GAA Football

Book review: Red Hand rivalry and All-Ireland memories to the fore in Martin O'Connell's 'Royal Blood'

Neil Loughran

ULSTER football followers will all have their own memories of Martin O'Connell.

Most will be of the marvellous player he was across a trophy-laden career in the green and gold of Meath.

For some, however, old grudges die hard.

The title of O'Connell's new book may be ‘Royal Blood', but it is the Tyrone blood spilled in the X-rated All-Ireland semi-final of 1996 that still rankles in certain quarters 23 years on.

Rarely is mention made of that game without reference to the incidents that left the heads of Ciaran McBride and Brian Dooher wrapped in crimson-coloured cloth.

Peter Canavan has since described how that defeat set the Red Hands back years, and the section reflecting on that game may well pique the interest keen to hear O'Connell's version of that afternoon's events.

He explains how the bad, er, blood stemmed from a challenge match in Navan months earlier, and unsurprisingly defends his own corner regarding the headline-grabbing tussles.

“He went down on a ball under the Cusack Stand, and I kind of fell over him, and my knee clipped him on the head,” he says of the McBride incident.

“He went off the field with blood running out of him. When he came back on, you'd think he'd come back from a battlefield. He had a big bandage wrapped around his head for what was only a little nick.”

On the coming together with Dooher, he says: “I knocked the ball out of his hand and, as I did, he fell over in front of me.

“The ball was hopping and, as I was going over him to try to win it back, I caught him on the head with my boot. I certainly didn't stamp on him. A stamp is looking down on a fella and putting real force into it. I clipped him with my stud but my eyes were on the ball.

“There certainly was no stamping motion involved, and I would defy anyone to say otherwise. I was in two minds that day whether to wear moulded or studs, and in the end I wore studs. If I'd have worn moulded, I probably wouldn't have cut him at all.

“It was definitely accidental.”

O'Connell insists it was the best game Meath played at Croke Park during his time – “Tyrone weren't angels, we weren't angels, that's just the way it was” - even if it sparked calls to The Sunday Game, letters to newspapers and a spirited discussion on ‘Liveline'.

It's all water under the bridge now, and he pays tribute to Dooher and Adrian Cush for helping shepherd him from the field at half-time of a League game in Omagh months later.

Away from the Red Hand rivalry, there is plenty more to enjoy in ‘Royal Blood' too, especially for those who watched Boylan's boys ascend to the throne in the late '80s, becoming a familiar and formidable force to be reckoned during the decade that followed.

O'Connell was a central figure in that success and would finish his career with three All-Ireland titles (1987, '88 and '96), six Leinsters and three National Leagues, as well as picking up the Footballer of the Year award at the age of 33.

Yet, as the book reveals, it could have been so different after he quit the Meath team in the mid-'80s, only to return to the fold in some style.

Quick as a whippet and tough in the tackle, the esteem in which the Carlanstown man is held was reflected in his selection on the GAA's Team of the Millennium.

For anybody who lived through that era and would like to know the inside story of one of it's most successful teams, ‘Royal Blood' is well worth a look.

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