ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 10

HURLING’S GOLDEN AGE – PART I

Anybody who has been reading my material for long enough will know of the huge influence Tom Yourell had, not only on my life but on the life, heart and soul of Dunboyne itself. Now read on…

Within the last decade and a half or so, another individual of the highest esteem in the locality wrote a reference letter for me in which they referred to yours truly as ‘The Lord Mayor Of Dunboyne’. Now, it is known that the late Fintan Gilligan ‘officially’ held the title before my time.

For as long as I was properly attuned to goings on in the area, while he was with us, Tom was exactly that. As historian Aindrais O’Gallachoir said in the magnificent documentary Waiting For Houlihan about Ireland’s greatest man of letters “He wasn’t a character, no, not that, just a very important person”.

Among ourselves, we called him ‘The Local Solicitor’ because, given that he was self-educated, his acumen for assisting people with official and/or legal issues was astounding. But even besides that, and, obviously, the reverance with which he was held within the GAA community, he was somebody who was held in the highest esteem in our community.

To the extent that anybody new who came to serve in our parish, be they Garda, teacher or new priest to the area, they were fairly quickly encouraged to go and introduce themselves to him. There’s a story pertaining to when one such individual took the introductory trip. In this case, perhaps best to leave some things unsaid. Let’s just say they got a little bit more than they bargained for!

GAA was almost always centre stage though. Which meant that, then County Chairman Brian Smyth making a late night call after a Board meeting wasn’t unusual. However, one such pitstop, in September 1982 will never be forgotten by those of lucky enough to have heard the story thereof. For any fans of Meath GAA reading this for the first time, you won’t forget in a hurry either!

Meath football was in the doldrums at the time. Having been knocked out of the championship in consecutive seasons by Longford and Wexford. It’s probably fairly safe to assume there weren’t tailbacks of candidates queuing up for the job. Be that as it may, even the Chairman himself was reported to have had a chuckle when relaying news of the appointment of Sean Boylan.

HURLING MAN

Reason being that Sean was far more widely recognised as a hurler then. And a bloody good one at that. As his father – Gen. Sean Boylan who was heavily involved with Michael Collins – was before him. Boylan Snr winning Meath SHC medals with Dunboyne in 1908, ’11, ’12, ’13 and ’14.

Everybody knows how the story of the hurling man managing the football team turned out. For much of the same period though, Meath hurling was in a bad place. Whether the two matters are connected is neither here nor there.

In the context of what will dominate hereafter, what it meant was that most of the hurling seen in this corner was whatever happened to be on television. 1989 was the first year I recall properly. Probably not surprising given that Antrim caused a major shock by overcoming Offaly in the All Ireland semi final. Back then, both contests for Final berths took place on the same day. Meaning that those under the direction of the late Jim Nelson knew they would be facing Tipperary in the showpiece before heading for the green Glens.

Jim Nelson is carried shoulder high off Croke Park after Antrim stunned in 1989

A Tipperary team seeking recompense having gone under to a Galway group completing consecutive championships. They duly got their payback against the Ulster side, with, from memory, Nicky English having a particularly brilliant outing. Strangely, though, for whatever reason, nothing much is recalled of the deciders of 1990 or ’91. Apart, that is, from Tomas Mulcahy of Cork scoring a memorable goal during a Man Of The Match display in the former of the two matches mentioned.

Every picture tells a story: Two modern icons of the game – Davy Fitz and DJ.

Having said all that, recollections of the 1992 decider aren’t exactly overflowing either. Bar it being the first occasion during which DJ Carey was ‘noticed’. It was always clear that Kilkenny were the bees knees in the game. Both from hearing my dad regaling all and sundry with tales of greats of old like Peter Prendergast – whose brother Phil, Lord rest him, worked in Brady’s of Dunboyne for many years – and Eddie Keher and ‘Fan’ Larkin and so many more to the fact that, whenever the hurls were taken out of the shed when I was younger we were always Pat O’Neill or Bill Hennessy or DJ or my especial favourite in those days, John Power – because he was a farmer, of course!

