Sixty years ago, Tipperary had a youngster on the bench for one of the great Munster hurling finals.
Cork and Tipperary fought out a classic of the genre in the Gaelic Grounds, and though 19-year-old Liam Devaney already had two All-Ireland minor medals in his back pocket, he didn’t add to his haul that year.
“I was on the senior selection in 1954, a sub for that year’s Munster final against Cork, which they won. I stayed on the selection until 1968. A good innings.”
Devaney knew great days in blue and gold, though the beginnings weren’t auspicious when he made it onto the field of play with the seniors, mind: “The greatest beating I got was in 1955 against Cork — a man who was unknown then, Paddy Philpott. He went to America after.”
The Borrisoleigh man’s talent couldn’t be stifled, though. A classy forward, he would go on to collect five All-Ireland senior medals in a dazzling career with the greatest Tipperary team of all time. Add in nine National Hurling League medals and three Railway Cup medals — back when a Railway Cup medal really counted — and you get a sense of the quality. In a squad of immortals, Devaney was always on the first fifteen.
He collected the Caltex Award, the forerunner of the Hurler of the Year gong, for his displays in 1961, saving his best game for the big show in September.
“The best day I had was the All-Ireland final that year, against Dublin. I started at wing-forward and ended up at centre-back. Tony Wall was only back from the Congo and was taken off the same day. We beat Dublin by a point — hurling might have come on in Dublin if they’d won that game — and they had great players, the Boothmans and the Foleys and so on.”
Switching from wing-forward was nothing new to Devaney, who saw action in plenty of zones of the field. He says he played in 14 different positions in blue and gold.
“Could you name the one place I didn’t play?”
He didn’t need to mind the square, of course. In his time with Tipp they had a once-in-a-generation player wearing the number three jersey.
“Michael Maher was there the whole time. He wasn’t too bad, of course he had (Kieran) Carey and (John) Doyle alongside him. You played against them in training, it kept you sharp.”
In his time, Devaney relied on skill, not size. He was a long way off six feet tall and certainly didn’t bulk up in the gym (“I didn’t train that hard, to be honest; I didn’t put on weight, that was the main thing”) and there are aspects of the game he misses.
“Ground hurling is gone. So is overhead hurling. I’d prefer to see a bit more of that because you’d move the ball quicker.
“There’s more protection now for players, certainly. You were left on your own when we were playing.”
He admires the current Kilkenny side but can recall plenty of past talent in black and amber jerseys.
“Nowadays... Shefflin is a good player nowadays, but I hear people saying this is the greatest Kilkenny team of all time. In our time Kilkenny had Seamie Cleere, Eddie Keher, Frank Cummins, all great players too.
“In my time I’d have marked Pat Henderson, a hardy boy. Seamie Cleere, Martin Coogan. Very good players.”
That was a time when the rivalry was strong between Kilkenny and Tipperary, if by rivalry you mean a bitterness tipping into enmity. Is that still strong along the border between the counties? “I’d say it’s as strong now as it ever was. In the 60s they only beat us in one league match, but Fr Tommy Maher came in and changed their way of hurling to our way of hurling, and that’s the way they’re hurling now. He was the man who changed everything for them. Tipperary have a different style of hurling now to our day. I think if they could find two or three big men, they wouldn’t be too far away. In fairness to Kilkenny, they seem to find them.”
Well, talking of two or three good men, who would Liam Devaney have in his top three hurlers? He takes his time with the answer.
“I knew Ring well, we were good friends. We’d meet on the road. I was a salesman and he was driving the oil lorry, we’d meet up at the ploughing matches and that. He was a grand fella.
“He’d be in my top three. Jimmy Doyle as well, he was very good.
“Who else? That’d be hard enough. Billy Rackard was a good one, but there are a lot of names you could put in there.”
One of those names comes up when we discuss the recent penalty-taking controversy.
“I don’t know about that, there was a lot of fuss about it,” says Devaney.
“We had a man from our own place who used to take penalties and they’d take the paint off the goalpost. There’s nothing new about that, fellas hitting the ball that hard.”
That man was Paddy Kenny, of course. A name to conjure with in hurling, in Borrisoleigh, in Tipperary.
Just like Liam Devaney.
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