Keepers of the flame

Goalkeepers are a rare breed, hurling No 1’s especially. Diarmuid O’Flynn met two legendary netminders from Cork and Tipperary ahead of tomorrow’s provincial semi final at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

A COUPLE of weeks ago a new golf society was launched, its first outing held at Limerick County golf course in Ballyneety. The Iverahain Society it’s called (as in uimhear a h-aon), set up in honour of Limerick keeper Tommy Quaid, killed in a construction-site accident ten years ago. Membership is confined to those in Munster hurling who have played between the sticks for their counties.

A unique kind of a society, but then these are pretty unique individuals. John Sheedy is a member of that society, as is Ger Cunningham. Twenty four years ago, they were at opposite ends of the park as Cork came from behind to snatch victory, send an entire county back to Tipperary in despair.

None was more affected than John Sheedy. With time running out, John saved a ball that was headed over the bar, Seánie O’Leary pounced on the rebound, game over — the keeper left to carry the can.

Diarmuid O’Flynn: Is 1984 similar to Sunday, Tipp coming with a good team after a period off centre-stage?

John Sheedy: “I don’t think so. At the start of 1984 we wouldn’t have been expected to do much. We were playing Division 2 hurling and our first match that year, where do you think it was? In Westmeath. And who won? Westmeath turned us over. They had a fine team at the time, I remember a lad at centre-forward, Kilcoyne — good hurler. The funny thing about it, we should have won the league afterwards, but Tommy Quaid cost us. We got the semi-final, played in Thurles, Wexford played Cork the same day, turned them — do you remember that Ger?”

Ger Cunningham: (Pauses to think, then): “Ah no, we’d no interest in that sort of thing!”

John Sheedy (Laughs): “I know, but I’d have taken the league medal. In that game against Limerick, Mike Doyle went in on Tommy Quaid with the ball, and you could handpass the ball to the net that time; he tried, it was going up into the corner of the net, and I don’t know what way Tommy twisted himself but he got to it and Limerick went on to win the league, beat Wexford in the final.”

DO’F: “How would ye have rated Tommy Quaid?”

John Sheedy: “Tommy was a fantastic goalkeeper, one of the best I’ve seen. I remember there was an inter-firm match in Nenagh, he was playing with Golden Vale, I went in to see it. He was centre-forward that night — mother of God, he hurled the whole lot of them, on his own. Great natural ability, brilliant hands.”

JS: “Limerick would have expected to do well then after winning the league, and of course Cork ambushed them, in the Munster championship. I was at it, Limerick did all the hurling but Cork won the match. I think it was Seánie [O’Leary] got an auld scrappy goal in the first half but it was Limerick doing all the hurling.”

Ger Cunningham: “That’s right, there was a strong wind the same day, they were on fire.”

JS: “Yes, but, but! We played Clare in the other semi-final, in Thurles, and we were steeped to win that one. We did all the hurling that day for most of the game, but they took the lead at the right time. I remember Johnny Callinan — he was a great player — got a ball for them about a minute to go, they were a point up, he came in on me, could have nearly ran it into the net but he took the point, making sure. We went down the other end, got a 21, Seamus Power took it and they stopped it, but Liam Maher got the rebound, it ended up in the back of the net. I’ll never forget coming off — poor auld Callinan, he knew that was another chance gone, his Munster and All-Ireland medal would never come.”

Diarmuid O’Flynn: “Was Cork/Tipp in Munster the big one for you John?”

JS: “The Munster final was the big one. Where I come from, Clare/Tipp was the big rivalry, I was that end of the county (Portroe is on the banks of Lough Derg, across from Clare). But the Munster final was the Munster final, no matter who was in it. I won minor, U-21, junior but I never won senior and that will always be a huge regret. I’d love to have won one senior, just one.”

DO’F: “How big was that Cork game?”

JS: “It was huge, the fact that it was our first Munster final since 1973 was one thing, but it was also the GAA’s centenary year. There was great hype in Tipperary about it, great hope, and it was a great day in Thurles, full to the rafters. And we had them on the run but small things can turn big games and that’s what happened.”

DO’F: Tipp should have won?

JS: “I won’t say that, probably Cork’s experience told in the end. They had played in the two previous All-Ireland finals, were longer on the road than we were.”

DO’F: “Was that a factor that day, Ger, that ye were beaten in the All-Ireland finals of ‘82 and ‘83, wanted to get back in ‘84?”

GC: It was, yes, but I had my own motivation. I had grown up with a Christian brother from Tipp as a teacher in primary school, a Br. Moloughney, and it was all Tipp stories, the great teams of the 60s and early 70s; as well as that I was working for Dwanes of Thurles, a Tipperary company, so that was a big one for me, playing Tipp in Thurles in a Munster final, and centenary year on top of all that.”

DO’F: Cork trailing by four points with about four minutes to go, did you think it was gone?

