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Championship Preview: The 10 most important hurling matches. Ever

The Cork team that played Kilkenny in the 1931 All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Eudie Coughlan scoredCork's equaliser "while he lay in a kneeling position on the ground". Ref. 762A 100

Someday someone will do a feature, perhaps even a book on the 10 greatest hurling matches ever played.

Someday someone will do a feature, perhaps even a book on the 10 greatest hurling matches ever played. This is not that feature. Instead it’s a catalogue of the matches that mattered most, the encounters that helped fashion the code into what it is today. In hurling terms this means there’s no room for the 1947 All Ireland final, deemed for decades afterwards to be the apotheosis of the species. The Cork/Galway extravaganza of September 1990 is similarly absent, as are the Kilkenny/Tipperary encounters of recent years that shook mountains. We wouldn’t argue for a moment that for drama and sheer madcap entertainment both the 2004 Munster final and the 2005 All Ireland semi-final (Galway 5-18 Kilkenny 4-18) were leagues ahead of the 2006 MacCarthy Cup showpiece, yet the latter is unquestionably the most critical hurling match to take place so far this century.

The matches that follow did not take place in a vacuum. They were intersections. The road might have led one way; instead it went off in a different direction. These were the games that made the game.

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THE DADDY OF THEM ALL

1931 All Ireland final

Cork 1-6 Kilkenny 1-6

Cork 2-5 Kilkenny 2-5 (replay)

Cork 5-6 Kilkenny 3-4 (second replay)

Unique as the only All-Ireland final to go to a third instalment, but that was only a small part of it. This was a soap opera that attracted an aggregate attendance of 92,000 people who paid nearly £8,000 in gate receipts, both unimaginable figures at the time, and that kickstarted serious newspaper coverage of Gaelic games.

The first match reached a memorable climax when Eudie Coughlan hit Cork’s equaliser not merely from “an almost impossible angle” but for good measure “while he lay in a kneeling position on the ground”.

For the replay a new paper called the Irish Press ran a novel training camp feature over four days, complete with detailed pen pictures of the players, while the Irish Independent held a forecast competition with large cash prizes. The game was a classic, instantly hailed as the greatest final ever. Lory Meagher, the Prince of Hurlers, was at his most artistic in the middle of the field for Kilkenny but again Cork got a late leveller, this time by Paddy Delea.

After a Central Council motion to declare the counties joint champions was defeated by 10 votes to five the decisive meeting took place on November 1, with Kilkenny missing both Meagher, who’d broken three ribs early in the second game, and Paddy Larkin. Cork won easily; Meagher cried tears of impotence looking on from the sideline and the lady from the newspaper wrote a gushing colour piece declaring that hurling must be made “the game of all others in this country”. It was a watershed moment for the GAA as regards publicity and attendances. Gaelic games were now big business and, as the Irish Press would continue to demonstrate, prime media fodder.

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A SUPERSTAR RISES

1946 All Ireland final

Cork 7-5 Kilkenny 3-8

An afternoon enshrined in GAA lore as the match that gave Jack Lynch his sixth All-Ireland senior medal in as many years (four hurling, one football, then another hurling) was notable for another reason. This was the day Christy Ring, hitherto a fine forward on Cork’s four-in-row outfit, stepped forward into a higher version of himself. This was the day a legend was born.

It happened by way of a famous individual goal shortly before half-time. Accounts varied of the distance Ring ran; what nobody disputed was the quality of the score.

“I soloed up the wing,” he recounted to a new generation of Cork players on the Wednesday night before the 1978 All-Ireland final. “I ran about 40 yards and then I had another look. I was still on my own. I crossed in and I hit the ball. The rainwater fell off the back of the net and I jumped in the air.”

As if to recognise the importance of the moment the Cork Examiner opted for a banner headline on top of its match report: “Christy Ring’s wonder goal was highlight of Cork’s great win.” Ring was no longer another player but a household name. He would remain that, and more, for the rest of his career.

WITH HEART AND HAND

1956 All Ireland final

Wexford 2-14 Cork 2-8

After years of trying and an infinity of heartbreak, Nicky Rackard and his Wexford colleagues — the most glamorous and popular team in the history of the GAA — had at long last reached the Garden of Eden in 1955. There was one small snake still slithering around the place, however. They’d beaten Galway in the final; Galway, not Cork or Tipperary. Nowhere more than on Slaneyside was it realised that they’d have to retain their title and dispose of a Munster team in the final in order to be acknowledged as true champions. Opportunity knocked 12 months later and the nation was agog, not least because Rackard’s equivalent in red and white, Christy Ring, was going for a record ninth medal. “How fortunate we are to have lived through their years of greatness, to have witnessed their fabulous feats and to have seen the splendour of their superiority,” Mick Dunne wrote of the pair in the Sunday Press.