Strip away the sentamentality, though, and there are three recollections which shine out like beacons: DJ, seeing a Down hurling team for the first time. Complete with quality Hurlers like Noel Keith in goal, Danny Hughes, Noel Sands and Gerald McGrattan who, at the end of the season was a very worthy recipient of an All Star. And lastly, sadly, then manager of The Cats, the great Ollie Walsh, passing to the hurling field in the sky quite quickly afterwards.

AN AMBITION VERY QUICKLY REALISED

The idea of bucket lists is abhorrent to me. As someone who could write a third Testament of the Bible on the ups, downs and roundabouts of fighting mental health battles on a near constant basis, please allow me to explain. Setting goals is not only understandable, it’s essential. For me at least.

However, it has to be one target at a time. One day at a time. Often one hour at a time. Particularly in current life circumstances. Colating lists of such things only adds pressure to the situation. Believe me, there are enough obstacles to be jumped and hazards to be avoided without compounding the situation.

Set a target. Lock onto it and drive at it. If you hit it, well and good. If not, pull the horse up, freshen up and go again. Winners never quit because quitters never win. At that stage, with Meath gone out of the championship much earlier than had been the norm for the second successive summer, seeing DJ Carey in action became the target that kept these wheels turning that summer.

At that stage, my eyesight was still decent enough that the action could be taken in if a means of getting to the game – by which I mean a ticket – could be found. Enter the great Brian Smyth to our story once again. Without wanting to appear any way disrespectful to anyone striving for glory therein nowadays – or indeed the Bob O’Keeffe Cup with which there is a historic connection in Dunboyne owing to the fact that the man himself founded our club – back then the Leinster SHC was a big deal.

A 50 to 60,000 in Croke Park big deal. Thus, getting a ticket for same – even a wheelchair one – represented an achievement in itself. So when our then Club Secretary – who had multiple other irons in the GAA fire at the time – altered us to the fact that there was a spare one going, there was no need to be asked twice.

And talk about striking it lucky. It’s not over romanticising the situation (too much) in saying it was possibly the last great Leinster final. In terms of quality of contest, that is. Of course there have been fabled occasions since – Wexford ending their drought in 1996, Dublin doing likewise under Anthony Daly years later, ‘visitors’ Galway taking Bob for a trip over the Shannon a couple of occasions and, most recently, Davy Fitz working his magic with the Slaney siders once again.

Back to our unexpected day out. Even then, Wexford’s pursuit of a provincial title was a story which tugged at the heart strings of many. It would, lest we forget, go on for a further three seasons. However, for large parts of that particular clash between the age old rivals, it appeared as if the wait was going to end thanks to an Eamon Scallan goal and an avalanche of Tom Dempsey points.

Former Wexford forward Eamon Scallan

Unfortunately for Wexford and their usual hordes of followers, there was no acting in Kilkenny that day as their leading performer Eamonn Morrissey played a starring role in ensuring the defending champions didn’t lose their Leinster and All Ireland titles as early as July 11th. Not only by flashing over a late equaliser but delivering an award winning performance throughout, accumulating an individual tally of 2-3 in the process.

THE DAY THAT LIT A SPARK

Hardly surprisingly, after such an epic encounter ending in stalemate, there was absolutely no chance of there being spare tickets lying around for the replay (which Kilkenny won on a 2-12 to 0-11 scoreline) Being honest very little is recalled of the remainder of the 1993 championship. Other than PJ Delaney scoring a goal in the final against Galway which more or less guaranteed that Liam Fennelly would be collecting the MacCarthy Cup to spend consecutive winters down on the banks of the Suir.

The deadly Dooley brothers of Seir Kieran and Offaly

Exactly twelve months on, something was witnessed which lit a spark which – despite what some would have you believe – lit a spark which, even with fading vision, has never and hopefully will never be diminished. The 1994 All Ireland SHC Final remains the greatest exhibition of the world’s best field game the one seeing eye – as it is now – has ever seen.

This corner had actually began the day rooting for Limerick. Des was living down there at the time. Plus, they hadn’t harvested autumnal silver since 1973. For the vast majority of the afternoon, it appeared the wager – metaphorical though it was in that case – was on the right horse.

