Greatness becomes him

HE prelude took place on the first Sunday of October 52 years ago.

One of the craziest, most exciting All-Ireland hurling finals ever had ended in a draw (yes, crazy — how bizarre a scoreline is Waterford 1-17 Kilkenny 5-5?).

For the replay Kilkenny called up a promising youngster from the postcard-pretty village of Inistioge. He’d starred, albeit on the losing side, in the minor final the previous month and had shown up well subsequently against Dublin in the Oireachtas and Wexford in the Walsh Cup. Now, a week short of his 18th birthday, he was on the bench as Kilkenny and Waterford met again — and was off it and into the fray after 15 minutes when Johnny McGovern, the wing-back from Bennettsbridge, succumbed to a recurrence of the shoulder injury he’d picked up first time around.

It would be no fairytale entrance. Waterford, rather more assured in defence than they had been four weeks previously, recovered from a slow start to win deservedly by 3-12 to 1-10.

For the record, Kilkenny scored only two points in the second half. Guess who scored both of them? Yes. The boy who became the man who turns 70 next Friday, October 14. Eddie Keher a septuagenarian. That last sentence may make some readers feel worryingly old. Our apologies.

But 1959 was, as stated, only the prelude. Let us move forward four years to the first Sunday of September 1963. Kilkenny and Waterford again, with Prince Rainier of Monaco and his former Hollywood actress wife in attendance.

A few nights earlier, following the Leinster champions’ final training session in Nowlan Park, their left half-forward, now aged 21 but widely considered to be a little too laid back for his own good, was buttonholed by his old mentor Fr Tommy Maher at the front door of Langton’s.

“Eddie,” Fr Maher declared, fixing him with gimlet eye, “make up your mind to be dug out of these fellas on Sunday.”

The first free Keher stood over on the Sunday was a tricky one, from an angle on the right out near the sideline, so he decided to play the percentages and drop it short. The next free was scoreable and he scored it. By the time the game ended he had 14 shots and had hit 14 points, 10 of them from play. Perfection.

That was the day it began. It would continue for another 14 years, through six All-Ireland medals, five All Stars and all manner of scoring records.

To youngsters growing up in the Ireland of the 1970s Eddie Keher was the hurling figure of the era. Ultan Macken wrote his biography at a time when GAA players didn’t have books written about them. The Saw Doctors would even name check him in a song. He was left corner-forward on the Team of the Century, left corner-forward on the Team of the Millennium and no questions asked.

For three decades he was the all-time championship top scorer. He remains the all-time top scorer from play (19 goals and 135 points in his 50 appearances for an average of 3.84 points a game). He is the top scorer in All-Ireland finals with 7-74 in his 10 appearances, Henry Shefflin being next in line with 4-60 in his 11.

Shefflin has surpassed some of Keher’s scoring achievements and will surpass a few more before he’s finished. But he will never surpass Keher himself. An equal, yes, but not a better. Because Keher is unsurpassable.

Might it have been different? It certainly would have been different had Fr Tommy Maher not returned to St Kieran’s College when Keher was in his second year there. The following season, 1957, the school won the revived All-Ireland colleges’ championship and Kilkenny won the All-Ireland for only the second time since 1939, both with the 35-year-old priest from Gowran at the helm. To a large extent, 1957 is the Year Zero of modern Kilkenny hurling. Everything starts from there.

By then Fr Maher, who had spent a number of years ministering in Crumlin in Dublin, had worked out his hurling creed. The game, he had concluded, was not about power or strength but about the skills, which had to be practiced over and over again, thereby reducing — though not eliminating — the variables.

Practice would over time make perfect, or as close to perfect as human error allowed for.

“His whole philosophy was to practice the skills over and over again,” Keher says.

“If that’s drummed into players often enough, then when the autopilot is on, as it will be in an important match, these habits will kick in and the practice will pay off. You don’t have time to think in a big match. It’s about doing things automatically.”

Fr Maher was a maths teacher by profession, incidentally. Not a coincidence.

Proof that practice did pay off arrived almost immediately. In the run-up to the 1957 All-Ireland colleges’ final between St Kieran’s and St Flannan’s, Fr Maher had Keher and the team’s full-forward, Dick Dowling from Glenmore, a future TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, rehearse the same gambit over and over again: Keher soloing in from the half-forward line and palming the ball over the head of the onrushing full-back to Dowling, who caught it and planted it in the net.

