Putting Cats among the pigeons

They’re tied on 30 All-Ireland titles each, but there’s more at stake at Croke Park tomorrow for Cork and Kilkenny than statistics. Stars of the 70’s, Cork’s Brian Murphy and Kilkenny’s Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin discuss battles past and tomorrow’s semi-final with Diarmuid O’Flynn.

When Brian Murphy and Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin lined out at opposite ends of the pitch in the 1978 All-Ireland final, Brian at corner-back for Cork, Fan at full-back for Kilkenny, it was a time of titans.

Along with Brian, Cork had the likes of Martin Doherty, John Horgan, Denis Coughlan, Tom Cashman, current manager Gerald McCarthy, Jimmy Barry-Murphy, Ray Cummins, Charlie McCarthy, Seánie Leary; while Kilkenny had keeper Noel Skehan, current manager Brian Cody, Pat Henderson, Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien, Frank Cummins, Pat Delaney, captain Billy Fitzpatrick, Kieran Purcell, Eddie Keher — multiple All-Ireland winners all, multiple All-Stars also.

Brian went on to build an unique collection of medals, All-Irelands at every grade in hurling and football, while Fan finished with five senior All-Ireland gongs to his credit, along with the usual Kilkenny collection of National League and Railway Cups.

They met this week in Kilkenny, where Brian has been a Garda Detective since the early 70s, and began by discussing that Cork three-in-a-row of 1976/77/78, the last such in hurling.

Diarmuid O’Flynn: Was it important to beat Kilkenny in that final, to clinch the three-in-a-row?

Brian Murphy: Ah it was really, we had played Wexford in the two previous wins and they had a super team at that time, but obviously Kilkenny would be regarded as the most formidable opposition you can get in any final. It was a tight game, very similar to what I think this game will be on Sunday.

DO’F: Was it even more important for you personally, working here?

BM: It was, I’d have met Fan from time to time down here, and I remember it was particularly painful after the ‘72 final, that was the first one I played in. There was a very unusual finish to that game, we were something like nine points up with 20 minutes to go, beaten by seven, so that was a big defeat, really. Coming back to Kilkenny, it wasn’t good for a few days! It was nice then to come back after 78, especially having done the three-in-a-row.

DO’F: How close did you come to winning a three-in-a-row with Kilkenny, Fan?

Fan Larkin: The Kilkenny team of the 60’s and 70’s had a great run. We lost the 1966 final to Cork, won in 67 against Tipp, were beaten by Wexford in Leinster in ‘68 by a point, won again in ‘69 against Cork, were beaten in 1970 in the Leinster final by Wexford, beaten in the All-Ireland final in 71 by Tipp, by a goal, won in 72, lost to Limerick in 73, won in 74 and 75, then were beaten in the final in 78, won in 79 — that was ten finals between 1966 and 79, we won six (Fan was out of favour in 67), lost four.

DO’F: What was the best team you played with, in all that time?

FL: I’d say it was the team that won the league in 1976. We had won the All-Ireland in ‘74 and ‘75, then came the league in ‘76. We beat Cork in a replay in Thurles in the semi-final, then beat Clare in another replay in the final. I remember the first day against Cork, I fouled Cummins going through, I tapped his two legs together with the hurl — he was going to hang the ball in the net! Penalty, Seánie (Leary) hit it over the bar — if he had went for the goal and got it, we were bet.

DO’F: Saved two points with that foul?

FL: I took a chance and it came off. We had a great team that day, but what happened then, we played Johnstown in the club championship the Saturday week before the Leinster final, and nine of the team were playing in that match. There was nothing spared, even though we hurled all our lives together with Kilkenny; a week later we met Wexford and on the day they were far too good for us, we were hardly able to keep it pucked out to them — 2-17 to 1-6 I think it was.

DO’F: That was the first year of Cork’s three-in-a-row, and ye were gone.

BM: We played Tipp in Limerick in the first round in Munster in 1976, got all the luck that day. Martin Coleman made a save, dived full length across the goal, knocked the ball out for a 70, then blessed himself — he told me afterwards he hadn’t seen it, just dived. Tipp also hit the post, John Fenton hit a long-range free that went straight to the Tipperary net, that sort of thing — it was our day.

