Kilkenny’s pursuit of five in a row began in a fairly nondescript fashion 10 years ago, with Dublin acting as the fall guys for yet another Leinster shellacking. The mundanity of the occasion was pierced however by a record-breaking moment which had been 11 years in the making.
In the 18th minute of the game, the imperious Henry Shefflin dissected the posts for the fourth time and in doing so, ended Eddie Keher’s 38-year reign atop the championship scoring record table.
By the time of Shefflin’s retirement five years later, the gap between the two Kilkenny luminaries had risen to 126 points. Were it not for injuries towards the latter end of Shefflin’s career, the chasm between the two would have been far greater.
But record books rarely tell the whole story, especially ones which pit the game’s contemporaries against those of a bygone age. For instance, while it is unlikely that Clare’s Niall Gilligan will ever be held in the same regard, nationally at least, as Tipperary’s Jimmy Doyle, a quick glance at their respective scoring feats would suggest Gilligan the more potent of the two. Similarly, the impressive tally accrued by Shane Dooley far outweighs that of his uncle, and three-time All-Star recipient, Joe.
In each case, it is an unfair and wholly futile exercise to compare. As such, the ever-changing record table documenting hurling’s most prominent scorers over the past 50 years should be viewed as a representation of the game’s constant evolution, rather than testimony to the ability of the players in question.
Fifty years ago, hurling’s ‘Top 10’ was the exclusive domain of the true behemoths. Prior to the commencement of the 1970 season, the likes of Ring, Rackard, Doyle, Mackey, and Keher inhabited the top of the scoring charts and it would be quite a while before they surrendered their occupancy.
By the late ’70s, Keher was the only member of the Top 10 Club still active, yet the position of his high-scoring peers remained relatively unchallenged for a further two decades. Indeed, from the onset of the ’70s through to the mid-’90s, only Cork’s Charlie McCarthy, Wexford’s Tony Doran, and Limerick’s Eamonn Cregan managed to infiltrate the club.
So, what happened to hurling’s great scorers? Was it that the 1980s were simply devoid of forwards capable of hitting the heights set by their illustrious predecessors? In a way, yes. Throughout the decade, no one player dominated the scoring circuit like Keher in the ’70s or Doyle in the early ’60s.
The dissemination of success throughout the ’80s undoubtedly played its part. In a decade which saw five counties claim All-Ireland glory, only Kilkenny’s Billy Fitzpatrick (’82 and ’83), Cork’s John Fenton (’84 and ’87), and Tipperary’s Nicky English (’87, ’88 and ’89) managed to score over 25 points in a championship season on more than one occasion.
For most counties, the scoring burden was evenly distributed. In Cork for example, four separate players, namely Tony O’Sullivan, Bertie Óg Murphy, John Fenton, and Jimmy Barry Murphy, stepped up to the mantle each year as the county’s scorer-in-chief as they annexed five provincial titles between 1982 and 1986. When the Rebels won the All-Ireland in 1986, none of their much-vaunted forwards accrued more than 20 points, yet JBM, Fenton, and Kevin Hennessy still ended the year as the championship’s three highest scorers.
Similarly, Offaly’s hurling breakthrough was spearheaded at different stages by the likes of Johnny Flaherty, Pádraig Horan, and the Corrigan brothers, Paddy and Mark. Meanwhile, although Galway won three All-Irelands and reached a further three finals throughout the ‘80s, their primary marksmen, hampered as always by a lack of games, were never likely to reach the scoring chart’s uppermost stratum.
When Tony Doran finally departed the inter-county scene after a long and illustrious career in 1984, he did so as the 10th highest championship scorer of all time.
Amazingly, the Wexford man’s position and that of those above him remained secure until 1996 when Limerick’s Gary Kirby eventually gatecrashed the party.
He was soon joined by one DJ Carey, whose arrival finally signalled the end to his Kilkenny compatriot Matty Power’s long-standing Top 10 residency. The Revolution Years, by this stage, were in full flight. The evolution years, meanwhile, were about to take off.
As changes in tactics and culture, coupled with alterations to the playing apparatus, began to take hold, the game became faster and more expansive. With less clemency being afforded by referees, a new breed of forward emerged, one capable of punishing defensive indiscretions from anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch.
For example, although the average scoring total of the All-Ireland finals played through the ‘00s barely increased (47.3 to 47.9 points) from that of the ‘90s, the average total of converted frees grew from 8.6 scores to 12.4.
The volatility of the scoring chart’s highest echelons echoed this change. As dead-ball specialists like Shefflin, Eoin Kelly, Joe Deane, and Paul Flynn became poster boys for the modern game, their impressive scoring tallies allowed them to stand tall among the revered legends of the past.
Since then, the rate of scoring has grown exponentially, and the past decade has been adorned with feats of unprecedented marksmanship, from which four main protagonists have emerged from the pack.
We didn’t know it then but over the course of 20 days in the summer of 2008, we bore witness to a prodigious quartet taking their fledgling steps on the inter-county scene.
While the precocious talents of Joe Canning, Patrick Horgan, TJ Reid, and Séamus Callanan had been fairly well documented at that stage, not even the most prescient of hurling experts could have predicted the extent to which they would illuminate the game.
In the intervening years, the Class of ‘08 has accumulated 105-1382 between them (that’s a few 65s shy of 1700 total championship points) and currently sit at second, third, sixth, and seventh place respectively as the highest-scoring hurlers in the 133-year history of the All-Ireland championship.
Despite age profiles that suggest that their best days may be behind them, their scoring yields show no signs of diminishing. It is not inconceivable that Joe Canning will break Shefflin’s record this season (he requires 61 points), although the truncated nature of the championship will render his task all the more difficult.
Horgan too could eclipse Shefflin in the coming years, if he manages to prolong the Indian summer that has seen him amass 142 points over the past two seasons.
Either way, what is undeniable is that we are currently witnessing a golden age of scoring, one which has distorted what we thought possible from the game’s primary scorers. Long may it continue.