GC: “I had a poor game, I have no doubt I overtrained for it, took it too seriously altogether, trying too hard to improve my game. Tipp got a goal in the first minute, Seamus Power I think it was — nightmare for a goalkeeper. Then, about halfway through the second half, four points down, I came out with a ball, Seamus Power flicked it away from me, had an empty net, took his shot, it went wide…”

JS: “The umpire had to duck out of the way!”

GC: If that had gone in, it was gone. Tipp had a penalty after that also but took the point. A couple of incidents there where the game could have been lost, but they were missed, which meant we were still only four points down coming into the final minutes; I think our experience took over at that stage.”

JS: “You have to remember too, we lost our three best backmen on the day; Pat Fitzelle had to go off, Bobby Ryan broke his leg, and Dinny Cahill went off. That would have been like Clare losing Brian Lohan, Seánie McMahon and Anthony Daly in their heyday — it was a big blow. The fellas who came on hurled up a storm, in fairness, but we lost a few iconic figures that day.”

GC: “There was huge relief in our dressing room after that one, I can tell you.”

JS: “And I’d have to say, huge devastation in our dressing room. It was in the palm of our hands, lost it.”

DO’F: Did you get a lot of abuse afterwards?

JS: “I did, but hindsight is a great thing. We were level with Cork at the time, if I had allowed that ball go over the bar and we were beaten a point I’d have been criticised as well.”

DO’F: Credit due to Seánie though; the corner-back should have been keeping him out, blocking his way, but Seánie was where he was supposed to be.

JS: “The funny thing about that, Jack Bergin was corner-back on Seánie and he was nearly man-of-the-match for us, he hurled up a storm that day. But I was watching Seánie only recently on TG4, All-Ireland Gold, and he got two goals in the All-Ireland final that year; for one of them Barry-Murphy pelted a ball at him but two touches and it was in the back of the net — deadly pair of hands.”

GC: “He was the old-style corner-forward, always follow it in, you might get that one chance.”

JS: “Yeah, of all the people it fell to — he was a great poacher.”

DO’F: “Any keeper who ever played the game would understand why you did what you did, taking a risk to save the game, but are they really a breed apart? Is their a kinship among keepers?”

GC: There is.

JS: There’s always a bond between hurlers, and between goalkeepers, definitely. I played the golf that day, met them all — dead sound men. But I’ve yet to meet a bad hurling man.

GC: “Donal Óg drove down for the first meeting, and he doesn’t play golf at all!”

JS: “I should point out though a good full-back can make or break a goalkeeper, and I was lucky, I had Jim Keogh. Himself and Seamus Power played for Tipperary from about 1973 to the mid 80s, two outstanding hurlers, but they ended their careers without even a Munster title — that was a shame.

DO’F: How would ye rate Diarmuid O’Sullivan?

GC: “I played in front of a number of great full-backs — Martin Doherty, Donal O’Grady, Denis Mulcahy. I think Diarmuid is a super full-back, commands great respect around the square, not too many fellas are too anxious to come near him. I actually played with him in ‘98; he started in a challenge match in Doneraile in 1998, at corner-back, was holding Tom Dempsey scoreless. An announcement came on the PA system, the Harty Cup final result, and Diarmuid muttered to Tom — ‘We should have won that.’ ‘Should ye,’ says Tom, ‘What year?’ — ‘This year,’ says Diarmuid, and it was only then Tom realised he was being roasted by a teenager!

JS: “He’s a great full-back, but all that Cork team deserve great praise. They’ve been on the road since ‘99, ten years at the top of the game, and still going strong.”

DO’F: What do ye think of the short, tactical puck-outs?

GC: “I’d be all for them, they are a major plus for Cork.”

JS: “Definitely; if you’re going the one route all the time it makes it too easy to counteract.”

GC: “It’s a skill on its own now, to hit a running player with the ball.”

JS: “It is, and Donal Óg has it down to a fine art.”

GC: “They look great when they come off but it’s when they don’t, they suffer the criticism. A long puckout comes straight back at you, there’s nothing said, a short puckout breaks down and it really stands out. But it has revolutionised hurling. You start off with possession, how do you use that to best advantage? Do you hit it long and chance a 50-50 situation or do you try keep possession? It changed the whole way of thinking about hurling, and it has really been an asset for Cork.”

JS: “Cork have won three All-Irelands with these players, so it has worked, and you can twist it any way you like after that.”

GC: “It’s a change of tradition and a lot of people don’t like that, going away from the long ball, but you can always combine the two.”

DO’F: Is there an irrational fear of change in the GAA? Could it change more?

JS: That’s a loaded question!

DO’F: But the current championship setup is unfair on Munster?

JS: Yeah, the only gig in town. But you go to Cork on Sunday and the atmosphere, the whole thing around a Cork/Tipp Munster championship meeting — it would be hard to lose that.

GC: “I think it would be terrible. There’s a real possibility that whoever loses on Sunday will be back in the picture again by the semi-finals come around, and it’s then you’ll see the benefit of the back-door system. It would be a shame if Munster is lost, but something should be done about the rest, it should be made more competitive for everyone else as well by bringing Galway and Antrim into Leinster.”


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