It was the day of the first 70-minute All Ireland final.
It was the day Kilkenny, strange as this may sound now, won successive titles for the first time in four decades. And, above all, it was the day a new power stepped onto the big stage for the first time.
September 7, 1975. The day thatmodern Galway hurling began.
The county hadn’t appeared in an All-Ireland final since 1958. They hadn’t won one since 1923. But they were the reigning National League champions, having disposed of Kilkenny in the semi-final and Tipperary in the final, and they’d then pulled off the shock of the year by beating Cork in the All Ireland semi-final.
Cork may have been, and probably were, overconfident — understandable but not forgivable, seeing that Galway had been coming for a while and in 1972 were All Ireland Under-21 champions with a group that included Frank Burke, PJ Molloy, Iggy Clarke and future GAA president, Joe McDonagh. “We put a lot of time into building the team during the league,” recalls Sean Silke, the Galway centre-back, “and winning it gave us a bit of momentum.
“Also, we had a number of players who’d been doing well in the Fitzgibbon Cup. Inky Flaherty, a great Galway hurler of the past, was an army guy and he knew how to train a team. He was very positive and encouraging. But the big thing was that the players had come up through underage ranks, had gained experience and were now ready to deliver.”
The 1975 All Ireland semi-final took place on one of the hottest days of one of the hottest summers of the century. Cork may have been “a bit rusty” after winning Munster, Silke surmises. In any event, Galway hit them hard and hit them fast. They scored a couple of goals early on, they continued to get scores at opportune times and come the end, they had two points in hand, 4-15 to 2-19.
Training for the final took place in Kenny Park in Athenry and went well. Somehow the county didn’t manage to lose the run of itself amid the novelty of it all. There was an air of excitement that never reared out of control and became a frenzy. The local naysayers didn’t give the team a chance; the optimists took refuge in the indisputable fact that Kilkenny were getting old.
Then the game started. All too soon, and not wholly because proceedings lasted for 10 minutes fewer than the previous year’s 80-minute decider, it was over. “It passed us by,” says Silke. “Most of the players didn’t play as well as they could.”
They did at least have the satisfaction of scoring the first goal. In training, Inky Flaherty, determined to find a way of beating Noel Skehan, had Frank Burke and PJ Molloy come in early to fire bullets at Michael Conneely, the goalkeeper.
“Bounce the shot in front of him,” Flaherty instructed. “That’s the only way to beat Skehan.”
Nineteen minutes in, the moment arrived. “PJ Qualter, my clubmate, gave me the pass,” Burke remembers. “I threw it up high in front of me and hit it towards the ground.” Skehan was left helpless from 20 yards and the rigging at the Canal End danced.
That was as good as it would get for the underdogs, who promptly went 22 minutes without a score. Kilkenny led by 0-9 to 1-3 at half-time and kicked on. Within a few minutes of the restart the gap was eight points. Play Micheál O’Hehir... “Oh, lovely fielding by Brian Cody! What a wonderful young hurler he is! And here comes Michael Crotty...And this is Eddie Keher...And that’s a goal!”
With Liam O’Brien, on his way to the Hurler of the Year award, unstoppable at midfield, it finished 2-22 to 2-10 in the champions’ favour.
“Kilkenny had returned from the All Stars trip to the US only a few days before we beat them in the league semi-final and hadn’t trained,” Burke recalls. “We didn’t realise the amount they’d improve from then to the All Ireland final.”
This would be no one-off September appearance for Galway though.
Burke was trudging sadly in the direction of the dressing room afterwards when he was collared by Pat Henderson, his marker. “I know you’ll be very disappointed,” Henderson told him. “Ye were nervous and anxious there. But stick at it and ye’ll win an All-Ireland.”
Henderson wasn’t just being polite, Burke reflects. “He actually meant it.”
They stuck at it. And five years later, with Silke still at centre-back and Burke at right-half forward, they did win an All Ireland. But 1975 was the summer the West stirred from slumber.
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