomed even further.

“It is so nice to see players come onto the scene and improve from each year to the next year. That is what Donegal have done. They have progressed well from that period last year to this year and you see a lot of their players have developed – they are stronger now, more mature, certainly playing a lot better I think, and more confident in their ability. That is always the sign of a very good side.”

Crest of a wave

“Donegal are coming into this on the crest of a wave. Their confidence should be very high after beating Kerry and I am sure that they are looking forward to this challenge on Sunday.

The now retired Castlehaven magician said there was some surprise at Donegal defeating Kerry in the quarter finals, but it was not unexpected, as most people knew that Donegal would be a real challenge to the Kingdom.

“I wouldn’t say that it was a massive surprise in Munster or Cork. Maybe people would have thought that Kerry might have won. But I think that the feeling in Cork was, that if Kerry won, Donegal would have taken a lot out of Kerry and they would not have been able to produce the same performance a few weeks later against Cork in the semi final.

“You see Donegal are a fresh hungry side and Kerry, let’s be honest, have nothing to prove. They’ve done it (All Ireland wins) a good few times. A lot of their players have won numerous All Irelands.

“But when you have a fresh hungry side mad to win and have very good players on top of that, then it’s going to take its toll on a team trying to get there again. If they had got over Donegal, the sting may have been taken out of them, but Cork have a different challenge now.

50-50 game

Larry accepts that it will be a hard game to call, but that Cork cannot take a victory for granted against a team that is on a roll.

“I see this game and I will be totally honest, as a 50-50 game.”

While Cork may have been one of the top teams of recent years, it is not necessarily an automatic advantage against a Donegal team in terms of maturity, cuteness or more big occasions.

“If a team is good enough, they can win a title the first year. Many will say that Donegal should have been in the final last year. It can often be the make up and build up of individuals within a team.

“When you look at this Cork team, they’ve won Nationals leagues and that is the second competition. They have won an All Ireland in 2010 but with due respect to Down, the team would not have been comparable to any of the great Down teams who won All-Irelands previous to that. Cork still have a lot to prove.

“They still need to go on and win an All Ireland like this. If we go ahead and win this year’s All Ireland, Cork will have proven themselves, because we will have to beat a highly competitive Donegal side and go on and beat either reigning champions Dublin or Mayo in the final. I think there is still a bit of a question mark even within the Cork public supporting the team.

Questions to answer

“Cork would still have a few questions to answer themselves and the pressure will be on them, as they are the favourites to win. If Cork don’t win, you will probably see a few guys that won’t be playing at this level again, so nothing can be taken for granted. “I think there is more pressure on Cork to deliver and that is why I come down to look at the basics of the game – I just fear that the Cork backs are a bit vulnerable, the half back line did well the last day but I think that the level of competition from Kildare, had gone back 100% on the previous year.

Reflecting on the relatively easy victories for Cork over Clare in the Munster final and later Kildare, he feels that even the Munster semi final game with Kerry which he attended was “a backdoor game”.

“Ok, it was Cork and Kerry, but they weren’t pulling the hair out of one another. It’s a different kettle of fish when you look at it now. In the quarter final Kildare looked like a team that played but packed their bags ten minutes into the second half, so the last 25 minutes of that game in my book was non existent.

“It is very hard to judge, I would be afraid if it was a tight hard game and with the way that Donegal play, with their mobility to come forward in waves and get back in waves could frustrate a lot of the Cork players.

“It will all depend on whether Cork can have players in certain positions out the field to keep the scores coming. It will be key for Cork to be able to takes score from 30 and 40 yards – that will be the key! It will be interesting to see how Cork deal with the swarm in numbers, being kept under pressure, but still being able to pick up scores.

Evolution of the game

As to the evolution of the game and tactics over recent years, Larry does not blame the teams for adopting new styles and strategies to achieve success, but feels that the rule makers, in their enthusiasm to bring the game up to date, have forgotten some of the fundamentals skills of the game that made Gaelic Football so hugely exciting in the past. .

“That is just the format of the way things have gone. Fair play to Donegal or any other team that have been able to adapt to it. But I certainly would like to see the goalkeeper kick the ball out long, I would like to see the competition and excitement around the middle – the high catching around midfield. Isn’t the greatest thrill of all being able to see players go up and catch a ball and then kicking the ball from long distance?

“The free taking from the ground, I cannot understand for the life of me, how that art was not left in the game. I think that scores from frees should be kicked from the ground. I remember growing up, going to Croke Park, watching the likes of Tony McTeague of Offaly, Tommy Carew of Kildare and Jimmy Keaveney of Dublin. People went to see these guys kicking frees. There was brilliant artistry. But that’s just the way it’s gone.”

Rule changes

“All the talk is about the preparation and the fitness with players being able to play in loads of different positions, but I would look at the rule changes. I am not blaming any county for the way they play, but would question the initiative of people that sit around tables. You have goalkeepers being given tees to kick out the ball, but that is now a waste of time, as the goalkeepers are now chipping balls out to the corner back or the half back. The long kicks are gone.

“My philosophy is, isn’t it fantastic to see guys going up against each other to catch a ball cleanly in the air! Isn’t it fantastic to see long kicking! When the hand passing came into our game twenty years ago, it accounted for 20% of the game, now its 70% of the game and in another 5 years, it’s going to be 90% of our game, so the art of kicking will be gone altogether unless they limit the hand pass.”

Donegal and the Big Apple

He leaves his final thoughts and memories to the times that he played with Donegal in New York, after he was invited over there in 1985.

“They were four or five of the best years of my life. It was fantastic over there and a guy called Donal Gallagher from Killybegs was the man really that got things organised and rolled a very good team out there for a number of years. I think that for four consecutive years, that Donegal team was unbeaten. It was a super side that put a lot of work and effort.

“They were golden moments and ones that I will never forget. I met loads of people from Donegal and from all parts of Donegal. They were just the nicest people that I met in all my life.

“When I was in the Hogan stand that day and looking at the All-Ireland Final of 1992, apart from the Donegal people who were shedding tears, I was shedding tears myself because while I did not know the whole team, I had played with the likes of Martin McHugh and Anthony Molloy and a few others in New York. It was another golden moment and I knew what it meant for Donegal and its people.

Always the enthusiast Larry says that if Cork were not in an All Ireland final this year, I would be great if GAA fans saw the likes of a Donegal/Mayo final.

And for good measure, Larry who runs a successful pub on the banks of the Lee, just off Patrick’s Parade and near the Opera House, will also extend a special hand of friendship to any Donegal folk travelling south – with or without Sam.