FL: It was like the ‘79 final we won, against Galway, poor Seamus Shinnors, a ball came in from a 70 and he dropped it, went to catch it and stumbled, dropped another one near the end of the match — terrible misfortune for Seamus but the luck was with us, and that’s what wins matches.

DO’F: He was in the book, ‘Last Man Standing’, brilliant book, still suffers to this day over that.

BM: Babs was with Tipp that year and there was a fella in goal for Galway that time, Francis Larkin, played in goal for Galway before and after Shinnors, so he had a fierce crib that about being dropped for this fella brought in from Tipp by Babs (Seamus and Babs had played U21 with Tipp together). Galway beat us in the semi-final that year, as they had done in ‘75, tiny crowds in Croke Park each time. There was no-one in the Hogan Stand that day, and a few of the lads in the station had tickets I had given them, tried to get to the stand but weren’t allowed, were put back out — and nobody there at that point.

DO’F: I’ve heard it said, the biggest disaster for hurling was Dublin losing the All-Ireland final of ‘61; if Dublin had won that, the Dubs would now be packing Croke Park for hurling.

FL: They had five St Vincent’s men in the back-line on that team. There was a chap, Willie Jackson, he drove four balls into the side netting in that game; Snitchie (Ferguson) picked the ball off the ground, cardinal error, Lar Foley and Tom Ryan were put off, the best hurler they had didn’t hurl, didn’t strike form, Des Foley, and still they only lost by a point.

BM: That was Tom Ryan that was down in Clonmel?

FL: Yeah, he hurled with everyone, he hurled with Clare, Galway and Tipp, as well as Dublin, a great hurler. From Killenaule originally, I hurled minor against him in ‘59, they beat us by a point. He scored one of the best goals ever scored in Croke Park in the All-Ireland of 1962. He was the million-dollar man, dressed to the nines. But bad breaks cost Dublin.

DO’F: Perhaps also cost Kilkenny the three-in-a-row in the 70’s, perhaps even four?

FL: Yes, but that’s hurling, that’s what makes the game so good.

DO’F: Why haven’t Kilkenny done it?

FL: When we were playing Wexford in the 60s and 70s they were every bit as good as Kilkenny or Cork, just that they didn’t get the breaks at the vital stages, and that’s the difference between winning and losing. It’s like last Sunday in the football, Monaghan didn’t take their goal chance at one end, Kerry went up the other side and got the goal almost immediately after — whoever gets the breaks will win the match.

DO’F: Was the three-in-a-row spoken of?

FL: No, because even if Kilkenny are beaten tomorrow, they’ll be there again next year, and Cork the same, they’ll be there or thereabouts. Three-in-a-row is grand if you win it, but I’d say no player in any era talks about it. Even the Cork team that won it that time, I’d say they didn’t talk about it, nor did the Tipp team of 1949-51, they just went out and hurled their game.

DO’F: I don’t know, it’s spoken of in Cork, among the fans especially, but even among the players after they have won two.

FL: But sure it’s hard enough to win one, never mind two, or three!

BM: You might get to Croke Park this year, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get up there next year. What makes Sunday’s match really exciting is that Kilkenny beat Cork in 2006 when they were close to the three-in-a-row, Cork beat Kilkenny in 2004 when Kilkenny were close to three-in-a-row. A lot of the same players are still there, in both those teams, and now Cork have a chance again to stop Kilkenny — getting one back will be a motivating factor, because really, the final scoreline that day (2006) didn’t reflect how dominant Kilkenny were, they should have won by more. I think this game could be better than an All-Ireland final, because there isn’t as much pressure on you in a semi-final. And I’d say this, Cork have players on this team as good as any who ever played with Cork, and I’d say Fan would say the same thing about some of these Kilkenny lads.

It’s a really exciting clash, I must say I’m looking forward to it. Kilkenny will be favourites, and rightly so, and if Cork perform as they did in the first-half against Galway, against Clare, the game will be over. Clare had six bad wides against Cork in that game, Kilkenny would be putting four of those over the bar. Cork will have to start strong if they’re to have a chance.

