He took in the sights and sounds and scents of Kilkenny Arts Week, then in the second year of its existence. He discussed hurling with Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane “over a tankard” in Kyteler’s Inn one night.
He – naturally — went to watch the All-Ireland champions training in Nowlan Park and gaped as Noel Skehan, in the gathering dusk, pulled off improbable saves from laser-guided missiles hit by Eddie Keher.
And one morning he ambled up to St Kieran’s College to interview Fr Tommy Maher.
How, enquired Downey, would Kilkenny, the MacCarthy Cup holders, but an ageing team nonetheless, fare in the All-Ireland final against Galway, a far younger outfit and presumable a hungrier one too, given the Tribesmen were appearing in their first decider in 17 years? Kilkenny’s coach wasn’t prepared to kick for touch. Not a bit of it. Galway, he predicted, wouldn’t get early goals, they wouldn’t score more than two goals in the course of the game and while they were the faster team and might get a couple of breakaway scores, this was unlikely to be enough.
“Otherwise I can’t see them beating us,” Fr Maher stated baldly.
Amid all the fuss about Galway, who’d shocked Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, it was easy to overlook the fact Kilkenny had quite an incentive themselves. Bizarre as it may appear at this remove, on the eve of the 1975 final Kilkenny had not won successive titles in more than 40 years (1932-33). But if any team was to rewrite history, it was the county’s team of the mid-1970s. Skehan, Keher, Henderson, Cummins, Chunky O’Brien, Purcell, Delaney.
Facing a then-record fifth consecutive All-Ireland decider, they’d been together so long that, in the words of Fr Maher, they barely needed any more coaching.
“But now they have to show they are as good as, if not better than, the teams of the 30s.”
It may not have been a collective of all the talents but it was the next best thing, an outfit with perfect balance. A brilliant goalkeeper. Defenders who were physically strong and could hurl. An iron fist/velvet glove midfield pairing. A forward line where Kieran Purcell and Pat Delaney combined self-sufficiency and a jagged edge, topped off by the presence of the trigger man to end all trigger men.
“Between them, Pat and Kieran gave Keher the freedom to exercise his skills as distinct from having to take a lot of abuse,” Pat Henderson says.
Over time, Keher agrees, it became second nature to him to read their game and feed off them. “They added years to my career.” Why did coaching matter, Downey enquired of Fr Maher?
“In the past, I suppose, great players like Christy Ring got certain things wrong hundreds of times. Then they did it right once and they knew it was right. They had discovered the correct methods by trial and error. Few will do that nowadays. They must be taught and they must acquire the skills quickly and effectively or they will not carry on at the game.
“That’s why coaching is absolutely necessary. I remember when I was laughed at for practising the handpass. When I began coaching the Kilkenny team, nobody handpassed the ball, it just wasn’t done.
“Nowadays you’re lost if you don’t use the handpass. It has speeded up the game and made it more attractive. Some people would like to abolish it and go back to hip-to-hip and shoulder-to-shoulder belting on the ball, but I don’t agree with that at all.”
Fr Maher’s backroom confederate was the team trainer Mick Lanigan, a former international athlete and later a member of the Senate. For the 1975 final, Lanigan managed to wangle sponsorship for a set of shorts via one of his business contacts. The sponsors were an obscure Dublin bank with an office in Manchester, Anglo Irish Bank.
So the great day dawned – it was the first 70-minute final — and Galway, full of the enthusiasm of the newcomer, settled well, buoyed by a rasper of a goal from Frank Burke in the 19th minute. They then went 22 minutes without a score, however, and trailed by 0-9 to 1-3 at half-time.
Within a few minutes of the restart the gap had stretched to eight points after the champions’ 21-year-old left-corner back Brian Cody cleared a ball that was won by Mick Crotty and handpassed to Keher for a predictably merciless finish.
Thereafter Kilkenny were untroubled. Crotty, one of the unsung heroes of the side, hit five points. Liam O’Brien, on the way to the Hurler of the Year award, was unstoppable in the middle of the field.
Fan Larkin, who’d been sent off against Galway in the league semi-final in Thurles, had his revenge by rendering his marker Padraig Fahy “almost as inconspicuous as if he were at home in Carnmore”, to quote one of the match reports.
Kilkenny 2-22 Galway 2-10.
In retrospect it was a bittersweet victory. Kilkenny’s greatest team in four decades would die a horrible death the following summer against Wexford. Purcell, Delaney and Keher would never appear in another All-Ireland final. But if 1975 marked an end for Kilkenny, it was only the beginning for Galway.
They hadn’t been in Croke Park in September for two decades beforehand.
They’ve never been too far away in the meantime.