s experiences go, leading his county up the Hogan Stand steps in 1971 was surreal in the extreme for Tipperary’s Tadhg O’Connor.
The Roscrea man was just 22 at the time, a nipper in senior inter-county terms. There was far greater experience in the side, especially with the likes of Mick Roche, Len Gaynor, and Michael ‘Babs’ Keating soldiering beside him.
Yet, O’Connor had just captained the Premier County to their first All-Ireland SHC final success since 1965.
In fact, it was an astonishingly successful year for O’Connor, as Roscrea also won the All-Ireland Club SHC title.
An attendance of 61,393 swamped Croke Park and witnessed a roaring contest of skill and craft that yielded 10-31. Referee Frank Murphy blew the full-time whistle and Tipp were on the preferred side of a 5-17 to 5-14 scoreline against their nemesis, Kilkenny.
The previous week, John Flanagan, would-be scorer of 1-2 against Kilkenny, got married in Gortnahoe. Such an instance, of course, would be unheard of these days.
Celebrations were subdued among his team-mates, according to O’Connor.
He drove Tipp from wing-back and they led 2-10 to 2-4 at half-time. The positive implications for his family and club hit O’Connor emphatically at full-time.
“There was such a sense of relief at the end of the game for a number of reasons,” said O’Connor. “The first thing that struck me in that moment was what it would mean to my family and Roscrea to see me lifting the Liam MacCarthy Cup.
“It was the first time a Roscrea man captained Tipp to an All-Ireland. There had been a huge hype in the town. Myself and Francis Loughnane started from Roscrea that day. So, I knew right away what it meant to everybody from the club. That was really surreal, but in the most wonderful of ways.
“Even though we had been beaten in ’67 and ’68, Tipperary went into those games probably the way Kilkenny would now, expecting to win, due to the county’s dominance in the early 60s. That probably added a degree of pressure, because there was a determination not to allow a third All-Ireland final to slip by in that particular period. Our attitude was: ‘It absolutely should not happen again’.
“There was a feeling within the county that was a game we needed to win and it was spoken about in the dressing room.
“You see, up until ’67, Kilkenny hadn’t beaten us in an All-Ireland final for 30-odd years. So, here we were in ’71 after getting the better of them again, which made it all the sweeter.”
Great friendships have been forged between the teams of that period. Babs Keating, top-scoring for Donie Nealon’s outfit, hit 0-7 on that day and has since become close, as O’Connor has, with Eddie Keher. One of the code’s all-time superstars, the Inistioge man almost single-handedly denied O’Connor the most memorable day in his hurling career. Remarkably, Keher fired 2-11 and he registered a further 2-9 in the ’72 defeat of Cork.
Keher plays down the achievement of scoring a total of 4-20 in consecutive All-Irelands by highlighting that the games were 80-plus minutes at the time.
“Obviously, there was a really big rivalry with ourselves and Tipp in the ’60s,”said Keher. “We had met in ’64, which Tipp won, and again in ’67, which we won.
“This was probably a great Tipp team coming near the end in that era. After ’71, they didn’t win another All-Ireland until 1989.
“The rivalry was pretty hectic. We played in a couple of league finals and they were fairly tempestuous matches, to be honest. It was fiery. Tipp always had this thing that they could beat Kilkenny, because they were tougher and stronger, whereas we were ‘fancy’ hurlers.
“Tipp had an Indian Sign over us, or at least that was the perception. Fr Tommy Maher took the view then that we needed a strong team to beat Tipp. We won two All-Irelands with St Kieran’s under Fr Tommy as well. He was the most innovative of coaches. He came in as Kilkenny coach in ’57 and revolutionised coaching.
“Before Fr Tommy there was no real coaching drills or analysis of the opposition. He was very forward-thinking, devising systems to curb certain players on the opposition.
“Himself, Donie Nealon, Ned Power and Des Ferguson were the first people to really run the Gormanston College coaching courses for all counties, which was innovative in itself.
“Fr Tommy was adamant, though, that we needed to be stronger. This led to two teams that refused to back off each other. Hardy men and tempestuous matches, which was fuelled by the fact we’re bordering counties.
“Where I was living in Inistioge, it was bordering Wexford, so the rivalry was with Wexford. For those living in the areas of Callan, Tullaroan, Freshford, Johnstown and all of that area, the Kilkenny-Tipp rivalry was intense. Personally, I probably didn’t realise what the rivalry was really like until I started working with AIB in Callan.The other thing was, though, and this is so dissimilar to today, in that era you never met players of opposing counties until you played them. Nowadays, players meet in third level regularly, for instance. So I would never have spoken to those Tipp lads back then. There are many friendships throughout the two groups now, however. Babs, the late John Doyle, and Len Gaynor. Tadgh [O’Connor] himself, too. Tadgh was a really special, stylish hurler. He would be equally at home operating at wing-back in the game now.”
eher and Kilkenny felt they possessed the required tools to prevail in ’71.
However, he appreciated how Tipp kept them at arm’s length after O’Connor’s unit availed of a strong first-half wind.
“In the build-up to that match, though, we felt we had a good chance. We had been building a strong team, but obviously things turned out differently.
“The ’71 final was such an extraordinary game. First of all, it was an 80-minute match, which was too long. We needed goals badly on the day and I got two 21-yard frees. Any time I got the opportunity of a 21, especially if it was at a good angle in front of the goal, I would go for it.
“It was a funny game in many respects, because Tipp had the wind in the first-half and made use of it. They were leading by six points at half-time, but we started to haul them in and got level with them.
“I vividly recall saying to myself at that stage: ‘We have this now’. We seemed to be on top of the Tipp defence at the time. Next thing, against the run of play, Tipp got a key goal. Their backs tightened up and I sensed it was slipping away from us.
“The game see-sawed after that, but Tipp got their goals at the right times and we were playing catch up all the time. They did deserve to win that day, regardless,” he recalled.
Still, O’Connor remembers the final stages as fraught, primarily because of Keher’s class.
“I remember, after we conceded six goals to Galway in Birr in the All-Ireland semi-final, there was rumours of wholesale changes in the back lines for the final.
“Certainly, the likes of Eddie [Keher] made sure we were under just as much pressure late in the game. Eddie was a gifted hurler. A typically strong and skilful Kilkenny man. He got a score late on, which left us just two or three points in front, but thankfully we clung on,” O’Connor added.
When Tipp edged Keher-inspired Kilkenny in 10-goal final thriller