In happy contrast to the constipated showpiece of two years earlier (Cork 1-9 Wexford 1-6) this was an open, free-flowing encounter watched by a crowd of 83,096. The holders led by four points at the interval and by seven at the three-quarter stage. Cork rallied with goals from Ring and Paddy Barry to hit the front. But the Purple and Gold found a second wind and after Art Foley made his famous and wildly mythologised save from Ring, Rackard with a goal and Tom Dixon with a point closed it out. One last and glorious touch remained: Nick O’Donnell and Bobby Rackard chaired Ring off the field. Wexford had scaled Everest and proved both their greatness and their sportsmanship beyond doubt.

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DAWN OF AN EMPIRE

1957 Leinster final

Kilkenny 6-9 Wexford 1-5

After winning everything on offer in 1956 there were no more worlds left for Wexford to conquer, and a trip to New York in May 1957 left them in less than optimum condition for a title defence. They had, in the words of Kavanagh, tested and tasted too much. The provincial decider pitted them against the county they’d beaten by a goal in 1955 and by a point in ’56 — a county now coached by a young priest and maths teacher called Fr Tommy Maher who instructed his charges to keep the ball moving on the ground and not to allow the Wexford players stand over it.

The champions lost Ned Wheeler, their midfield totem, with a head injury early on and things soon went from bad to worse. Seán Clohosey, the most gifted Kilkenny player of his generation, hit two goals and at half-time the underdogs led by 5-5 to 1-3. There would be no stirring comeback; Wexford’s legs were too long on the road for that. Reviewing the match in the Irish Press two days later, Pádraig Puirséal hailed the winners’ fast striking and imaginative, thinking-man’s hurling. The foundation stone on which the next six decades of black and amber success would be built had been laid by Fr Maher, the unassuming visionary.

THE GREATEST STORY NEVER TOLD?

1961 All Ireland final

Tipperary 0-16 Dublin 1-12

Never was there a hurling match attended by so many what-ifs. What if Lar Foley hadn’t been sent off for the first and last time in his career? What if Dublin, with their best team in a generation, had won by a point instead of losing by a point? Would hurling rather than football have become the county’s game thereafter? Might Kevin Heffernan, a dual star in his younger days, have led the Dubs to unprecedented glory in the 1970s in the small-ball rather than the big-ball code? What in that case would have been the consequences for Kilkenny, Wexford and Offaly?

None of which is to damn Tipperary with faint praise. Despite injuries to Kieran Carey, Tony Wall, and Jimmy Doyle they led where it mattered most and would go on to carry off the MacCarthy Cup four times in the space of five years, setting themselves apart as the greatest combination to wear the blue and gold. In the intervening 50 years the county has neither won successive All-Irelands nor won more than one All-Ireland per decade. But 1961 was as much about Dublin as about Tipp. The what-ifs and the road not taken.

OVERNIGHT MUSHROOMS

1966 All Ireland final

Cork 3-9 Kilkenny 1-10

One of Cork’s sweetest triumphs ever, for so many reasons. They were young, with their captain Gerald McCarthy a week short of his 21st birthday. They were unconsidered, Kilkenny being roaring favourites after getting the Tipperary monkey off their backs in the league final. For older Rebel folk this was revenge for the one-point defeats of 1939 and ’47. Above all it returned them to the big time; it was the county’s first All Ireland success in 12 years in their first appearance in a final since 1956.

The hero of the hour was Colm Sheehan, who scored three goals. Or was it only two goals? Nobody seemed quite sure afterwards, the man himself included, whether the winners’ third goal should have been credited to him or John O’Halloran after the latter’s attempt for a point came down off the upright and somehow found its way past Ollie Walsh and over the line. Yet if Cork got the rub of the green on the day they did enough to make their own fortune against woefully off-colour opponents. Never again would a Kilkenny team stay in Dublin the night before the final.

It was Cork’s 13th All-Ireland hurling triumph under their trainer Jim ‘Tough’ Barry and their first since 1931 without Christy Ring in the lineup. They were back. Back to stay.

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“PEOPLE OF GALWAY, WE LOVE YOU!”

1980 All Ireland final

Galway 2-15 Limerick 3-9

By now Galway had been around the place for five years since their re-emergence in 1975. They’d come close in 1979, leaking two awful goals to Kilkenny and missing a penalty. But with John Connolly, their spiritual leader, not getting any younger, how long could they keep knocking at the door?

It all came right at last in 1980, albeit not without a couple of scares along the way – particularly in the semi-final against Offaly, when Galway only barely held off a late surge from the first-time Leinster champions to stagger over the finishing line by a point. But Iggy Clarke, their inspirational wing-back, would miss the final with a shoulder injury and Michael Conneely, their goalie, had not impressed against Offaly. In the event these concerns may have served to concentrate the county’s mind and tranquilise jangling nerves, nerves that were further soothed on the big day when early goals by Bernie Forde and PJ Molloy put them 2-1 to 0-0 ahead before the tenth minute.

