Former Kilmacud Crokes and Dublin centre back, Johnny Magee, recalls the epic battle from the 1998 AIB Leinster Club Football final which went to two replays as Crokes took on Éire Óg from Carlow in what would become a club football classic.
Any Crokes dressing room I’ve been in, I’ve always felt confident that we could beat any team that were put in front of us. I still believe that.
That was the standard that was imposed on me as a young lad at the club in Stillorgan and I’ve kept that with me ever since.
Kilmacud Crokes has been a massive part of my life as long as I can remember. I lived across the road. Training every weekend from six or seven years old. There were days when you’d kick ball on your own. Other days I’d join up with Mick (O’Keeffe) and Cossy (Ray Cosgrove) and the other lads from the community – any chance we got to play football we took it.
The club was part of my family life. My parents were involved. My mother set up the first ladies football team. My brother and sister played with the club all the way up.
I was on the Hill in ‘95 when Kilmacud Crokes became All-Ireland champions for the first time. Watching Mick Dillon lift the cup inspired my dreams of doing the same.
I joined the senior ranks the next year. There was a lot of hunger and desire to succeed. By ’98 we had won through Dublin. We weren’t expected to win but we were always quietly confident. Then we made it all the way to the Leinster Final where we faced Éire Óg from Carlow.
Going into that game, most people would have had us down as favourites. That didn’t bother us. Like I said, we always believed we could win. That day in December 1998 was no different. We couldn’t have known it was going to take three games to decide the Leinster final.
That first day against Éire Óg, we got off to a shite start. Conceded a soft goal but there was no sense of panic. We gradually got a foot hold in the game and we were going well.
But, for some reason, we couldn’t execute in the second half. We missed easy chances. There were a lot of young players on the team and the naivety showed. Lack of composure and game management – things that come with experience.
We were playing a team that had plenty of experience – they’d won four of the previous six Leinster titles. We gave them oxygen. Conceded silly frees. Muckle Keating took his chance to draw the game and it went to a replay.
We knew we left that game behind us, but we had another day to put it right, this time in Tullamore.
When we got there, the weather conditions were horrendous. Brutal. I wouldn’t put my dog out in it.
Freezing rain and wind. The pitch cut up badly. Literally bogged down. You couldn’t see some of the numbers on the backs of players.
There were a lot of big men on both teams. On a soft day like that, there are going to be a lot of collisions – there were plenty that day! No quarter given. No backwards step.
I went for a high ball. When I landed my foot got stuck in the mud. I went down with an ankle injury, damaged ligaments. The pain was terrible, but the ground was so cold I forced myself back on my feet to play on.
After that, we put ourselves in a winning position, just like the first day, but they leveled it up with the last kick of the game. Muckle again! We were going to a third game.
We’d left the last two behind us. We were going back to Newbridge for the second replay. Our mindset was to go out and finish the job.
Éire Óg came out and hit us like a train. Score after score.
Another soft goal. Ball in over the top and one of the smallest men on the field, Willie Quinlan, won the ball and put it in the back of the net.
They had a massive crowd of supporters. They had momentum. We were caught flat footed.
To succeed in the AIB Club Championship you have to put your life on hold. We came through a tough Dublin Championship. Made our way through the minefield of Leinster to the final. Three unbelievably tough games against Éire Óg and they were the ones celebrating at the final whistle.
It was heart-breaking.
My Grandfather, Sydney Magee, had passed away in December just before one of the games against Éire Óg.
I was trying to win it for my Grandfather, for my Dad, for my family. It still hurts. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t have regrets about losing that final and that’s the truth of it.
It hurts, but it was also a driving factor to push me on, to be successful for my club.
I understand that you learn more in losing than in winning. It just pisses me off that we have to learn that way but that’s sport.
Maybe I should thank Éire Óg for beating us that day.
It pushed me and other Crokes lads to not have regrets. Don’t leave anything behind. Keep raising the standards.
Still, we had to wait six years to win Dublin again after that.
We came up against a great Na Fianna team that were full of county stars. They won three-in-a-row.
Kieran McGeeney got my brother Darren sent off in one of those finals. I had to tog out with Geezer for International Rules the next day. Had to bite my lip.
By 2004 / 05, we finally put the ghost of 1998 to rest. We had a young crop of players coming through into the team. We won back to back Dublin titles.
Following our win in the Leinster Final in 2005 we went on a training camp to Tenerife. It was part training, part celebration. Some of the younger lads just went bananas that week.
