“When the big games came along I always seemed to do really well in them.” said the legendary Tom McNulty as he sat down for an interview and recalled a catalogue of memorable matches, glorious goals and spectacular seasons for the Lilywhites.
When asked to pick a favourite goal he barely hesitates. “Well I think the one in Cork because it was my first league winners medal and you know everything was just perfect that day. “
Twenty years have now passed since that ‘perfect day’ Almost 2,000 fervent Dundalk supporters travelled to Turners Cross for that famous final game of the 1990/91 season with both sides locked on 50 points apiece.
These were the days before goal difference so a draw would have meant a two legged play-off to decide the destination of the league trophy. However with Tom McNulty and Martin Lawlor due to serve suspensions, Dundalk were determined to get the job done in Turners Cross.
Victory for Turlough O’Connor’s team would result in an eighth League Championship for the Carrick Road outfit. Defeat would mean a long six hour journey home thinking about what might have been.
However for Tom McNulty there was never any doubt in his mind that it would be he and his team-mates who would be celebrating that night in Oriel Park‘s Lilywhite Lounge.
“We travelled down that Sunday morning on the train. Normally teams would have gone and stayed overnight. We travelled down, met at the train station in Dublin. Everywhere you looked there was a sea of Dundalk supporters.
“We knew we had great support going down. The atmosphere on the train on the way down was relaxed, nobody seemed to be tense.”
The confidence in the Dundalk dressing room stemmed from a 15 match unbeaten league run stretching all the way back to January. During this period they had conceded a miserly five goals whilst goalkeeper Alan O’Neill had kept an amazing 12 clean sheets.
Prior to the match in Turners Cross, Dundalk had won tough away games in Derry and Shamrock Rovers and in between they had seen off Galway in Oriel. As McNulty explains, confidence was high and it was crystal clear in their heads in terms of what they needed to do.
“Look we had to win, so it was nothing different. We’d already done it for the last month. I think we conceded 17 goals for the whole season and believe it or not five of those were in the very first game against Shelbourne. Basically it was like, if we scored we won.
“Every single Dundalk player on the day performed to the absolute maximum of their abilities. And I think that was the difference on the day.
“In saying that, Cork played really well on the day. But they never really threatened us. Our back four were immense- James Coll- Martin Lawlor- Davy Mackie-Ronnie Murphy. They were all six foot. They just didn’t lose balls in the air.”
It wasn’t just the near inpenetrable defence that had got Dundalk this far though. Peter Hanrahan and Terry Eviston had scored 28 goals between them that season. Mick Shelley and Mick Kavanagh were consistency personified. While Gino Lawless in his favoured midfield enforcer role was having the season of his life.
But the jewel in Dundalk’s crown that season was a tough tackling Scot who had an uncanny knack of producing the goods in important games. As James Coll put it “Whenever we got to a big match situation you just knew that Tom McNulty would have a chance“.
McNulty’s ability to perform on the big stages is legendary in league of Ireland circles. He scored the winning penalty against Derry City in the League Cup Final in 1990.
League winning goals in ‘91 and ‘93 were followed by a wonderful 20 yard left foot volley in 95 which ensured Bohemians were thwarted in their bid to become league champions.
He doesn’t hesitate when asked where this ferocious will to win originated.
“Well when I played my first cup final against Shamrock Rovers I had a terrible game. We lost 3-0. I didn’t do myself justice and I swore that would never ever happen again. So any big games I played in from then on I was always mentally ready. I looked forward to them.”
The games didn’t come much bigger than a title decider down in Cork in front of 12,000 expectant fans. Turner’s Cross was in party mood as Cork went in search of the point they needed to bring the League trophy back to Leeside for the first time since 1974 when the team was known as Cork Celtic.
The match itself was a nervy tight affair with little in the way of chances falling to either side. With time running out Dundalk needed something to happen. They needed a goal and they needed it quickly. Enter, stage left- Mr Tom McNulty.
“I remember Mick Shelley dispossessed Mick Conroy. Cork were looking for a free kick. Suddenly Gino had the ball and I was screaming at him to pass it through to me. He managed to slip the ball through the defenders legs, I ran onto it, the keeper came out and I just slid it past him.
“It seemed to take ages to reach the back of the net and it kind of bobbled into the goal. It was actually quite straightforward after that until the end of the game. ”
“The crowd were brilliant and on the train back it was just a singsong the whole way from Cork to Dublin. And then we all ended up back in Oriel Park for about three days! They were great days.”
McNulty was man of the match against Cork and his league winning goal was his 10th goal of a gruelling season. Later on, along with Coll, O’Neill and Hanrahan, he would be selected on to the 1990/91 All-Star League of Ireland team.
A wonderful season for one of Dundalk’s finest ever players. No wonder he smiles as he remembers that special Sunday down in Turners Cross.