That was more or less that. Although Limerick rallied, aided by 2-7 from Eamonn Cregan, they never came closer than two points. Galway were champions for the first time in 57 years and there wasn’t a dry eye in the land. Joe McDonagh sang ‘The West’s Awake’ and Joe Connolly, the winning captain, gave a memorable óráid he hasn’t stopped hearing about. For the first time since Wexford’s emergence three decades earlier there was a fresh new dish on a tired old menu. Twenty years of hurling democracy was at hand. If Galway had come, could Offaly — and eventually Clare — be far behind? As it turned out, no.

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SLIEVENAMON STIRS ONCE MORE

1987 Munster final replay

Tipperary 4-22 Cork 1-22 (after extra time)

By the mid-1980s the famine was biting deep. Tipp hadn’t won a provincial crown, never mind an All-Ireland, since 1971. What had initially been a mild embarrassment had become a full-blown crisis and a letter to the Tipperary Star demanded mass meetings “in halls in towns and villages to see how we the supporters could contribute to the return of Tipperary to its former glory”. Then, at the behest of the county chairman, a gentleman called Michael Lowry, along came Babs to put blazers on their backs and pride in their hearts.

The county’s return to glory was all the worthier for being hard earned. Tipperary had held the All Ireland champions to a draw in Semple Stadium on July 12. Killarney was the venue for the replay a week later. Cork had the better of the first half but Tipp, thanks to a goal on the half-volley by their superstar Nicky English, were within five points of them at the break. The challengers patiently chipped away at the deficit and at the death it was English — who else? — who sent the game to extra time when choosing to palm the sliotar over Ger Cunningham’s bar for the equaliser. In the second period of extra time the dam burst at last and a tide of blue and gold surged through: Michael Doyle goal, Michael Doyle goal, Donie O’Connell goal.

The famine was over. Hurling was fully dressed again. Slievenamon had awoken from slumber.

BYE BYE BIDDY, HELLO GER

1995 Munster final

Clare 1-17 Limerick 0-11

Limerick were the favourites, the defending champions and the team who’d lost at Croke Park the previous September in heartbreaking, scarcely believable circumstances. Clare hadn’t won a provincial title since 1932, had lost the previous two finals and had just been well beaten by Kilkenny in the league decider. But at this stage they were hardened and worldly and in their manager they had a man who, no stranger to big-match devastation himself, was simply not prepared to settle for anything less than victory.

The underdogs got wired into Limerick from the off and discovered that Limerick weren’t prepared for it. Assisted by a Davy Fitz goal from a penalty they led by 1-5 to 0-7 at the break. Instead of blinking when the magnitude of what was happening began to dawn they embraced it and kicked on. Jamesie O’Connor and PJ O’Connell each landed four points from play and the holders were a beaten docket a long way out. Proceedings ended with Anthony Daly lifting the cup and Tony Considine taking the microphone for his rendition of ‘My Lovely Rose of Clare’.

Two months later the Banner would bridge an even bigger gap when winning the All Ireland. No longer a sports story, this was a national news story. But to them the MacCarthy Cup was almost an afterthought; the Munster title meant more because they’d been trying for so long and failing for so long. It was the beginning of Clare and the beginning of Loughnaneism. Nothing has ever been quite the same since.

SAY HELLO, WAVE GOODBYE

2006 All Ireland final

Kilkenny 1-16  Cork 1-13

The ultimate hinge final. Cork’s zip of the previous two seasons had ebbed a little — they’d had only a point to spare against both Limerick in the quarter-final and Waterford in the semi-final — but their poise and self-confidence hadn’t diminished and they started a warm order to secure the game’s first three-in-a-row since the same county had achieved the feat three decades earlier.

What’s more, given the demands of the inter-county game in the 21st century a third consecutive title would have seen this Cork iteration acclaimed as, if not the greatest team in the annals of the sport, then close enough.

But every code gets decrypted in the end and what John Allen’s side weren’t prepared for was a tactical as well as a physical onslaught from a pack of ravening wolves in stripes.

Brian Cody’s side defended from the full-forward line back, prevented Cork going short and then gobbled them up when they went long. Kilkenny led at the interval through Aidan Fogarty’s goal and controlled most of the second half.

Not that the champions lost their heads; they stuck to the gameplan and were somehow only a puck of a ball behind at the final whistle after Ben O’Connor’s late goal. Not close enough, though. Thus a very good team lost to one bound for greatness and immortality.

The past was Cork’s. The future would be Kilkenny’s.

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