Although it took them much trial and error to get it right, the move yielded the winning goal in the closing minutes of the final at Semple Stadium. The autopilot on, the habit becoming an instinct.

Keher was already a free-taker of sorts before he encountered Fr Maher. As a child in Inistioge playing with the bigger boys, the schoolmaster, Martin Walsh, had put him out the field taking frees, dropping them into the square for the older lads. Now, under Fr Maher, he discovered that free-taking entailed a number of distinct and separate components, among them the correct placing of the feet, the stance (suddenly Keher breaks off during the interview, gets to his feet, draws in his shoulders, stands erect and gazes in the direction of imaginary uprights somewhere over to his left) and the follow-through.

The most important element of all? Rising the ball in the first place.

Why Keher roll-lifted the sliotar where Shefflin jab-lifts it is easily explained.

“You couldn’t jab-lift it in my time. No grass. Your best chance of rising the ball then was to roll-lift it. That was what I stuck to. Even placing the ball for a free meant taking extra care because at the time the rims were much more severe than they are now.

You took the smooth part of the ball for rising so that you weren’t cutting across the rims. Fr Maher was always advocating a ball like a baseball. He couldn’t see the need for rims.”

Graduating to the county team in the early 1960s meant clashes with Tipperary. Many clashes in which Kilkenny invariably seemed to come off worse. It wasn’t a rivalry, it was an enmity. Babs Keating has told the story of a group of players from both counties studiously avoiding one another in a hotel lift during a trip to New York, much to the discomfort of the American couple present.

All very childish, Keher agrees, but the world was a smaller place then.

“Nowadays players know players from other counties. They go to college together. Back then we didn’t know these guys except as the enemy. They’d hit you a belt, you’d hit them back.”

The rancour of the Kilkenny-Tipperary relationship has long since disappeared; Keher became friendly with John Doyle in later life and was one of the last visitors outside his family the Holycross legend had prior to his death last December.

“A terrific hurler. There was the whole Hell’s Kitchen thing, but Doyle had skill and speed, which was often overlooked. He totally deserved all the accolades and the eight All-Ireland medals.”

Mick Burns was another Tipperary opponent Keher reserves the highest praise for.

“A great wing-back. I always found it harder to play on a skilful half-back than a half-back with a reputation. The skilful guys concentrated on the ball. They dashed out ahead of you, whipped up the ball and away down the field with it.”

Yet Keher is not a member of the ‘In My Day’ club. Ask him if hurling is better today than it was in his era and he replies instantly that “it has to be”. The skill level is higher, the equipment and pitches better.

“Every sport develops because people look at the players and try to emulate them and do things betters. And you have the science now. Fantastic pitches, lovely sliotars, hurleys made to measure. Hurling has to have got better and it is better. The skill level is phenomenal.”

Another improvement is what he describes as the greater competitiveness in hurling now; Waterford and Dublin weren’t contenders during the 1970s, he points out. Talking of that decade, what about 1973, when Kilkenny were short four first-choice players, Keher included, against Limerick in the All-Ireland final?

It’s the one question he’s become tired of being asked over the years.

“My stance hasn’t changed. Limerick deserved 1973, we deserved 74.”

Keher made the papers a couple of years back with some outspoken comments on the player situation in Cork. How does he respond to the charge that it was a Cork problem that should have been left to Cork folk to solve?

His line of defence is that he was asked a question, he answered it honestly and whatever headlines were created were not created by him. The motivation behind his response, he adds, was a belief in the ethos of the GAA.

“When you respond like that it gets a headline. Anyway, what do you call being treated well? All I wanted to do was to hurl. Perks are grand if you get them. If Brian Cody said to me, ‘I want you to come in training with Kilkenny next season. You won’t get fed in Langton’s afterwards. You’ll have to buy your own hurleys’, would I come in? Would I what.”

Long retired from the bank, his spare time these days is easily filled. Twelve grandchildren (two in Australia). Golf in New Ross, “trying to play off eight”.

A “very big garden — too big for me now” high on a hill overlooking Inistioge. Kilkenny training sessions in Nowlan Park and matches everywhere and anywhere. Eddie Keher at 70. Still unsurpassable.


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