Babs: I’d say we’d beat the current team by 25 points

Tipperary’s Babs Keating and Kilkenny’s Pat Henderson met in Clonmel, Co Tipperary during the week. Diarmuid O’Flynn spoke to them.

Diarmuid O’Flynn: “When did ye first came across each other?”

BABS KEATING: “At minor, with the county. The school I played with, the High School here in Clonmel, wasn’t good enough to compete against Pat, in Thurles CBS. I cycled in to school, eight miles, and I don’t know if you were ever out that road, but it’s a lovely drive — not so nice though if you’re going home from school on a dark evening with wind and rain, tired and hungry, facing up to Knocklofty Hill and the belly falling out of you!”

PAT HENDERSON: “Jim Bolger (horse trainer) told me one time, he never found work hard after cycling 10 miles into New Ross to school every morning and home again in the evening. I went to Thurles CBS from Johnstown, 13 miles, cycled it a bit as well but that would only be in May and June, just before the summer holidays — usually we took the bus.”

BK: “It’s amazing the way things go, the difference one man can make. There was no hurling in the High School when I started there, it was all football. But a Christian brother came that was well known in Mount Sion and North Mon, Brother Collins was his name. A nice man, and he’s still one of my best friends — he was the one who started us hurling. In order to finance the hurleys he set up a card system, that if you sold a card, about a fiver’s worth, you got a free hurley — I ended up with six hurleys! He was dealing with a man in Randall’s.”

PH: “We used Randall’s hurls in Thurles as well — there was great ash in them.”

BK: “After just two years he had three of us on the Tipp minor team, fellas who had never played before — myself, Michael O’Connor at corner-forward, and Paddy O’Connell in midfield. And he also had two Waterford minors, lads who used to cycle in from Ballymacarbery, and Waterford had a fair minor team that time. We eventually played Harty, played De La Salle in Carrick, and I got the worst belt I ever got on a hurling field; I didn’t wake up until a few years later.”

PH: “We were beaten in the Harty final one year, and from the 1961 Tipp minor team you played on there was Liam Nolan, Conor Dwyer and Billy Ryan, all with Thurles CBS.”

DO’F: “You were good at the football as well Babs, won a Railway Cup at it, but which did you prefer?”

BK: “I found football easier. You had to be sure of yourself in hurling, you had to be fit, and playing a lot. You couldn’t be rusty in hurling and get away with it. You could in football.”

PH: You had the physique as well, you had that low centre of gravity.

BK: “I had the strength, and that was invaluable to me in hurling under the dropping ball. Footballers have a technique under a high ball that hurlers don’t have; footballers in those days, everyone had to use their hips or their shoulders, though that’s not so much the case today. Under the dropping ball, in hurling, I was able to adjust, use the hips and the arse — hurlers didn’t do that very much. John Doyle was probably as strong a man as played hurling, but he looked like a cripple when he was trying to hit someone with his arse, all legs and arms. Theo (English) was different, Theo was a footballer, and he’d hole you.”

DO’F: “I interviewed him recently, and he’s still cutting down trees, chopping them up for firewood!”

BK: “I’ll tell you how strong he was — I started driving an oil truck with Theo, with Esso. In those days, the trucks had a platform at the back for carrying barrels of oil, about chest high off the ground. In every depot they had what they called a skip, for rolling the barrel of oil onto the platform. Now a barrel of oil was 45 gallons, and at £10 pounds a gallon, plus another £50 for the barrel itself — that was £500. English would throw it straight up, effortless. There was a little rim around each end, he’d get his fingers in there, swing it up. I guarantee you, if anyone of those in Croke Park tomorrow were to try that they’d break their own bones! He had a hurley and you’d need a young fella to carry it, it was so heavy, and he had two big steel bands around it! That’s why he was able to cut a ball — the big heavy ball that time — over the bar from 80 yards.”

PH: “But you’d need a hurl that weight for the ball we had that time — the ball now is so light, it’s after changing the game.”

BK: “It’s after ruining the game.”

PH: “It IS after ruining it.”

BK: “I was looking at the intermediate All-Ireland final last week — the Kilkenny keeper was hitting the ball the length of the field.”

PH: “Hit a ball 110 yards then and it was a huge puck, but they’re flicking it 100 yards today.”

DO’F: “When did ye first break on to the senior team then?”

