Tom spread helmet gospel
With hurling helmets now obligatory, Leo McGough talks to one of the trendsetters from Wexford
COME BACK with me in time to the Summer of '69. No, Woodstock is not our destination nor flower power the topic, but the times they were a changin' in the hurling world too.
A college student from Cork wore a protective helmet as the Rebels and arch-rivals Tipperary clashed ash in the Munster Senior hurling championship final.
Whispers of 'sissy' and accusations of the game in danger of 'going soft' were heard among the traditionalists in the huge Limerick Gaelic Grounds crowd whose ire was further irked when Rebel No. 5 Donal Clifford was joined on the field by a tall substitute also wearing this new-fangled headgear.
Cork won that day, allowing the two U.C.C. students to parade the new helmets in front of a packed Croke Park on All-Ireland final day. More importantly, perhaps, a television viewing nation got their first real glimpse of the new 'crown topper'.
Parents who feared for their children's safety, haunted by the possibility of their 'little Johnny' getting a belt on the head while hurling, suddenly saw a solution.
Players who had suffered head wounds and fractured bone from clatters in the cranial area could see the benefit of these new helmets
But the whispers of sissyism remained. 'This new lark was alright for fancy-dan college boys, but not for the warrior hurler,' maintained the old brigade reared on a diet of shuddering hip-to-hip collisions and tough, hard pulling.
Then, in the Winter of '69, one of those warrior hurlers, as tough a man as ever graced a hurling field, began wearing a helmet. In doing so the hardas-nails defender fast-tracked the process of making the new protective headgear fashionable.
That warrior hurler was Wexford's Tom Neville who, as anyone who saw him play will tell you, was no sissy. By the time the Fethard-on-Sea native took to wearing the helmet he had a decade of inter-county hurling behind him, having won coveted All-Ireland medals as a no-nonsense corner-back in 1960 and 1968.
'What made you try the helmet in the first place,' we asked Tom when catching up with the former Wexford star who has been resident in Carlow for many years.
'I got a bad belt in a club game in 1967, flicked a ball away from a player but was caught with the follow through, had my jaw badly broken,' explained Tom.
'I missed the Leinster final that year and was thinking of giving up the game altogether, but I stuck at it and as soon as I saw Donal Clifford wearing a helmet decided to get one myself. Bro. Farrell from Carlow C.B.S., a Corkman, through a contact in the Cork County Board got the helmet and once I started wearing it I never left it off,' reveals Neville who hurled 27 championship games with Wexford between 1960 and 1970, that '67 Leinster final the only big match he missed.
Tom can't remember the first match in which he wore the helmet, though it is likely to have been a NHL game against Laois in Gorey in October, 1969.
By the following Summer he was well used to the black Cooper helmet and wore it throughout the 1970 championship, during which Wexford were involved in three 80-minute games, the Leinster final and All-Ireland semi-final victories over Kilkenny and Galway and the All-Ireland final defeat by Cork.
Tom was so comfortable in his helmet that he even wore it when posing for the team photograph ahead of the Leinster final in Croke Park, probably the first such occurrence in the history of the game.
That trusty helmet, which was retired to the Neville shed in Oak Park, weighs eleven ounces, a tidy three-piece Cooper model that remained popular with many players even after newer models came on the scene. Made of durable plastic, cushioned inside with a sponge material, those 1969 helmets retailed at around 30 bob, the first wave of what has now become part and parcel of every hurling match.