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The greatest minor hurler?

TO SAY someone was a great county minor isn’t a backhanded compliment.

Recent murmurings about the abolition of the U18 grade notwithstanding, a real glamour still attaches to minor level. The U21 championship offers some very good games every season without fail, and senior is the obvious goal for any youngster, but minor is both journey and destination.

Describing someone as an outstanding minor doesn’t have to imply a squandered talent. It’s a self-contained career. To that end, our main criterion is the cut-off point at the end of a candidate’s 18th year: any heroics performed subsequently as a senior hurler — or lack of same — can’t be allowed to taint the evaluation of those minor performances.

Even allowing for the vagaries of time and fashion, this is one argument which attracts a certain amount of consensus regarding one Jimmy Doyle of Thurles Sarsfields and Tipperary.

Doyle first played minor for his county as a 14-year-old goalkeeper, losing the All-Ireland final of 1954 against Dublin; he went on to pick up three winners’ medals in the next three years.

He was so good that the Tipperary minor selectors had to keep him on the bench in 1957 because he was needed by the seniors later that day against Cork; introduced late on in the minor game, he turned that match Tipp’s way and then played a full part in the senior game.

Despite his age he was already a fully-fledged senior hurler, having won a national hurling league medal earlier in the year.

(A breach of the criteria? Not quite — Doyle’s heroics while still a minor are the only intrusions here from a fabled senior career).

In an era of strong men and hard hurling, Doyle shipped a fair amount of punishment, but his distinctive left-hand-on-top technique was flawless at an early age. Even the maestro himself, Christy Ring, acknowledged the Tipperary man’s style and rebuilt his own free-taking method in homage to the youngster.

As a barometer of youthful promise, early promotion is hard to beat: Doyle’s countyman Eoin Kelly was another extravagantly talented minor, appearing in goal for the Premier minors at 15 and debuting in the senior championship in the 2000 quarter-final while still 18.

Eddie Keher of Kilkenny was another early arrival in senior ranks, lining out in the 1959 All-Ireland final replay while still a minor.

Cork’s Brian Corcoran first appeared in a minor All-Ireland final at 15 and was seriously considered for a Munster senior hurling final while still a minor in 1991; over thirty years before that another Cork minor, Pat Healy, was thrown into the fray against the Tipperary seniors in the championship and scored two points.

A minor career doesn’t have to be long to sparkle, of course: DJ Carey carried a fearsome reputation from colleges hurling with St Kieran’s into the 1988 minor championship with Kilkenny, and he justified his billing with a series of stellar performances in the Cats’ All-Ireland triumph.

A latter-day contender for the title, Joe Canning of Galway, has earned two All-Ireland minor medals and a man-of-the-match performance in the All-Ireland club final while still U18.

Witnesses for the prosecution and the defence? Sean Óg Ó Ceallacháin, who has seen them all over the past 60 years, rates Canning very highly.

"Recently I think Galway have had some very good minors, good enough to stand with anyone — certainly the full-forward, Joe Canning, had a brilliant minor career. A big man, a good free-taker — he has the lot."

As with any judge, Ó Ceallacháin has other favourites who mightn’t be as well known.

"Des Foley of St Vincent’s and Dublin was an outstanding minor, he would have impressed a lot of observers in the late 50s.

"The best dual minor I ever saw was Vinnie Bell of Dublin — he played minor three years in a row, 1952-4. He didn’t make it at senior level, though.

"But not as good as Jimmy Doyle in hurling. Jimmy was out on his own as a hurler."

Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh agrees with Sean Óg on both counts.

"I remember Vinny Bell, and there was another star with him, Aidan Kavanagh. They won All-Ireland minor hurling and football medals in the one year, but Bell was also a gifted basketball player. And a good golfer.

"He never really made it as a senior, though he was a minor in 1954 and should have come on stream in the late 50s and early 60s, when Dublin’s senior team was strong. But he was very, very good.

"Ray Reidy was another great minor for Tipperary. He won medals in 1953 and 1955, though they lost to Dublin in 1954. And he was centre-back for those three years, which is something for a 16-year-old. He had to be exceptional, and he was, and there was as much talk about him as there was about Jimmy Doyle — but he went away to the priesthood.

"You’d have heard about a lot of lads that they’d have been great hurlers if they hadn’t gone into the priests, but Ray would certainly have been a great player. He might have played a bit of senior when he was on holidays, but there was a link to the great Tipp team, anyway: his sister married John Doyle."

Ó Muircheartaigh rates Billy Duffy, a Galway minor of the 50s, very highly as well, but in the end he agrees on the top man.

"Jimmy Doyle was exceptional alright. He was the best I’ve seen."

Brendan Larkin of this parish has spent nigh on 50 years watching minors; that puts him just outside Doyle’s reign at U18, but he’s seen good ones since.

"Eamonn Grimes and DJ Carey were very good, I thought. So was John Reddan of Clare, even though he didn’t have a long career at senior.

"Two of the best were pretty recent, Andrew O’Shaughnessy of Limerick and Joe Canning of Galway. But for pure hurling I’d go for Corney Mulcahy of Cork. He was a minor for four years in a row in the early 60s and he was a genius."

Sean Costigan of Tipperary plumped for Jimmy Doyle and Eddie Keher in that order. Michael Ellard of these parts held Johnny Clifford of Cork in high esteem.

Perhaps we should have redrawn the parameters a little, and asked for everyone’s second-best minor of all time; the crew-cutted left-hander from Thurles settled that other argument pretty convincingly.