The Great Escape - Celebrating the supreme heroes of '94 that delivered one of the great GAA comebacks
The years fly and the latest reminder of just how quickly comes in the form of the fast approaching 25th anniversary of Offaly’s All-Ireland hurling win of 1994. The match of the late twist that surpassed the late twist which earned the same county a first senior hurling title when Johnny Flaherty tossed the sliotar to the Galway net in the dying moments in 1981. And all those supreme athletes of the 1990s, that graced the hurling fields, the ‘not men but giants’ of the Guinness ads in vogue at the time, have moved into the relative anonymity and slower pace of middle age.
They will resurface at a special event being planned in Tullamore on May 10 to mark the occasion of their 1994 MacCarthy Cup triumph and will be honoured again at this year’s All-Ireland final as special guests in August. For most of this match it looked as if Limerick were about to end their wait for a first title since 1973. But having been that close, on the brink, the opportunity was lost, snatched from them cruelly in a surreal ending, and it would take another 24 years to be liberated. In memory of a famous final, here are five aspects that made it a day apart.
Eamon Cregan. How twisted the sporting Gods to decree that when Limerick suffered their most agonising All-Ireland final defeat of all time the man in charge of the opposition should be Limerick born and bred and a star of their last win in 1973, one of their most authentic legends. He later spent different spells managing his native county, and returned again after managing Offaly, but to no avail. After this experience he was a tortured figure, torn between the satisfaction of winning an All-Ireland as manager, and the knowledge that Limerick had been at the receiving end. He never considered that possibility when he took the job.
“On Sunday morning when I brought my daughter Ciara up to Limerick Railway Station and saw all the green and white flags the whole thing struck me like a stone wall,” he recalled. “There was I going up with the team that was opposing Limerick. It was very difficult going into the Limerick dressing room afterwards.”
Damien Quigley. His greatest day and his worst day rolled into one. Quigley wasn’t a forward who carried an especially menacing reputation into the final but he added to the lore of surprise scoring sensations on the final day. The Na Piarsaigh player struck 2-3 from play and deserved to be on the winning team. Most of the Limerick attack misfired but he almost single-handedly led them home.
"When Limerick win, please God we will, I will get an enormous kick out of that,” he said 17 years later in 2011 on the prospect of an All-Ireland breakthrough. “Limerick people have been dragged through the wringer, we are used to not getting there, so when we do it will be all the sweeter."
Offaly’s Lazarus Act. Eamonn Cregan was it was “unprintable” what he told the Offaly players at half time when six points down and failing to ignite. They had been sensational in winning the Leinster final, demolishing Kilkenny who were All-Ireland champions of the previous two years. But Limerick dominated for most of the match, and should have been out of sight.
A 65th minute Johnny Dooley goal from a 20m free, quickly followed by a second from Pat O’Connor, joined the other famous scores that helped Offaly win late including Flaherty in 1981 and Seamus Darby’s winning belter that shook the net against Kerry in the 1982 All-Ireland football final.
“I don’t think he codded us,” said Limerick goalie Joe Quaid of Dooley’s free which sparked the avalanche of scores. “I knew he was going for goal.” Offaly team selector Andy Gallagher said they were “betwixt and between. We said leave it to him (Dooley), he is long enough around to know what to do.”
The Dooleys. The three brothers, Johnny, Billy and Joe from Clareen, hit 2-11 between them and were instrumental in the final flourish. Johnny’s goal from a free, when Offaly trailed by five points, went against sideline instructions (which were to take the point), and set the ball rolling. From the puck out Offaly returned the ball back towards the Limerick goal and Pat O’Connor pulled to the net. From five down, they were one up in a few eye blinks. Five points flowed after that, leaving Limerick stunned. Billy Dooley scored five points from play on the day, and three came in a 65-second blur after the two goals, with Limerick reeling. It was the first time Dooley didn’t score a goal in the championship. Joe scored a goal after only two minutes when a penalty from Johnny was stopped by Joe Quaid before Joe finished the rebound.
“I wouldn’t like to be in the Limerick dressing room now,” said Billy Dooley when the dust had barely settled. “The win hasn’t sunk in yet but it’s a marvellous feeling.” His brother Johnny, said: “I still can’t believe we’ve won.”
Great players never to… Joining the ranks of the many who went through their careers without winning an All-Ireland were the likes of Gary Kirby, captain on the day, and Ciaran Carey whose nephew Cian Lynch was on the Limerick team that made the breakthrough last year and is current Hurler of the Year. Limerick had a generous complement of first-rate hurlers who suffered another crushing blow two years later when they lost the 1996 All-Ireland final to Wexford having played over half the match with an extra man.
“Nobody was to blame,” said Carey of Limerick’s dramatic ’94 collapse. “With five minutes to go I thought we had it. It was an unbelievable change in 30 seconds to go from being five points up to a point down. It finished us.”