Salthill were waiting for us in the semi-final. They hadn’t been celebrating. They’d been preparing. They put us out of the championship.
The regret I felt that year was on a par with 1998. We left it behind us because of a lack of discipline in preparation. That pissed me off. Given another chance I would not let that happen again.
When Paddy Carr took over in January 2008 – the squad met in the Stillorgan Park Hotel. A group of us, mostly the older players, called for an eight week ban on alcohol in the run up to big championship games. The room was split down the middle, but we carried the ban. That was the start of something – a change in the fundamental standards that would be expected of every Kilmacud Crokes player.
Just over a year later we were All Ireland champions. No accident. We knew we had left too many opportunities behind us – we needed a change of mindset. As club captain I needed to lead that change.
That year, I had given Paddy Carr plenty of notice that I was getting married on December 4th. My brother Darren was my best man. The stag party was to be in Newcastle – all arranged.
Then we won Dublin… the stag party fell between the Leinster quarter final and semi-final. I was captain. I had to do the right thing. So, the stag and the best man stayed at home and all my mates went to Newcastle – must be the only stag in history where that’s happened.
Had to be done. In your life span as a player its no great sacrifice to stay off the drink when it matters.
We made it to the Leinster Final. My wedding was on the previous Thursday. None of the lads touched a drop that day. I had a glass of champagne for the toast.
We beat Rhode by a goal that Sunday. Leinster Champions again.
At that stage in my football career, I found myself starting on the bench. That was hard to take but there was a time when I was the young lad biting at older players backs, and I had to accept my role in the team.
There was an understanding that players like Ray Cosgrove and myself were coming in to finish the job, lift the team, get it across the line and that’s how it played out.
We won well in the semi-final against Corofin and faced a top class Crossmaglen Rangers team on St. Patrick’s Day.
I was on the bench again. Bite the bullet. It’s not about me it’s about the team. It’s about winning the All-Ireland.
We cut through Crossmaglen from the off. They had started to get back into the game. Our lads dug in. I came on to do my bit for the team – help get it over the line.
AIB All-Ireland Club Champions. An unbelievably special feeling.
I had the posters of the 1995 Kilmacud Crokes and Dublin All Ireland winning teams on my wall as a teenager. Now, here I was at the final whistle, leading Kilmacud Crokes up the steps of the Hogan Stand. Full of emotion – my parents celebrating on the field. My girls with me for the cup presentation.
Not many people can say they got to fulfil their dream. Mine was to win an All-Ireland as the captain of my club. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
It helped ease some of the hurt from ’98.
I’d say if you asked the Éire Óg lads would they swap all their Leinster titles for an All-Ireland medal, they’d swap it in a heartbeat. But that’s sport – to learn how to win you have to learn how to lose.
The club gave me my greatest moments as a player, better even than the best days with Dublin.
20 years ago, Kilmacud Crokes players were not really favoured for the Dublin set up for one reason or another. Myself, Mick O’Keeffe and Ray Cosgrove kicked that door down. It’s hard to believe now when you look at the success that lads from this club have had – players like Cian O’Sullivan, Paul Mannion, Rory O’Carroll and Kevin Nolan.
I had nine years with Dublin. I loved it. I had played on Dublin teams since I was a kid and the dream was always to represent my county at senior level.
Won two Leinsters but missed out on the “Holy Grail”.
There’s no doubt in my mind, we had the team and the talent to win an All-Ireland for Dublin, but when we needed it there seemed to be a lack of trust among that group of players. When things were going well, we were great but when the shit hit the fan we failed to pull together as a team.
At Crokes, we were a band of brothers, no question about it. You always knew your teammates would step up. They had your back. With Dublin, I could only say the same for a handful of lads.
My oldest, Lauren has had a very different experience with Dublin.
She has won two All Ireland’s in a row and an All Star in 2018. She’s also a proud Crokes player. My daughter, Éabha, is on the under-14 development squad for Meath. The GAA family tradition rolls on. It makes me immensely proud to watch them perform and succeed in the game.
I’m now joint manager at Kilmacud Crokes. To win an All-Ireland as a manager would be incredible but the AIB Club Championship truly is the hardest competition to win. You come through county in the summer. Leinster in the winter and the All-Ireland series after Christmas.
It’s not just the toughest competition… it’s the greatest.
If you enjoyed Johnny’s article, you might like to read John Mullane’s “I’ll Take That Game To My Grave“.
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