BK: “In 1964; three of us came on the team together, Mick Roche, John O’Donoghue and myself. My first match was in the league, in Nenagh against Dublin. Do you know who I was marking? Liam Lawlor, the politician killed in a car crash in Moscow.”

PH: “My first game was in the league as well, below in Wexford — I was on Jim English, he had moved to the forwards at that stage. My next match was against the Rest of Ireland, that was an annual game that time, the All-Ireland champions against the rest, I was on Jimmy Smyth, from Clare. He was getting older that time but I believe he was very good in his day.”

DO’F: “How good was Jimmy Smyth? Some say he was up there with Ring and Mackey, just didn’t get the same exposure?”

BK: “It’s funny, but Michael O’Hehir made legends of all those fellas. You’d hear people when you were growing up, talking about those fellas, but I saw a lot of them playing and I hardly ever saw them playing a great game. I saw Clare in 1955, as fine a team as I ever saw. Cork had just won three-in-a-row and they beat Cork in Thurles — Tipp were licking their lips at the prospect of meeting Clare then in the semi-final, but Clare won. I don’t know what happened to them in the final, against Limerick, but they lost that, to a bad Limerick team. Jimmy Smyth didn’t stand out for me, in the games I saw — it was a fella called Kelly, I think, got all Clare’s scores.”

PH: “The Railway Cup was where a lot of those lads made their reputations, it was a lot bigger at the time.”

DO’F: “A hot topic at the moment, given the exploits of this Kilkenny team, is what was the greatest team of all time? What do ye think? Babs, the Tipperary team of the early 60s, three titles in four years?”

BK: “There was a lot of unrest in Tipperary over the one they lost, in 1963; Roche (Mick, midfield/centre-back) and myself were starring for the intermediate team, but they wanted to win everything in Tipp that year so they wouldn’t bring us onto the senior side and left us with the intermediates. It backfired, because the forwards left us down against Waterford in the senior championship. That was an All-Ireland that might have been won.”

PH: “We had a strong team in 1963 (Kilkenny beat Waterford in the All-Ireland final), a few young lads came through and were very good.”

BK: “But then you look at what happened to that Kilkenny team in ‘64, we won that final well!”

PH: “It wasn’t the same team but it was. I know what you’re saying (Pat debuted with Kilkenny that year).

DO’F: “But how good was that Tipperary team?”

BK: “I’d say we’d beat the current team by 25 points, and I’ll tell you why I say that; look at this team for Sunday, the two midfielders and the six forwards — all eight of them have been taken off at some stage in this year’s championship. Now Pat, can you imagine Roche, English, Doyle, Devanney, Nealon, myself, McLoughlin, McKenna, being taken off in the course of any championship, all eight of us?”

PH: “No.”

BK: “That’s my point. If we had, had the training and the organisation that’s there now, we’d have won a lot more. I would say that if the management structure was only half right, with the quality of players I saw around Tipperary we’d have won more. Guys like Conor Dwyer from Thurles, that you hurled with in the Harty — he never got a chance to play senior hurling with Tipp. I’m thinking of Tom Ryan of Killenaule, a great player. I’m thinking of Francis Loughnane — we won U21 in ‘64, and yet the first time he saw serious action with Tipperary, really, was the last 10 minutes of the All-Ireland final of ‘68. In those days Paddy Leahy was the boss, but he got into bad health in ‘65 — it was the club and the parochial scene that took over then, and it wasn’t good.”

DO’F: “What about ye Pat, how good was the Kilkenny team of the early 70s?”

PH: “Well it’s similar to what Babs was saying about the 60s Tipp team, we had the personnel. You had the forwards, Keher, Purcell, Delaney, you had Tom Walsh early on, until he got the eye injury, you had Crotty, Brennan, a few others — you had at least eight strong forwards contesting six positions, always a good sign. You had Skehan in goal, top class, you had a reasonably strong backline as well.”

DO’F: “Better than reasonably! But, better than the current team?”

PH: “I’d say that if we had the setup in the 70s that they have now, it would be hard to beat that team — we might even have won more. But I find it fierce hard to make comparisons. To try to do it the way Babs does, to pick out this set of forwards and compare them with the forwards then, I don’t know if you can. I think you have to take it in its total, and I look at the structure now in Kilkenny, what they’ve achieved, and I think you’d have to say, they are better.”

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