For, when Damien Quigley planted two ‘majors’ beyond Jim Troy, one of which remains the best score I’ve ever seen in hurling, gut feeling was that was the signpost for the men from the Treaty City were set clear sailing home with the loot.

If life was simple, though, wouldn’t it be boring? With Eamon Cregan in the opposing dugout trying to plot the downfall of his kinfolk, there was nearly certainly going to be a twist, wasn’t there.

The Offaly hurling story is equal to if not greater than the Faithful County’s football feat in 1982. Like most areas where the big ball game is predominant, it’s smaller counterpart thrives only in pockets. In the case of those in the tricolour jerseys, it was a pocket comparable with the top of your shirt.

In these enclaves, and they smattered throughout the country, hurling is not so much followed as worshipped with an almost fanatical reverence. Remember, it is not all that long ago that, despite Paul Flynn bagging 3-2 in Walsh Park, Kerry caused one of the greatest upsets in modern hurling history by recording one of the greatest upsets in modern hurling history.

As time elapsed in the 1994 September showpiece, I recall Limerick substitute Leo O’Connor catapulting over what was assumed to be the insurance score from out under the Hogan Stand. But…

The closing moments of the fourth game of the drama between Meath and Dublin in 1991, Manchester United’s pilfering of the European Cup from the clutches of Bayern Munich in ’99, Peter Stringer’s try for Munster on the occasion of their first Heineken Cup triumph and Ronan O’Gara’s Grand Slam clinching drop goal were commensurate in their dramatic effect, but there was something even more homely about this.

Knowing that they were amateurs. Knowing how close knit the hurling fraternity are in Offaly. The sight of Billy Dooley, practically motionless, running on fumes, slinging over points from a stationary position like the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) squeezing off shots to trigger the dynamite in Blazing Saddles. To such an extent that, after O’Connor’s classy contribution looked to have put enough wind in the sails of those from where there is an isle to get them home, Cregan’s charges became buoyed by such tsunami of momentum that expecting Limerick to resurrect themselves was like asking Mongo to go to Slimming World.

A REVOLUTION AMONG HIS OWN PEOPLE

“He must nearly rival Thomas Edison when it comes to being inventive”

After the sheer majesty of Offaly’s outrageous overhauling of Tom Ryan’s team, there was nearly a sense of guilt in hoping for, never mind expecting equally entrancing entertainment to replicate it the following season.

Someone once said that the only predictable thing about the Irish weather is its unpredictability. Similar descriptive terminology could easily be assigned to the Munster SHC. The greatest competition the grand old game has under its jorisdiction. Annually, the shoot-out for the trophy produces the sporting occasion of the year.

Now, for much of the early to mid 1990s, Clare had been making incremental and commendable progress under the direction of Tipperary’s Len Gaynor. The Banner County have always had top quality hurlers. To the point that they had been dealt a disproportionate helping of woe when the talent at their disposal is taken into account.

Len’s local knowledge counted for little, mind you, when his charges endured an unmerciful pasting from the dying embers of terrific Tipp team in the Munster SHC Final of 1994. Stephen Sheedy and Tommy Guilfoyle and Cyril Lyons led the unwinnable fight against the tide that day. How fitting it was, then, that least two if not all three didn’t have long to wait for salvation from decades of despair.

Every sport has stand-out figures. The beacon who people look up to. To those not intrinsically involved in or familiar with a sport or team, the instantly recognisable face. In a G. A. A. context every county has them. Every club has them. Those who can be filed under that serially abused word – inspirational.

If you were looking for that shining light in the decades of darkness which besieged Clare hurling and its eternally hopeful followers, Ger Loughnane was that ray of hope. Both as flair player on a luckless team who never got the reward their talent unquestionbly merited and, even more so as one of the most driven, cunning and tactically astute managers Gaeilc Games has seen. Not afraid to push boundaries and ahead of his time.

