Tommy O’Connell was chatting to a couple of friends in the Croke Park Hotel an hour or two before last year’s All-Ireland final when Jimmy Magee passed by. One of the friends buttonholed Magee and, pointing to O’Connell, asked him why this man had a place in hurling history.
For once the Memory Man was stumped. Not that it was wholly a surprise, for Tommy O’Connell’s place in the annals of the game is an obscure one. The last All-Ireland senior final that ended in a draw prior to this year’s was that of 1959, when a teenage O’Connell scored three goals for Kilkenny against Waterford. By rights he should have been famous forever. The problem was what happened next. Kilkenny were beaten in the replay and history promptly forgot about O’Connell.
He did at least have the consolation of a starring role in one of the most dramatic All-Ireland finals ever played. September 6, 1959 was an afternoon of outlandish contradictions. Kilkenny hit five goals and didn’t win; Waterford sent the white flag flying 17 times, a record for a 20th century final up to then, and very nearly lost. The great Ollie Walsh, magnificent even by his standards, produced a goalkeeping display for the ages. Only a freakish piece of bad luck could have beaten him on the day — and it did.
By 1959, Waterford, who had lost by a point to their neighbours in the final two seasons previously, were the finished article; hardy, experienced and well balanced. Years of competing against St Finbarr’s and Glen Rovers and Thurles Sarsfields in the Cork Churches Tournament had proved to the Mount Sion contingent on the team that man for man they were as good as anyone out there.
They settled quickly on the big day and, with Seamus Power and Phil Grimes on top at midfield, led by 0-9 to 1-1 at the interval. But All-Ireland finals have a habit of throwing up unlikely heroes, and this edition had a particularly improbable one: 19-year-old Tommy O’Connell, the Kilkenny left-corner forward, born in Essex to parents who returned home when the Second World War broke out.
He scored all three of his goals at the Railway End in the second half. The first arrived when a high ball from out the field hit the upright and came down for O’Connell, reacting quickly, to flick to the net. Had he been in the square?
“It was certainly borderline,” he admits.
Mick Mackey, the umpire on the far side, shouted a square ball but Nicky Rackard, his counterpart on the near side, was already reaching for the green flag. Yes, Rackard and Mackey. The greatest forward line ever to umpire an All-Ireland final.
O’Connell’s second goal came from an overhead connection and the third after he pulled on a breaking ball, the sliotar fizzing into the net. It helped put Kilkenny 5-5 to 0-17 ahead with time running out, but Waterford had one kick left in them.
Larry Guinan recycled possession near the Canal End touchline and found Seamus Power steaming in from the right with Frankie Walsh, the Déise captain, unmarked inside him. Walsh shouted to his Mount Sion clubmate for the pass. Power ignored him and let fly.
It wasn’t the crispest of connections and Ollie Walsh, who had spent the afternoon stopping bullets from the rampaging Waterford forwards, clearly had the shot covered. But Jim ‘The Link’ Walsh, Kilkenny full-back, stuck out his stick, the sliotar spun off it and ricocheted past the helpless Ollie. Waterford 1-17 Kilkenny 5-5.
Amid the pandemonium Power, under the impression that the Munster champions were a point up — Frankie Walsh, “too frazzled to do the maths”, thought they were a point down — had a last-gasp opportunity to win the game but put it wide. For the first time since 1934 an All-Ireland final had finished level.
Among the spectators, and suitably enthralled by the drama, was the BBC commentator Kenneth “They think it’s all over” Wolstenholme, in Croke Park with a camera crew to make a documentary.
“If you took these teams on a world tour to play a game like that you would have hurling played everywhere,” he announced, adding that Waterford’s bustling centre-forward Tom Cheasty had been his man of the match.
“Waterford were the better team, of course they were,” O’Connell concedes. “We got the goals and that kept us in the game.”
“It was a marvellous match and we were the better team but our backs were bad,” Frankie Walsh adds.
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