Fifty years ago Tipperary and Kilkenny clashed in the All-Ireland final with the Cats warmly fancied to retain their title.
Half a century later it remains one of hurling’s most curious footnotes. Tipperary didn’t start as white-hot favourites for the 1964 All-Ireland final. They didn’t even start as red-hot favourites. In fact they didn’t start as favourites at all.
Kilkenny were the defending champions and, with a young and presumably improving team, were generally fancied to get the better of a supposedly ageing Tipp. After all, John Doyle had been around the place since 1949, and Kieran Carey and Mick Maher, his buddies in Hell’s Kitchen, were no spring chickens either. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact it didn’t turn out that way at all.
The final score 50 years ago this weekend? Tipperary 5-13 Kilkenny 2-8. The greatest ever day for Tipp’s greatest ever team, who 12 months later would swat Wexford aside to make it four All-Irelands in five. They left only question behind them. Had they not lost the 1963 Munster final to Waterford by three points after hitting 12 wides in the first half, would they have been hurling’s — and the GAA’s — first and only All-Ireland five-in-a-row side? What we can be sure of at this remove is that the tag of underdogs on September 6, 1964 was a grievously misplaced one.
Tipperary had been champions in 1961 and ’62. They’d won the 1964 National League Home final by blowing Wexford away, 5-12 to 4-4. Clare were given similar short shrift in the Munster semi-final (6-13 to 2-5) and Cork likewise in the provincial decider (3-13 to 1-5).
And then there was the identity of their opponents at Croke Park. Kilkenny. Kilkenny, who hadn’t beaten Tipperary in the championship since the 1922 All-Ireland final, losing to them in 1937, ’45, ’50 and the 1958 semi-final. Now there may be no gainsaying Fr Tom Murphy, then a clerical student who’d hit two goals against Waterford in 1963, when he insists that the intimidating reputation of the Tipp full-back line was irrelevant.
“We were youngsters. We had no fear of those lads.” But to older folk on Noreside the sight of the blue and gold jersey was an issue, no question about it. Ponder this lamentation published in the Kilkenny People in 1962.
“Every time the counties meet the ‘Tipperary hoodoo’ raises its ugly head and while we have been able to lower the colours of the Premier County in challenge contests we have not succeeded in beating them in a league or championship match for more years than any Kilkenny supporter will want to remember...
“If we could match Tipperary in determination, perhaps, we could go a long way of the road towards breaking the ‘hoodoo’. We can match any county in hurling skill but while Tipperary never lack for earnestness, Kilkenny on the other hand occasionally show a tendency to lack that grim determination that is so characteristic of the Premier County and which has so often helped them to victory in face of the odds.”
Grim determination didn’t make the difference in 1964. Kilkenny were simply blown away.
Their supporters may have suspected the worst from early on. Seamus Cleere, the Hurler of the Year at wing-back the previous season, was chosen at right-half forward on the basis of his ability to pick off a long-range point. Here he scored the opening point of the afternoon and, reckoning he had the measure of his marker Mick Murphy, decided to solo in with the next ball. Not a good idea; the run was terminated with extreme prejudice by burly Mick Maher, the Tipp full-back. “I was seeing stars,” Cleere recalls. “Maher wasn’t a dirty player but it was like running into a fireplace.”
Tipp led by 1-8 to 0-6 at the interval. A Kilkenny goal by John Teehan cut the gap to two points early in the second half, which was where the game ended as a contest.
Suddenly Tipperary went through the gears and their opponents were left for dead: double-scores dead. One observer found it impossible to choose a man of the match, so beautifully balanced were the winners, but among the stars were Donie Nealon with three goals, Jimmy Doyle with 10 points, young Babs Keating and Sean McLoughlin, who loaded the bullets for the others to fire.
As for Tom Murphy, who was so frightened of being refused permission to leave the seminary to travel to Dublin for the match that he didn’t ask anyone, he hardly got a sniff and was substituted.
He remembers his conquerors with admiration if not fondness. “Jimmy Doyle, Donie Nealon, Liam Devaney — real class hurlers. The other forwards were the playmakers. Tipperary were so much better than us that day.”
They reached their pinnacle in 1964, Nealon agrees. “A better team than in 1961-62. Mick Roche, Larry Kiely and Babs had come in. We got lucky with the replacements.”
Not forgetting Paddy Leahy, for years an influential and successful chairman of selectors. “Paddy never took a coaching session but he was a great judge of a hurler. He’d seen a lot of hurlers over the years and Boherlahan, where he came from, was at the heart of it at the time. He had a lovely grandfatherly way about him, a lovely way of getting the best out of you. I don’t think I ever heard him admonishing anyone. It was always a quiet word.”
The author and journalist Raymond Smith found an arresting parallel. At the time the most famous and popular person in Ireland was ... a horse. The mighty Arkle, trained by Tom Dreaper and ridden by Pat Taaffe, had floored the defending champion Mill House, the pride of England, in the 1964 Cheltenham Gold Cup en route to what would be a hat-trick of triumphs.
Smith, a Thurles native who knew his racing as well as he did his hurling, mused that Kilkenny might have won two in a row, might even have been a three-in-a-row team, but for the existence of a more gifted animal. “Like Mill House, their hearts were broken by Tipperary’s Arkle of 1964-65.”
The full story of the Tipperary team of the 1960s has yet to be written. Someone should do it before it’s too late.
TIPPERARY: J. O’Donoghue, John Doyle, M Maher, K Carey, M Burns, A. Wall, M Murphy (c), T English. M Roche, Jimmy Doyle, L Kiely, M Keating, D Nealon. J McKenna, S McLoughlin.
Subs: M. Lonergan for Maher; L Devaney for Kiely.
KILKENNY: O. Walsh, C Whelan, P Dillon, P Larkin, P Henderson, T Carroll, M Coogan, P Moran, S Buckley (c), S Cleere, J Teehan, E Keher, T Walsh, T Forrestal, T Murphy.
Subs: W Murphy (Carrickshock) for Coogan; D Heaslip for T. Murphy.
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