Christy Ring hurled at senior inter-county level for Cork for 24 seasons, from his debut in 1939 to his retirement in 1962, during which time he became the most storied hurler of all time.
In fact there are those who claim that he retired too soon, that he was still easily one of the best six forwards in Cork for years afterwards, including the All-Ireland winning year of 1966. No matter, Christy got his rewards and his recognition.
Tommy McLoughlin made his senior hurling debut for his native Leitrim in 1985, all of 27 years ago. Last Sunday, aged 47, in the Lory Meagher win over neighbours Longford, he was still representing his county, albeit in a very different position to when he started.
“I used to play centre-back or midfield, those were my positions. I missed a couple of years but I went into goal about three years ago when I started getting on a bit,” he explains.
“It’s not the same at all. Out the field you had a bit of freedom. In goals, if you make the saves you’re a hero but one mistake and you hear all about it. It’s an awful place to be. High balls coming in from 80 or 90 yards, any lad gets a touch on it and you can look like an eejit. And the low bouncers, the deadly dribblers — oh hoh hoh!”
He blanches at the comparison with Christy Ring, but brightens also at the name. “Ah he was a real hero, a brilliant hurler. But there are some great hurlers there now too. I’d have been a great admirer of DJ Carey in the 90s, he was the best that was there that time, a serious hurler. I’m watching this Conor Lehane fella with Cork now again and he’s very promising.”
In common with a lot of hurling supporters from other counties who don’t have a team of their own at the top level, Tommy has an adopted county. And no, it’s not Galway, nor even is it Kilkenny – they may be the team of the moment, the team of the ages even. Instead Tommy’s allegiance goes much further south. “Cork would have been my team, I always liked Cork hurling. They’re not spoilers, they’re clean and very skilful and always play the ball. Kilkenny can hurl too but they spoil a lot, they pull and drag you while Cork are pure class.”
One player in particular has caught his eye in recent years, perhaps because Tommy is now playing in his position — Donal Óg Cusack.
“Donal Óg is a class act and a class player. He has a great head on him, a great hurling brain. He’d find a pass out of anywhere, even under pressure — long or short, low or high. Very sharp.”
Donal Óg is another son of Cloyne of course, like Christy Ring, but again, playing his hurling on a very different plane to Tommy. And yet for all that the comparisons are not as outrageous as they may appear. Yes, Ringey and Donal Óg have won all the honours, yes they were and are hurlers of the highest calibre, but isn’t so much of the GAA, so much of sport – amateur sport especially — about simply playing the game?
And Tommy has played it, and enjoyed every minute. He doesn’t have a national profile but he is one of those who keeps this game alive in areas where it has always struggled. He once came close to the big-time. The year was 1994 and Leitrim were crowned Connacht senior football champions.
He recalled: “I played both hurling and football, but I missed out on the Connacht title. I was on the panel and dropped out of it – of all the years, that one year! I was with them for a month or two and had to stop; they were training up in Meath and I just couldn’t spare the time. I was working in a factory and trying to keep the bit of farming going too – it was impossible.”
Now, Tommy has another shot at glory, and glory it would be, at this level. “We’re in the Lory Meagher semi-final, playing Fermanagh on this Saturday, and if we get over that we’re in Croke Park for the final. That would be something – I’ve never played there.”
Their chances? Not great, if league form is any guide. Just a couple of months ago Fermanagh went to Ballinamore and hammered Leitrim by 33 points (6-27 to 2-6). It’s going to take some turnaround in fortunes but sport is funny like that. Either way you’d have to wish Tommy McLoughlin the best, the very best. Himself, his family (wife Sheila, daughters Aoife and Rachel), his club (Gortletteragh), his native place (Elphin), his county, he’s doing them all proud. Sporting heroes come in all guises, don’t they?
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