What might have been...

SEPTEMBER 3rd 1961, All-Ireland hurling final and with time running out Dublin have Tipperary on the rack, stretching them all over Croke Park.

For those final minutes, however, Tipperary take off centre-back Tony Wall who, along with Kieran Carey and Jimmy Doyle, had carried injuries into the game, bring Sean McLoughlin in at corner-forward, switch Liam Devaney back to the heart of defence, and BANG — the door is slammed in the face of the Dubs, beaten by a point, 0-16 to 1-12.

“We were the luckiest team ever to win that All-Ireland,” says Tipp midfielder Theo English. “We won against the run of play, a medal I always say we should never have won. We were carrying a few injuries but Dublin deserved to win that day. They were all over us. I was on Des Foley and got a fair roasting, John Doyle got a terrible roasting off Achille Boothman.

“They were like bullets the same day. They had a guy called Willie Jackson, he got two balls inside our backline and all he had to do was keep going and pick his spot but he parted too early with the ball, about 20 yards out, and Donal O’Brien stopped them. Jackson had the match in his hands but that bit of inexperience caught him. When Wall went off, Devaney went centre-back, and played a blinder, cleared a lot of ball. He won the match for us.”

Likewise, Jimmy Doyle pays tribute to that Dublin team. “Yes they were very close, they had a great team that time, a good crew. I was on a fella called Shay Lynch, he was good too, and they had the Foley brothers, the Fergusons, the Boothmans; they had a Jackson corner-forward, he was dangerous, and a Tipperary fella at full-forward, Paddy Croke.

“All those fellas were good but Des Foley was the star. I hurled against him when he was playing for Leinster, and then for the Rest of Ireland when Tipp won the All-Ireland. He was an outstanding hurler.”

But, what if Dublin had won, would it have changed hurling? “That’s the burning question,” says Theo.

“A win means everything, doesn’t it? Only the man above can answer that!” says Jimmy. “Waterford had a great team that time as well, should have won more, but we had a great team ourselves, won two and two (more) and could have won the one in the middle as well for five-in-a-row – a band of brothers, that’s what we were. But you can’t take from Dublin, they were a great team.”

JIMMY Gray was goalkeeper on that day, 1961, went on to manage Dublin in the ‘90s and became a top administrator with Dublin. And oh, what might have been. A disputed point, two soft frees conceded for Jimmy Doyle points, the two goal opportunities, two players who weren’t there, and of course, why Dublin have waited a half-century – and counting – to reach another All-Ireland final.

“It’s a bit of a mystery, really, but the work wasn’t done on the ground to follow up on that final. We won the minor All-Ireland in ‘65, beaten in the U21 finals of ‘67 (a point) and ‘72 (two points), but there was no real follow-up, the climate wasn’t there for it, and then the football breakthrough of the ‘70s took over everything.”

And the irony of that – had Kevin Heffernan, an outstanding dual player and manager of that Dublin football team, been there in ‘61, things might have been very different.

“I’d say we’d have won,” says Jimmy. “Two very important people were missing; Norman Allen had emigrated to America, he would have been a huge addition to us at centre-forward, and Kevin was a great goal-poacher. He always contends that he was available for selection and of course he was, he was playing with St Vincent’s, but the selectors of the day didn’t see fit to pick him.”

Events played out and history was written. Broke the hearts of individuals, broke the heart of a county.

Admits Jimmy: “For Dublin to have won that All-Ireland in ‘61, considering it had been 1939 since their previous success, would have been a major achievement, especially so given that it was practically an all Dublin team.”

It’s 50 years on, can Dublin – the league champions – make it all the way this year?

“Oh they can, they’re a very good team, not a flash-in-the-pan but the culmination of years of very good work in Dublin hurling. And they have no hang-ups, they’re not inhibited by tradition, not afraid of Cork, Tipperary or Kilkenny. If the same work had been put in on the ground in our day it might have happened a lot sooner.”

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