Friday Interview: Frank Burke - 'He was ahead of his time, a sports psychologist'
Hero of '75 league-winning side recalls how 'Inky' Flaherty led Galway back to the top table
Anyone growing up in the late 1970s or '80s will always regard Galway as being one of the top teams, usually there or thereabouts at the latter end of the hurling championship.
But that's a recent phenomenon, and the 40th anniversary of their turnabout in fortunes is almost upon us. Their victory over Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1975 is regarded as the day Galway hurling grew up and joined the big boys.
Back-boned by graduates from the 1972 All-Ireland U-21 winning side, strong Fitzgibbon Cup hurlers and a number of experienced faces, MJ 'Inky' Flaherty's side beat the big three - Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary - on the way to that year's league title. And they backed up that league success with a win in the All-Ireland semi-final over the Rebels which saw Galway into their first final since 1958. Times were changing.
Centre-forward on that team was Turloughmore's Frank Burke and he attributed their turnabout in fortunes to Flaherty's quirky ability to instil self-belief and get the best out of players.
Flaherty was regarded as one of the finest hurlers of his generation, but he played in a dark era for Galway hurling. He played 18 championship seasons for the Tribesmen from 1936, never won a championship match in his career, and played his last game as a sub in the 1953 All-Ireland final defeat to Cork, having missed Galway's first win of his time three weeks earlier against Kilkenny.
Tasting so many hard days with Galway moulded Flaherty's outlook on the game, and Burke says he passed on that positive attitude to that young Galway squad.
"Inky wasn't young when he took over but he was terribly fit and I suppose that meant we had more respect for him because he was able to stay running around the field with us for the full length of the training session," Burke says.
"His training methods are probably outdated nowadays, but he was very good on self-confidence and self-belief. I remember one year we were down in the Silver Springs hotel in Cork. We were staying overnight for the first Wexford game in 1976, I think, and he took out a book on philosophy.
"He had this old hard-covered book and he started reading it. After a few minutes we were looking around the room at one another wondering 'Are you taking this in or do you know what he's on about?'.
"But thinking back he was shrewd. He was on about the development and the happiness of the person. He told us that to achieve anything in any area, everything in your life has to be balanced. 'You cannot have upset in your financial world, you cannot have upset in your personal relationships, or your physical or mental well-being,' he said.
"Looking back on it, he was ahead of his time: he was a sports psychologist, but we didn't realise it back then.
"But overall it got us to where he wanted us to go. He wasn't manager in 1980 - he was a selector then - but he did put in the foundation for that win really. He trained us pretty well and certainly had a huge impact on us winning that first All-Ireland."
Five years prior to that memorable win over Cork in 1975, the Tribesmen returned from a 12-season spell in the Munster championship. Only one win was picked up in that time - in 1961 against Clare - and then followed five fallow seasons before glory returned.
In 1971 they scored 13 goals in two games, but still missed out on an All-Ireland final; in '72 they suffered a 27-point trimming from Kilkenny; and the following year they lost to London in the quarter-final. It was after that débâcle that Flaherty took charge.
"They brought in seven of us after the U-21 final in '72. We didn't have a great set-up that year and we were beaten by London, which wasn't a great start," recalls Burke. "In '74 we were down in Division 2 after the bad 11 years in Munster, when they brought in a new management, and with Inky things changed.
"We had been kept together for 12 or 18 months, we kept the same positions. Iggy Clarke was always No 7, Joe McDonagh was five, and Sean Silke was six. I was centre-forward and PJ Molloy was to my left and Gerry Coone to my right. We all knew one other very well.
"The management had a patient policy. I remember when I was called in to the seniors, I was told that I'd be given four full games to settle in. I was told I wouldn't be taken off if I was playing bad. It was an unusual policy, but it put the responsibility on you to perform.
"We were promoted into Division 1 the first year and then we beat Cork in Limerick in the league quarter-final. Kilkenny were only back from their All Star trip to America and we beat them in Thurles, and followed it up with the league final against Tipperary.
"For a Galway team to beat any of the big three that time was a big deal, but to beat all three was a major confidence booster for us."
Those three league victories over Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary were all won by three points, and that gave Galway further confidence that they could win tight games against the aristocrats.
That final win over Tipp secured Galway's third league crown and their first since 1951, but the battle then was to back it up when it mattered in the championship. That's what made the win over Cork so important in the development of Galway hurling.
"We were on such a psychological roll after beating the big three it gave us a great sense of confidence. Being able to beat a team like Cork in the semi-final was huge," says Burke.
"We froze up a good bit in the final, but with all the hype and all the photographs, it was no wonder."
Sunday sees this generation's Rebels and Tribesmen meet in the All-Ireland quarter-final, and Galway have dominated the head-to-head in the last four decades.
Of the 12 championship meetings since '75 Galway have won seven - including the four most recent clashes.
Like the side he grew up in, Burke sees improvement in Anthony Cunningham's side and fancies them to get another match this summer to better themselves again.
"I think this Galway team is getting better. There is a good buzz about them, they have some real dangerous forwards, but to get Conor Cooney back would be a great shot in the arm," he says.
"They have a bit to go, but they have a great chance against Cork. Cork seem to rely on points a lot, they haven't hit many goals like Kilkenny or Tipperary. I think Galway have a very good chance.
"Four us the '75 game was one of the games we got most satisfaction from. Cork won three-in-a-row after that, but we always had a bit of an edge over them. We beat them after that in the '79 semi-final to stop their four-in-a-row. We've always did better against them than against Kilkenny."