“Here’s Leahy at the other end. It’s stopped, it’s saved, it’s a great save by Davy Fitzgerald. And there was a chance for Tipperary to go back in front. Amazing stuff.” – Ger Canning
Tipperary supporters of a certain vintage know from experience that lightning can strike the same place more than once.
Noel Lane was a bolt in the 1987 All-Ireland semi-final as he was 13 months later with scoring an even more electric late goal to win the final (and that’s neglecting his other 11th hour intervention at the climax of the following year’s league).
Ten years later, Johnny Leahy had a late goal chance against Clare in both the provincial final and the first all-Munster All-Ireland final only to see his attempts scuppered.
Twenty years on, Clare and Tipperary help christen the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh this afternoon where Leahy’s 71st minute mishit at the Blackrock End might have levelled matters. Aged 27 and having already helped himself to three points, Leahy was close to the peak of his powers. He fancied the shot but over-thought it.
“The game was intense and I remember Declan Ryan took a line ball. I couldn’t believe my eyes that it came all the way through to me because he was 50-60 yards out. I could see it was going to come to me and I probably had too much time to think about it. I said to myself I would sideline cut it instead of hitting it on the meat.
“Anyway, I was a few inches out and the chance was missed. I remember Anthony Daly came to clear the ball and when he did he let a big roar out of him. To me at the time and from a Tipp point of view, that was the end of the game. I was midfield and I ended up seven or eight yards from the goal. My fitness was good, I was enjoying it and there was a great buzz with the couple of scores that I got.”
Anyone believing Leahy may still harbour angst from 1997 needn’t read on. He looks back on the year with more fondness than you might expect. The year, which saw him finish with his third All-Star, was a rebirth for the Mullinahone man. He had given up alcohol. His involvement in an incident in a Manchester pub in 1996 had compelled him to take the first steps in a leading a different life.
Sure, he wishes he had found the net in either Cork or Croke Park.
The “what if” he has long reconciled with even if one does bug him slightly – the matter of a disputed Ryan wide in the first half of the All-Ireland final. “It went over the bar but was waved wide. I wouldn’t want to take away from Clare’s result but if we had HawkEye today it would be big because there was only a point or two the whole way through. Would it have made up my mind at the end of the game to just tap the ball over the bar? It mightn’t have.”
Finding himself in a similar position to the one he found himself in Páirc Uí Chaoimh but this time with ball in hand and Tipperary trailing by one, the game again rested with Leahy.
“Don’t ask me why but I would have practised that shot a good few times in training that year. I could see things were breaking up and I lost my marker. I knew I was in plenty in space but I didn’t call too soon to Brian O’Meara because I didn’t want anyone to find me. But when Brian turned, I called and he spotted me and gave me a great pass.
“I remember saying to myself that I wanted to go the near side of the goal. In fairness to Brian Lohan, every bit of energy that was in him got him to put his hand across me. I don’t think he would have ever blocked me no matter what way I hit the ball but didn’t I catch him in the corner of my eye and at the last second I changed my mind to cut across to the left. I would say I hit the shot fairly well – there was nothing wrong with that – but Davy anticipated it and made a good save. He read me more than saved the shot.
Despite those disappointments, Leahy never allowed the black dog come near him. The Tipperary supporters saluted him when the team returned to the Burlington Hotel later that evening. It’s not as much living with those memories as embracing them – “I am reminded the whole time for it and I do have good banter with the Clare people about it. There’s not too many thanking me for winning the All-Ireland for them!” he chuckles.
“I was just enjoying playing hurling. You go through your career and you want to win but when you put some time behind your belt I look back on that as a period I valued. We probably don’t put enough of an emphasis on young people now to appreciate that sport can be very cruel at times. You lose more than you win. That All-Ireland final was our first since ’91. If somebody told me in ’91 that Tipp team wouldn’t play in another All-Ireland I’d say they were f***ing mad. It was going to happen. It took six years, which was a long time.
“I was at a presentation one night and I was asked about that match. I just said, ‘Wasn’t it great to be there to be able to miss it?’ Of course, you’d want to win an All-Ireland with that strike, it would have been an incredible feeling for me and the Tipperary supporters but when I look back on it I regard myself lucky to have played in that final and to be in that position.”
Weeks later and history repeated itself in Mullinahone’s first county final as Leahy sized up a late 21-yard free against Clonoulty-Rossmore. “Lo and behold I had a goal chance at the end again. There was two points in it and I had it in my head to tap it over the bar. But whatever got into me as I lifted the ball I said I would have a cut at it and it hit the inside of the post and ran across the goal-line and out the other side for a wide. If I was another half an inch inside the post it was in the net.”
Nobody was more bullishly competitive on that Tipperary team than Leahy but he senses there was something fateful about Clare that year. “You look at Jamesie (O’Connor) scoring the two winners and you get the feeling that sometimes no matter what you do it’s not going to be your day. The chances I got, had they come earlier in the game I don’t think they would have noticeable. It was déjà vu totally, two chances missed and Jamesie scoring two points. Sometimes the Gods are with you and sometimes they’re not.”
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