Cats’ final triumph tinged with tragedy

As the 64,246 paying spectators made their way to Croke Park that blustery day nearly half a century ago, there was not one burning question of the day but two.

Cats’ final triumph tinged with tragedy

Could Kilkenny end their supposed All-Ireland hoodoo against Tipperary?

Or could John Doyle, the grand old man of hurling, win a record ninth All-Ireland medal and thereby surpass Christy Ring? Which was text and which was subtext, it was hard to tell.

In the event the match turned out to be the end of the line, as everyone had known beforehand it would be, for a man with his best days behind him. What nobody could have foreseen was that it would also be the end of the line for a much younger man with his best days in front of him. Therein lay the tragedy of the 1967 All-Ireland final.

At that stage, John Doyle had been around the place for 18 years — well, 18 years and forever. Eight All-Ireland medals and 11 National League medals. Never dropped for a Championship match or taken off injured. A living legend. The best known chef in Hell’s Kitchen too, although Doyle was keen to stress in a 2005 interview that the reputation of the Tipperary full-back line was not quite the reality.

“We got as much punishment as we were supposed to have dished out, I can assure you of that.”

This wasn’t a case of Doyle attempting to rewrite history. Consider the judgment of one of his opponents.

“Undoubtedly the best hurler I ever encountered. A great hurling mind. Strong as an ox. A magical positional sense. He gave me a lesson in one league final and there weren’t many I could say did the same — in a short career, admittedly. I got a point off him that day and was lucky to get it. I got back to Thomastown afterwards and some lad said to me, ‘You got one point off an old man!’ That was all he knew.”

The player in question? Tom Walsh, whose path would once more cross with Doyle’s in the 1967 All-Ireland final. Once more but once more only.

Kilkenny entered the match under the yawning shadow of Slievenamon, not having beaten Tipperary in an All-Ireland final since 1922. In the meantime Tipperary had seen off their neighbours in the showdowns of 1937, ’45, ’50 and ’64, plus the 1958 semi-final, plus umpteen league encounters and Oireachtas deciders. Often comfortably, sometimes — as in the 1964 All-Ireland final — devastatingly.

Kilkenny for the hurlers and Tipp for the men, as the saying had it.

By 1967 the men were getting old, however. Kilkenny didn’t have a single outfield player over the age of 30; Tipperary had eight of them.

And Kilkenny’s forwards were aged 23, 23, 26, 24, 23 and 22. One of the 23-year-olds was Tom Walsh, known to Micheál O’Hehir as “the blond bombshell from Thomastown”.

He’d hit 1-4 in the 1961 All-Ireland minor final, 2-2 in the 1962 renewal and two goals in the 1963 All-Ireland senior decider at the age of 19. Walsh was the ideal wingman for Eddie Keher and improving with every season.

“I was beginning to catch the game better, beginning to control the game, feeling more comfortable, starting to contemplate when to run and when to conserve my energy rather than running the whole time.”

The day was sunny and windy. Tipperary began with the elements in their favour but were promptly hit for a goal from distance by Kilkenny midfielder Paddy Moran and a point from a Keher free. Gradually they found their stride and Donie Nealon, the hat-trick hero of 1964, bagged two goals in quick succession midway through the half.

At the interval Tipp led by 2-6 to 1-3, an advantage that would have been greater but for the excellence of Ollie Walsh between the opposition uprights. Normally nothing to excite comment, this occurrence was remarkable in the circumstances; Ollie had managed to put his arm through the glass window of his compartment while playing pitch and toss on the train to Dublin that morning and had received several stitches after the blood stopped flowing.

The pattern for the second half was set when he stopped Tipperary’s first attack and cleared the ball, wind-assisted, to 35 yards out from the enemy posts. Within 11 minutes Kilkenny were in front following goals from Martin Brennan and Tom Walsh.

It was another journey to the well for the Tipp veterans and a journey too far for some of them. The awesome power that destroyed theirneighbours in 1964 had withered by the passing of the years. In the end Kilkenny won by four points, 3-8 to 2-7, and made heavy weather of doing so. But they did have an excuse. Keher departed the action with a broken wrist. Then Tom Walsh departed with an eye injury.

It was the most innocuous of mishaps. He and his marker Tony Wall were wriggling around as Paddy Moran shaped to take a sideline cut under the Cusack Stand. Walsh, anticipating the flight of the sliotar, turned back into Wall and as he did so, Wall felt the butt of his hurley make contact with his opponent. Looking down from the upper deck of the Cusack where he was watching the action armed with a Panasonic walkie-talkie, the Kilkenny coach Fr Tommy Maher saw the incident and immediately recognised it as a complete accident.

The cup of glory would be bittersweet. Walsh’s eye, damaged beyond repair, had to be removed in order to protect the other eye. It was the end of his hurling career — a career that, because he looked after himself well and was keen on fitness, he estimates might have lasted another 10 years. Those 64,246 spectators there in Croke Park in 1967: Walsh reckons, tongue in cheek, he’s met each one of them in the meantime.

As for John Doyle, he was photographed walking off the pitch at the end, a wry smile on his lips. Beaten at last by Kilkenny but, as always, unbowed. So he didn’t walk off into the sunset with a ninth All-Ireland medal: what of it? It may have made a small difference to his medal collection. It made no difference to his legend.

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