Michael Cleary: We almost felt we were playing for two All-Irelands

Mick Gill is the only player to win two senior hurling All-Irelands in the same year, Civil War delaying his Galway 1923 glory until it had company in his 1924 medal with Dublin.

Michael Cleary would nearly put himself and his Tipperary teammates of 1991 in that bracket.

“We’d beaten Antrim in ‘89, our first All-Ireland in 18 years. But with all due respect to Antrim, we never got credit for that. Whether we deserved it or not is a matter of opinion. But it was almost as if we were searching for credibility,” Cleary says, in his shop in Nenagh.

“In the general public’s eyes, we still hadn’t beaten a big power. Ok, Kilkenny weren’t the force back then they are now, but they were still a traditional county.

“We almost felt we were playing for two All-Irelands. And had Kilkenny won that game, I’m sure history would weigh heavily on our shoulders and not look on us too favourably.”

Tipp’s modern history, Kilkenny’s ancient past. Could be that both leaned too strong on a final that slipped quickly from the memories of anyone without allegiance.

“We were lucky enough on the day, no doubt about it. It was far from a classic All-Ireland. But looking back, I don’t think it matters much, when you win.

“There was a lot of relief about it. To be fair, we had a lot of injuries. Nicky English was injured, he was gone early in the second-half. Cormac Bonner carried an injury into that. They were two big players for us. And we didn’t have the benefit of them in that final. Pat Fox was the difference. He pulled us over the line. But that game was there for Kilkenny to win and they didn’t win it.”

Fox hit five points and harvested a hurler of the year gong. But in Cleary’s mind, the clay had been loosened by a century of spadework done by men like Paddy Riordan, Johnny Leahy and Donie Nealon in finals against Kilkenny.

“We hadn’t met for so long, there wasn’t really a rivalry. Kilkenny had beaten us in a few league matches, so we had no entitlement to be confident.

“But we were confident. Traditionally, Tipp had a great run against Kilkenny. Up to that, Kilkenny beat Tipp once in an All-Ireland in 70 years.

“There was a feelgood factor. Tipp beat Kilkenny in All-Irelands. That was the thing at the time. It’s well and truly gone at this stage. I actually think it worked both ways. It helped us and I think the Kilkenny lads, deep down, I’ve no doubt the ‘we have trouble beating Tipp’ thing was in the psyche.”

Kilkenny for the hurlers, Tipp for the men. Tipp had plenty of hurlers in ‘91, but in certain quarters, that old credo, first attributed to Leahy in 1917, still stood.

“That probably was the way. In the late 60s, Kilkenny had enough of Tipp and decided to ‘man up’, for want of a better expression.

“They obviously recognised it themselves. It was universally accepted Kilkenny had the hurlers and Tipp were different men, I suppose. That’s not to say Kilkenny were lesser men but Kilkenny concentrated on the hurling and Tipp added a bit of ‘muscle’ to it - I don’t know what the correct terminology would be. But now Kilkenny combine both. They always had the hurlers.”

Fate’s role in writing history? Kilkenny might have had the men in 1991 had Cleary’s free, early in the second-half, not slipped into the top corner of Michael Walsh’s net. A substantial lodgment in a four-point win.

“I always quote the Archbishop the following night: ‘He went for a point and had to be happy with a goal.’ I thought that summed it up.

“For a second there was silence in the ground. I just felt for a split-second I was the only one in the ground who knew. I knew instantly I had mishit it, but I also knew it was gone in, I’d say, before anyone else did. Freakish!” Meant to be? “Absolutely.”

It puts him back in Croke Park Sunday, waving to the crowd in the Jubilee presentation. Back at the scene, this time it’s modern history that troubles him. Now, when it’s there for Kilkenny to win, they generally oblige.

“It’s so hard to call. If you sit down with a sheet of paper and try pick the best team out of the two of them you’ll wind up eight-seven no matter how many times you go at it.

“It could go the other way to 1991. Very much so. I’ve no doubt they’ll be very comfortable if this match is tight coming down the stretch. The Kilkenny boys will be very confident, as they showed against Waterford and many times over the last decade, that they’re happy they can squeeze out a result.

“They’ve done it enough times.”


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