Ger Loughnane is a polarising figure within the GAA but for me one of the true greats

Ger fits right in with my fondness for firebrand characters. Folks who don’t give a damn what anyone says about or thinks of them. With a penchant for doing things their own way. Admittedly, I initially didn’t realise that he had been part of Gaynor’s backroom team but, once the reins were thrown on his own neck he engineered something of a revolution among his own people.

He must nearly rival Thomas Edison when it comes to being inventive. In that it would be ventured that patented ideas such as early morning training sessions and releasing ‘dud’ teams to the press before matches. The latter ‘party piece’ didn’t go down well with the naysayers and do-gooders but it was all part of the psychology which is such an integral part of top level sport. It’s all about trying to eek out that extra inch.

Being honest, there are only bits and pieces of the early part of their ultimately glorious season of 1995 recalled. The first of which was a very, very late point from a line ball that was engineered by Seanie McMahon in their opening outing against Cork. Which would have been remarkable enough due to its chronology but became totally astonishing when it emerged that my favourite centre back of them all orchestrated his side’s extrication from what seemed to be a locked departure lounge whilst restricted by a serious arm injury.

Much of Clare’s success between the mid 1990s and early 2000s was built around the foundation stone that was Seanie McMahon

There’s absolutely no difficulty in visualising the Munster final and their win over defending champions Limerick. Specifically the pivotal moment therein. One cannot recall seeing a goalkeeper venturing up field to let fly at and duly bury a penalty. It would have to be Davy Fitz, wouldn’t it?

First observations were that the hurl the little legend from Sixmilebridge was employing was nearly bigger than himself and that judging by the gallop he set on the way back to his station, he would have given Linford Christie or Carl Lewis a good go for their money. At that time, before being completely won over by the aura of Loughnane, there was in this seat a soft spot for Galway.

It is most likely said state of affairs originated from the fact that at the time the Sarsfields club had a very good team – including Joe Cooney, Padraig Kelly and Peter Kelly beat Dunloy of Antrim in a couple of All Ireland Club finals. Either that or it was being taken by a few very talented individuals who came in their wake – Nigel Shaughnessy and Joe Rabbitte and Eugene Cloonan.

Big Joe Rabbite – Hurler and Farmer

Not much is recalled of their penultimate round encounter with neighbours Galway. Save, that is, a brace of goals by Ger ‘Sparrow’ O’Loughlin of the ‘Magpies’ in Clarecastle – who may, in fact, have relations in Batterstown.

WIN WIN OR NO WIN

There were two ways of looking at the 1995 All Ireland SHC final from a neutral perspective. The manner in which Offaly saved themselves the previous season left an impression on me that will forever linger. Yet, it was impossible not to get caught up emotionally in Clare’s remarkable escapades. The underdog. Against all odds. Triumph over adversity. So much of it spoke to me. Particularly around that time when I was up to my axles in dung with the school.

It was either a win-win or no win situation. Seeing one team or the other win would’ve cheerer me up bigtime. Conversly, the upset felt by whoever lost out would be totally understood here. Maybe more so in the case of Cregan’s charges as their age profile had more mileage than their opponents.

Here is possibly the greatest quiz question available. If it has never been asked previously, which it surely has, somebody needs to add it to the annals of quizdom immediately. Now read on…

“Name the player who ran onto the pitch, scored the winning goal in an All Ireland Final and ran straight back off again”? Step forward Eamonn Taaffe. It was either the strangest set of circumstances coming together at the same time, or a pre-planned act of managerial genius by Loughnane. I know which corner this vehicle is parked in!

IT WAS A BEAUTY TO BEHOLD, TO SEE THE PURPLE AND GOLD

When I first joined the Executive Committee of our club in 1997, hurling was at a pretty low ebb. Only one adult team was being fielded and one man, John Reilly, appeared to be looking after all the hurling teams at the time.

Thankfully, the status of the small ball game is on a different planet by comparison nowadays. Something made possible by the efforts of Sean McManus – whose passion for the clash of the ash is comparable to the length of a piece of string. He formed a committee and very quickly the benefits were reaped thereof.

But then, that was only as it should have been. We were formed as a hurling club, as mentioned earlier, by Bob O’Keeffe in 1902. There wasn’t actually an organised football team until Tom Yourell approached then Parish Priest Fr Pat Carberry in 1947.