FL: “I think a lot depends on Michael Wadding, the referee. Let it go — any time Kilkenny and Cork play there’s not a dirty stroke in it. You might get the odd knock but everyone played the ball. I see Pat O’Connor (former referee) had a bit in a paper today, that the powers-that-be are trying to take the physical element out of the game — isn’t that what the people go to see? I’m not saying there should be any dirty belt or anything but it’s a physical game. I was talking to Seamus Bannon (football referee) after the U21 Leinster final in Tullamore, Kilkenny and Offaly, and I said to him, you were in a bit of trouble over the weekend — I was, he says. But sure look, I said, ye’re giving yellow cards for nothing, hurling and football, but the problem is, if you don’t do it, you won’t get a big match again. The assessors are the problem. If I had my way I’d do away with the assessors, and I’d do away with the cards. The old system was the best.

DO’F: Padjoe Whelahan told me a story of an occasion when he was on you Fan, you wrapped the end of his jersey around the butt of your hurley, and when he gave you the butt of his hurley in the guts, he said it was like hitting a wall! ‘Now Whelahan,’ you said to him, ‘Wherever you go today, I’m going too!’

FL: But that was the game, and when it was over, you’d shake hands.

BM: I think the team that concedes more frees tomorrow will be punished, whether by Henry Shefflin for Kilkenny, or Ben O’Connor or Joe Deane for Cork, they’ll all knock them over, very rarely miss. Fellas will have to be conscious of that. It will be a physical game but let it be that way, let there be contact.

FL: That’s right, an honest game, that’s what people go to see.

DO’F: Talking to the players, they’re really looking forward to this.

FL: Why wouldn’t they? When you’re in your 20s like those lads, like when we were in our 20’s all those years ago, that’s what you’re looking forward to, that’s what you’re training all the year for, the big matches. A lad is going out pitting his wits against Joe Deane, Henry Shefflin against Ronan Curran, Martin Comerford against the Rock, Jackie Tyrell against that young lad from the Glen, Pat Horgan.

DO’F: Yes, but where will Tyrell be?

FL: God only knows! But that’s what it’s all about, the best against the best.

BM: There’s something that bothers me though; Cork have two teams in Croke Park on Sunday and both 15s were named on the paper this morning (Wednesday) but Kilkenny aren’t naming their team ‘til Friday night. There’s no need for that, barring there’s an injury to someone, which I don’t think there is. They should be able to name their team now.

FL: Personally I think that’s wrong as well, I’d like to see the two teams named today in the People, in Kilkenny. I often said that to Brian (Cody) myself but he’d only shrug his shoulders.

BM: There’s a fantastic build-up around here, fierce speculation — who’s going to be full-back, will it be Noel Hickey or JJ Delaney, who’s going to be centrefield, will it be Derek Lyng, will it be Jackie Tyrell, will it be James Ryall even. Such and such a fella was on the B team the other night, he’s going to be dropped, such a fella is going really well, he’ll be starting.

FL: I gave up going to the training for the simple reason that you don’t know what’s happening. You’d be coming back to Delaney’s, a pub in Patrick Street, and you’d be saying, for example, Brian Murphy is going to be centre-back, he’s playing really well there, Diarmuid O’Flynn is going to be corner-forward, he’s flying, scoring all round him. Next thing the team is announced, no sign of Murphy or Flynn, and you’d be back in the pub on Saturday and lads telling you — you know nothing about hurling at all, they aren’t even on the first 25!

BM: There were a few needless games this year, Antrim against Galway, Waterford against Antrim, Galway against Laois — I don’t know what they can to about it.

FL: I’ll tell you what they should do — they’re talking about bringing Galway into Leinster, but they won’t come in. What they should do is put Kilkenny into Munster, then we’d see how good it is!

DO’F: Put the Cats among the pigeons?

BM: I met three fellas lately all saying the same thing about Munster hurling, how it was over-rated, how Offaly had beaten Limerick, but now, at this stage, you have three Munster teams, one Leinster. The real strength of Munster is that you have a lot of different teams winning, it’s not dominated by one team.

FL: Yes, but two of the Munster teams in the All-Ireland semi-finals were beaten already — by right, it should be Tipperary and Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final. Put Kilkenny into Munster and see how good Munster is then!

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