Cork v Tipp: A game which touches the parts others just can’t reach

Few rivalries have as rich a history as Cork and Tipperary hurlers, points out Donal O'Grady.




In reality, few sporting events transcend to every section of a community. In Cork and Tipperary though, a championship hurling meeting between the sides will do that. A first in Croke Park has become all-consuming.

I have lost track of the amount of people I have spoken to in the last few weeks who have brought the game into the conversation. Many wouldn’t have a great interest in sport but latched on to the idea that this is a first.

In September 1992 I bumped into Billa O’Connell, the well-known Cork comedian and avid hurling fan, on Patrick Street outside of Roches Stores (Debenhams today). We awaited the return of our fallen hurling heroes from the day before. He showed me the Cork “full-forward line”, three mannequins in gear in the window and added that the only regret he had as a Corkman was that, as a generation, we would never experience the thrills and excitement that accompany a first win, as Donegal had done that year.

But for Cork this Sunday a first against the old enemy beckons. It can be argued that the rivalry is the oldest and fiercest in the GAA but unlike other rivalries in hurling it never carried an undercurrent of bitterness. Disappointment and frustration at not being as good as the opponents were the prime emotions felt by Cork or Tipp supporters on losing, rather than a sharp bitterness that pervaded the depths of one’s soul.

Winning carried a great degree of joy and satisfaction, much as a farmer might feel when the hay is saved or silage in, but it never went much further.

It is impossible to say when this great rivalry between players and supporters commenced. Tipp met Cork in 10 Munster finals up to 1916 but didn’t meet again until 1926. For that generation ’26 might have been special. Three games were played. The opening replay carried the first live radio broadcast of a hurling match. Cork finally triumphed and went on to win the All-Ireland.

The next meeting in a Munster final may have spawned the modern day rivalry. Cork won the All-Ireland in ’41. Tipp were denied a chance to compete because of foot and mouth but won the delayed Munster final. Growing up, a jibe I often heard from older Tipp supporters was that Cork’s four in a row was tainted as they were beaten that year by the Blue and Gold.

But if the great rivalry was spawned in 1941 it had matured by the middle of the ’50s, in an era where some of the greats did battle. Six great hurling years with each side winning three All-Irelands in a row.

Another great chapter opened in centenary year, 1984. It featured some of the best Cork v Tipp games ever played. The talents of both teams, the passion, the crowds, the colour, the individual battles, the what ifs, culminating in the 1990, ’91and ’92 trilogy, the zenith of this rivalry.

In between Tipp dominated the ’60s. Hell’s kitchen at the back. The stylish and efficient Theo English in midfield. Jimmy Doyle, Liam Devanney, a young Babs Keating up front.

Just as you thought they couldn’t get any better along comes Mick Roche. Tipp were just too good. Cork travelling in hope, Tipp with a confidence, nay, even a swagger.

Cork snatched the dominance back in 1969 and ’70 helped by upsetting Mick Roche when his hair net was snatched by flame-haired Tomás Ryan just before throw-in.

Cork, backboned by the likes of Gerald McCarthy, Seanie O’Leary, Charlie McCarthy, Ray Cummins and Willie Walsh of Youghal, took over.

The memories of various incidents from various decades are as fresh and alive today in the minds of supporters as they were during the actual games.

In 1949 Cork stayed on the field for 30 minutes before extra-time in the sweltering heat. Tipp went to the dressing rooms where their masseurs, the Blake brothers who were good cross country runners, had churns of water to cool the players down.

Roscrea’s Mick Ryan, who played with St Finbarr’s in Cork for many years, scored the vital goal in the Premier win. Blackrock hurler Mossie O’Riordan struck a bullet of a goal that struck the stanchion of the goal so hard that it rebounded into play and would have given them victory. It wasn’t given. Around 40 years later Pat Fox did the same for Tipp. It wasn’t given either.

Cork were hanging on in the 1951 final and Jim Cotter, according to press reports, “brought down a ball going over the bar in style”. Tipp’s Sonny Maher nipped in and the big Boherlahan full-forward gratefully accepted the chance. Game over.

Thurles 1984 saw a direct reversal of fortune. Tipp keeper John Sheedy, trying to save the game, replicated Cotter and Cork’s Seanie O’Leary showed the predatory instincts of the great corner-forward.

History keeps repeating. Cork are almost gone. Christy Ring centres a high ball. Tony Reddin loses it in the sun. It bounces off his chest. Paddy Barry steals in. A deft flick. Game won. Ringy goes on to win his eighth.

Tipp keeper John Sheedy saves well from Tomás Mulcahy. It drops at his feet. A flick. Jimmy Barry-Murphy on his knees raises his arms to the skies. Game over. Cork champions in ’85.

Killarney in 1950, Jack Lynch’s final game. Capacity mid 30,000s. A crowd of 50,000 arrived. The gates were broken down. Spectators spilled over onto the sideline.

A thriller in 1991 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Time ticks away. Cork a point ahead. Nicky English kicks the equaliser and turns away in celebration. The Tipp fans rejoice. It’s waved wide. Fox to the rescue and back to Thurles for the replay. Over 55,000 fans. Cork nine points up at one stage. An injury to Cork centre-back Jim Cashman and a Tipp comeback led by Pat Fox. Tipp fans spill over onto the goal line. Cork keeper Ger Cunningham has similar pressures from spectators to Tipp’s Tony Reddin in Killarney. A great goal from Aidan Ryan. Victory for Tipp, without the injured English.

A draw in 1987 in a thriller in Thurles. The replay in Killarney. Cork a point up as the final puck-out from Ken Hogan drops down. A breaking ball. English comes from nowhere, sweeps it up. Extra-time. More drama. More excitement. Two goals from Michael Doyle. The first a lucky ricochet from the thigh of Cork full-back Richard Browne. The “famine was over” as Tipp captain Richard Stakelum claimed the trophy. Tipp managed by colourful Babs Keating, who fundraised by selling shares in a racehorse, are back. Theo English and Donie Nealon, whose raincoat was made famous by commentator Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh, complete the triumvirate.

This was the time of Fox and English, Michael Cleary, the Bonners, Bobby Ryan with Johnny Leahy entering the scene for the ’90s. Cork had players of the calibre of Ger Cunningham in goal, Johnny Crowley, Jim Cashman, John Fenton, Teddy McCarthy, Pat Hartnett with Tony O’Sullivan, Tomás Mulcahy, Kevin Hennessy and John Fitzgibbon up front. A new era in rivalry.

It was five years of full-on commitment, ding-dong battles, Mark Foley’s 2-7, kicked goals, donkeys winning derbies and huge intensity.

The fans were drained. We needed a break. It came. No final from ’91 to 2005 and ’06 where Cork had superior forces with rebel victories never in doubt.

The great rivalry has lain dormant from ’06 although Tipp won four Munster titles since. But it soars when little separates the teams. They are close at present. Will this be the Croke Park chapter? A new era of semi-finals and even finals where once only Munster titles were at stake.

Sunday’s encounter is a new beginning. The victorious fans won’t go wild but it could be like Donegal if they go on to beat the Cats. Great rivalries throw up great players, great spectacles, great memories and great questions.

Like this: whatever did happen to Babs’s racehorse?



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