Be that as it may, for much of the time when I was growing up our hurlers were a bit of a yoyo team. They’d win the Intermediate Championship one year and end up back in it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

As far as I know, it was around that time Jack Guiney was living in the area. Whether his sons Rod and Dave ever played with the club one cannot say, but, the connection gave a bit a link to the Model County’s escapades in 1996. Not as much, mind you, as the late Ned Byrne. As fine a judge of a hurler or a horse as a man ever knew. Knowing the illness which befell my dear friend before his untimely departure from us, there’s comfort in recalling that got to see September silverware adorned by purple and gold. You can be sure there was no happier man, either, in the betting ring above, seeing Davy Fitz guide the best looking trophy in Irish sport back to the home of the strawberry. Not to mention Paul Nolan’s rejuvenation to his rightful place among the pantheon of horse trainers.

Wexford’s Rod Guiney in action in the 1996 All Ireland Final

Looking at Wexford’s wonderful couple of years from another vantage point, the greatest part was seeing greats of the game, durable warriors who had enduredyears of hardship get their just rewards. The likes of Ger Cush, Liam Dunne, John and George O’Connor, Larry O’Gorman, Martin Storey and my own favourite, Billy Byrne.

Billy Byrne spent his career taking the fight to Kilkenny

It goes without saying of course that wherever there are heroics, there are also the gallantly vanquished. Gutting for them and their people. Most especially in this case when the manner in which Limerick were usurped a couple of years beforehand is taken into account.

The latter named county had defenestrated then defending champions Clare in the best game played that summer or for many other summers. During which Ciaran Carey constructed and executed the most wondrous score ever ever seen in the grand old game.

Ciaran Carey was the spiritual leader of the Limerick team for many years.

There is a sense that everybody would say the following, however, instinct was that if Clare had navigated their way out of the Gaelic Grounds that scorching day they would most likely have gone on to keep McCarthy for another winter. In the intervening years, the thought has often struck as to whether it was due to a sense of cruelty that, after such an electrifying encounter, one of the teams would be out of competitive action for the guts of a year, which instigated the inception of the ‘Back Door’ system the following year.

You never thought, though, that a team Loughnane had anything to do with was going to lack for motivation. At any time, never mind when they’ve had a whole summer to stew over having had their titles wrestled from their grasp in the most agonising of fashions. Thus, knowing exceptional group of players they had at their beck and call, anything other than them coming out with all guns blazing was unfathomable.

“I’m not giving any secrets away like that to Tipperary. If I’d my way, I wouldn’t even tell them the time of the throw in”.

GER LOUGHNANE

Very quickly there was a whiff or cordite off the arms too. With the greatest of respect, their annihilation of Kerry wasn’t going to prove anything. To themselves or anybody else. However, there was a certain ruthlessness about the way in which they overhauled the challenges posed by Cork and Tipperary respectively. It wouldn’t take Stephen Hawking to decipher that neither Manager nor Captain were overly fond of their latter opponents.

There was a bit of a siege mentality about. Something which the Meath team had when they were at their zenith between 1986 and 1991. Shades of “We Are Milwall, Nobody Likes Us, We Don’t Care”. Every team should have some of it. Hope would be that Meath will get a transfusion thereof sooner rather than later.

Loughnane went to peak mind games when making absolutely no secret of his dislike of the Premier County when declaring before the 1997 Munster final – “I won’t be giving away any secrets to Tipperary. If I’d my way, I wouldn’t even tell them the time of the throw in”! The great thing about the Feakle clubman was that, more often than not, his teams were conditioned to back up his words by their actions. Never was that more evident than in the aforementioned match in Cork.

When, in my opinion, they produced their best display of that entire era. An on-field demonstration of Anthony Daly’s war cry that his team were “No longer the whipping boys of Munster”. The manager’s obsession with beating Tipperary in a final is understood. Similar emotions abide here with regard to usurpation of those in two shades of blue.

