The trip to Tipp: How Thurles thrillers reignited a rivalry
Semple clashes of 2001 brought novelty, hype and a fleeting unity
Generations had been weaned on the great rivalry between the counties in Croke Park but Dublin had failed to win a Leinster title for six years, had just beaten Sligo . . . now we were gate-crashing the champions’ party.
The game was fixed for the ‘home of hurling’ in Semple Stadium which made it all the more exotic though initial widespread reservations about getting the short straw quickly gave way to a wave of hype. We were about to embark on an epic Dubs odyssey for the first time since the 1983 semi-final replay in Cork.
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With Páidí Ó Sé at the Kerry helm we had coach-loads of journeys down memory lane in the build-up to the match and no shortage of the traditional ‘sweet talk’ coming out of the Kingdom.
While Dublin’s shortcomings on the field were pretty well documented at the time, the preparations under Tom Carr are recounted as being professional and structured; this was no routine league trip.
The panel travelled to Horse and Jockey the night before the game and even went to mass together the morning of the match.
It was while billeted in the Tipp village that Irish actor from Star Trek and massive Dubs supporter Colm Meaney called to the camp to offer his best wishes. While chatting to a few of the players outside the recently-returned Vinnie Murphy appeared at a window of the hotel and roared down "Hey, beam me up Scotty!"
Match day on August 4, 2001 was equally bizarre; legendary traffic jams all the way back to Kildare with rumours of bewildered fans still stuck at the Poitín Stil as the ball was being thrown-in in Semple.
Recounting the first day in Thurles, Dublin captain Dessie Farrell described the occasion as a "chaotic passion play". The words of Labi Siffre’s anthem "the higher you build your barriers..." blared on the team bus sound system as they inched through the crowded streets en route to the stadium.
But as Farrell continued “there is nothing like reality to rip the f**king heart out of romance” referring to his glaring miss of an open goal along with a similar spurned chance from Collie Moran as Kerry went on to lead by eight points.
Whatever about their weaknesses, Dublin didn't lack spirit and Murphy’s introduction turned the game when he found the net in the 62nd minute.
Having been outplayed Dublin swamped Kerry in a cauldron of noise and when Darren Homan fisted the ball to the net to put them a point up it looked like the champions had been dethroned.
Ó Sé admitted later that he was sure they were gone only for Maurice Fitzgerald’s masterstroke from the sideline, a kick that has gone into the annals of GAA history.
The legend is enhanced by the story that Fitzgerald rejected the first ball as it didn't contain the required pressure. Dubs manager Carr applied plenty of it as Fitzgerald lined up the kick but he curled his effort with the outside of his right boot over the black spot in Davy Byrne's goal to set up a replay.
One last chance did present itself in the dying seconds but Wayne McCarthy, who had replaced regular free-taker Declan Darcy earlier, missed a long-range free and the shock evaporated.
The second day was only a shadow play. Dublin prepared well but no-one could jettison the notion of a missed opportunity. Dara Ó Cinnéide and Johnny Crowley caused countless problems and only the dismissal of a young Tomás Ó Sé early in the second half for a rash challenge on Moran gave Dublin a glimmer of hope but the scoreline was flattering in the end.
Carr was banished to the stand for remonstrating with referee Mick Curley the first day and after their victory in the replay Páidí also let loose following the dismissal of his nephew.
For all the drama and melodrama of the Thurles saga it was only a suspension of Kerry’s fate as they suffered a heavy defeat to Meath in the subsequent semi-final.
Regret in Dublin was masked somewhat fleetingly by the sense of a united camp, a united county.
Farrell spoke passionately about the importance of the special bond forged among the players. The then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern visited the dressing room after the match accompanied by the late John Bailey who was outspoken in his support for the manager, only to carry out an unremarkable volte-face later that year.
The feeling of mutual loyalty shared by the panel, management and indeed the county wasn't long dissipating. On October 1 Tom Carr was removed and subsequently replaced by Tommy Lyons.
The decade was young but Thurles marked the end of an era.
Connections with the successful period of the early 1990s were diminishing; only Farrell, Paul Curran and Jim Gavin remained and a new broom would change the look of the Dublin set-up.
The baton was about to be passed to a cohort of young players such as Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill, Tomás Quinn and Paul Casey.
Optimism would be renewed after Thurles but few believed that our ultimate redemption was still a decade away.