Looked at in isolation, Galway’s feat in winning back-to-back All-Ireland titles in 1987-88 represented a major leap forward for a county more used to feeding off scraps from hurling’s elite.
But, look closer and you will see that three final defeats followed the breakthrough year of 1980, and there was yet another at the start of the next decade.
All the more reason, then, to celebrate the accomplishment of these two teams and honour them, as the GAA — and their own supporters — did on the field in Croke Park yesterday.
Current manager Anthony Cunningham was a medal-winner both years but clearly had other things on his mind. But, in a role reversal, the winning captain in both finals — Conor Hayes — was able to savour the occasion. He missed out when the 1980 jubilee team was honoured five years ago — being manager of the team lost to Cork that day.
Cunningham has an interesting pedigree, captaining Galway to their first ever All-Ireland minor title in 1983 (against a Dublin team including Niall Quinn), after playing in the previous two finals. And, he was also the captain when the U21 title was annexed three years later by which time he was firmly established on the senior team.
He shares the general view that Galway underachieved in senior competition at the time, losing to Offaly in 1985, for the second time in four years, and Cork in 1986. That came after they recorded their first win over Kilkenny in 33 years, when Cyril Farrell ingeniously played three at midfield.
The strategy was repeated in the final and backfired.
“No disrespect to any of the teams, but they were all close calls. In ‘85 we played well and let it slip at the finish [Galway hit 19 wides],” Cunningham recalled. “In ’86, against Cork, we were well fancied but we had our eyes off the ball in the first 20 minutes, when Cork got two early goals. We won in ’87 and ’88 and then in ’89 there was the Keady affair when we were going for three in a row.
“That was unfortunate, really, but more off the field than on the field. I think if we had concentrated we would have won, but again it was a close enough call against Tipp [in the semi-final, after Tony Keady was controversially suspended].
“We were up six points at half-time in the 1990 final, cruising really, and then let in four goals. That was the killer and probably led to the break-up of the team.
“People said we were under pressure to win in ’87 against Kilkenny, but the pressure really was that we were facing three losses in a row. That was going to be incredible if it happened, but I must say we were still very composed and we had picked up from the losses of the previous years, definitely.
“Nothing was going to beat us that day, we were so determined. The pain of the two previous defeats was etched in our minds.
“We went on to beat Offaly and then Tipperary in the final the following year. But when you look back, you always think of the defeats and how we could have done better. With luck, we probably could have won three or four All-Irelands and I don’t think anyone could have begrudged us.”
PJ Molloy hurled through the bad times, but agrees an All-Ireland medal in 1980 and a second in 1987 (he retired after Athenry lost the ’88 club final to Midleton) “isn’t a lot to show” for playing in seven senior finals, starting in 1975.
“We did underachieve... but nobody was to blame only ourselves,” he commented.
“You’d hear a lot of Galway people lamenting about 1981, but I thought 1985 [against Offaly] was worse. I always felt Offaly were the better team in ’81.”
He attributes the county’s rise to prominence in the late 80s to the quality of players coming through from the successful minor and U21 teams of 1983 and 1986.
“We had Joe Cooney, Gerry McInerney, Peter Finnerty, Pat Malone and Eanna Ryan from the minor team and the 1986 U21 team. By ’87 there were eight or nine of them on the team [when Galway knocked out Tipp in the semi-final and then Kilkenny].
“We had a lot of young fellows, but they had two All-Irelands put behind them!”
Conor Hayes was the first player to captain his county to two consecutive All-Ireland hurling wins since Christy Ring in 1953-54. Interestingly he played for Glen Rovers for one year while working in Cork.
Acknowledging the impact of Galway’s underage success at the time, he feels progress at senior level was inhibited by the lack of match practice.
“We’d always play fairly well in the semi-final but just couldn’t keep it going for the final,” he explained.
“When it came to 1987 we had our minds made up. We had to win it, no matter what came in our way. We were not going to give ourselves any excuses. It took a huge effort but we were establishing ourselves. We were beginning to come right as a team; we were maturing.
“I felt myself that if we were to lose that final, I was going to forget about this because we’re not going to win anything.”
In terms of their achievement in winning the title, he agreed that beating Kilkenny in the ’86 semi-final had been a great morale-booster.
“There used to be this thing that Galway couldn’t beat Kilkenny, but we put that to bed. We were beaten by a good Offaly team in 1985 but we learned from that and from the following year. We could beat most teams in the league relatively easily. We felt we could beat any team on our day.
“We came out in ’88 and won again. Once we had got over that barrier it opened up again for us. We became more feared. There was always a thing about Galway that if you got ahead of them, their confidence would drain.
“That was gone from us. Teams were finding it harder to beat us.”
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