That is not, in any way, meant in a disrespectful manner. Rather, that it adds merited credence to the feeling of achievement having overcome the recognised pole toppers. At the time, there was a school of thought which proclaimed that Clare’s magnificent achievements during that spell were diminished somewhat by the perception that those proclaimed as the big three – Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork were on the wane.

Born to inspire: ‘Dalo’ – a leader on and off the field

In my view, such a take on things treads water for two reasons. One, the absolutely top teams – in any sport – do not take their foot off the gas. It may not always turn out the way they desire, see Kerry 1982 as a reference point, but that’s not down to laxity. Secondly, and more basically, gut feeling was that, because of the transformative effect the man on the sideline had on his charges, Clare were simply fundamentally better than everybody out there at the time. A view endorsed by the manner in which they had asserted there authority in Munster once again in 1998. Meaning that, for many observers, including this one, the matter of them reigning supreme for the third time in five seasons was less possibility more likelihood.

King Brian of Birr: Whelehan was a versatile genius with hurl in hand

THE NEW LIFE OF BRIAN

Recalling a line from the great Wolfe Tones hit of yesteryear The Streets Of New York “Remember all is not what seems to be”. Or, put another way, if something looks too good to be true, it generally is.

Not that anything looked out of place for the majority of the season. Clare had cantered out of the south easily enough, Kilkenny still loomed large on the horizon and Offaly, as was their wont back then, had manufactured another resurgence and had the scent of victory in their nostrils again.

Therefore, the meeting of the 1995 finalists at the penultimate hurdle three years thereafter was, justiably, considered the coming together of the two teams of the decade. Being honest, very little is remembered of what turned to be the first encounter. Or, indeed, the replay, aside, that is, from Clare sub Barry Murphy sending over a fine score which put them three up, with the same amount of time left on the clock.

They would become possibly the most infamous three minutes in G. A. A. history. Ironically due to the fact that, in the context of the game in question, they never happened. What came over referee Jimmy Cooney and/or why I suppose we’ll never know. But for whatever reason, the Galway official blew for full time with three minutes actually left on the clock.

Cue one of the most bizarre scenes ever scene in Croke Park. The spectacle of Offaly fans staging a sit-in protest over the timing faux pas. To me, their angst was completely understandable, but, in a move they would unfortunately repeat a dozen years later, the G. A. A. made a total mess of their response to the situation.

Sometimes the obvious and simplest solution is staring you in the face. You’d be surprised how often people don’t see it though. In this case, surely the easiest and fairest way of ending the impasse would’ve been to get the players back out on the field and play out the remaining minutes.

But no, the Brains Trust in their wisdom insisted upon a re-fixture. Not for the first time, it was a case of cash taking precedence over common sense.

It was grotesquely unfair on both teams who, after all, did nothing wrong. Particularly so, however, on Clare who, it must be rememberred, had the match all but won. As if that wasn’t unfair enough, they had to field without Colin Lynch, who, like all talented mavericks, got the rough end of the stick from the G. A. A. authorities.

Whether it was fatigue from being on the road a good while or the turmoil that the whole mess had caused, from very early on that Saturday in Thurles, it was clear that The Banner was about to be lowered.

To look at the story from angle, though, what was probably the even bigger story at the time was the manner in which Offaly had, in their own way, defied logic and a lot of other factors to find themselves back in the September showpiece again. For all the talk there was about the supposed ‘big three’ being on the slide, Kilkenny provided the opposition in the early September showdown.

While they were in the Final, there was no doubt that The Cats were undoubtedly at the most vulnerable they had ever been before or would ever be again. However, that shouldn’t take away from a masterful display from the opposing players and management. Not that long ago, mention was afforded to the remarkable effect the switching of Brendan Reilly to full forward had on Meath’s season in 1996.

That, of course, was over the duration of an entire season. Here, Bond, Michael Bond, initiated the adjustment with time running out in the biggest game of the year. I refer to the stationing of Brian Whelehan at full forward was another show stopping switch.

From the edge of the square, the briliant Birr man ended up with a personal tally of 1-6, and the Man Of The Match and Hurler Of The Year gongs. A fitting end to a wonderful era of hurling and fitting reward for one of the game’s true greats.

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