When Deise ruled the Kingdom

John Murphy recalls an afternoon when Waterford rocked football’s greatest superpower, mighty Kerry.

ALMOST half a century has passed, yet the scoreline remains one of the most sensational in the history of the Munster Senior Football Championship.

On, Sunday June 2, 1957, Kerry, provincial champions and aristocrats of the game, were beaten 2-5 to 0-10 by Waterford in Walsh Park. Older staff at the switchboard of the then Cork Examiner remember being inundated with disbelieving callers on the evening of the match as word of the result went over the airwaves.

Surely there was some mistake, some cruel joke. And the pleasant Cork switchboard operators answered every call, and with more than a hint of glee, confirmed that, yes, the Kingdom had been toppled.

Thousands were greeted by the headline the next morning ‘Waterford footballers’ shock for Kerry’. Indeed, Wexford’s 7-15 to 5-5 victory over Cork in an exhibition game before 28,000 at the Polo Grounds, a repeat of the 1956 All-Ireland hurling final, was downgraded by the happenings.

“Because teams refuse to learn from the past and because a match is never over until the last whistle, sport will always provide shocks and surprises,” the match report began.

“How many times over the years have the lowly beaten the supreme and confident?

“Certainly not often enough for every team to take it heart. But Kerry, recent league finalists, did not do so at Waterford Gaelic Field and because they did not, they suffered what might be termed the indignity of going out of the Munster Senior Football Championship in the first round, and at the hands of 15 footballers who were given no chance whatsoever of winning.”

That June Whit Sunday was a strange one at Walsh Park. A sweltering summer day meant the lure of the sandy beaches of Tramore and Clonea was far more compelling. Only the Deise diehards turned out, hoping against hope, that somehow the men in white and blue might give the mighty Kingdom a decent run.

The rest is history. With the sides level and a replay looming, Waterford’s dual hurling and football star Tom Cunningham gained possession, far from his centre back domain. Off he charged on a solo run, and from 40 metres rifled over the winning point.

“In truth I don’t remember too much about the day or the game,” he recalled this week. “What I remember most is that it was scorching hot and the terraces were nearly empty, with only a small crowd bothering to turn up. Only those most committed to the cause of Waterford football were there, and it was extra special that we managed the sensational result in their presence,” he said.

Cunningham, who went on to win an All-Ireland SHC title in 1959, said the result was not totally unexpected.

“We also played Kerry in the 1952 Munster championship in Tralee with many of the players involved in ‘57 and gave them a decent run for their money before losing by 0-14 to 1-7.

“A year later we were even closer to Cork in the championship, losing to the Leesiders by just two points, 1-7 to 1-5, and in 1960 with many of the same players we beat Cork by 1-9 to 0-11 in the Munster semi-final, before losing to Kerry in the final.”

There was no joy for Waterford either following that dramatic 1957 victory over the Kingdom, going down decisively to Cork in the provincial decider in Thurles on a 0-16 to 1-2 scoreline.

A familiar name to Kingdom fans in the Waterford lineout against Cork was Micksey Palmer, who turned in a man of the match performance for his native Kerry in the 1955 All-Ireland final victory over Dublin. He played at full forward for Waterford.

“Micksey wasn’t in our team that day we beat Kerry but he was one of two changes in personnel for the final,” Cunningham said. “I think he was working in the Dunhill area at the time and transferred his allegiance to both Dunhill and Waterford that year.”

Waterford were bidding to land a Munster senior championship double in ‘57, having defeated Cork in the hurling decider a week before.

“Myself, Mickey O’Connor, and Seamas Power from the hurling team were also on the football team while Larry Guinan was a sub. Our football team throughout the 1950s was competitive, with players from the then dominant Kilrossanty club providing a strong backbone. We had a side capable of holding its own.”

Tom Cunningham’s senior football championship debut for Waterford was in 1950 against Cork in Fermoy. He well remembers it, primarily because “we got a bit of a hammering”. He also remembers scoring a goal from a penalty in that game.

His talents were soon recognised outside the county, and had the honour of representing Munster in hurling and football — though he never landed a Railway Cup medal.

Winner of an All-Ireland senior hurling medal in 1959 when he lined out at full forward in the replayed final against Kilkenny on October 4, Cunningham also holds three Munster senior hurling medals won in 1957, 1959, and 1963.

His final hurling championship game in the Waterford jersey was in 1967 against Tipperary — a decade and half after making his debut in Walsh Park against Clare in 1952— and a year later he also brought his club career to an end. Reflecting back on that famous victory over Kerry 49 years ago, Cunningham admits having heard all kinds of rumours and stories emanating from the Kingdom.

“It was even said after the game in Walsh Park they had to wait until dark fell before undertaking the journey home, but I don’t believe that”.

Cunningham doesn’t expect history to repeat itself in Killarney tomorrow, but is hopeful that Waterford will give a good account of themselves.

“The reality is we can’t expect anything more.” Then again, the same thing was said 49 years ago.


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