Saturday 20 January 2018

The hardest of the hard, the bravest of the brave - Hurling's toughest ever XV

These weren't necessarily the best hurlers in history, but they were the least likely to shirk a battle

Eddie Keher, Padraic Maher and Frank Cummins make the team
Eddie Keher, Padraic Maher and Frank Cummins make the team

Dermot Crowe

This wasn't an easy team to pick, but imagine having to play them. A long-time hurling follower consulted during the selection process asked if subs were being considered. Told they were not, he ventured: "Well, the team you've picked may not need subs, but the team playing them might."

The chosen few are not necessarily the best hurlers to have ever played the game, though many would belong in any company; what is not in dispute is that none were to be found wanting when ash was flying and a match needed to be taken by the scruff of the neck.

There are some inclusions from the modern day and plenty of omissions which were close to making the cut. The majority have retired and some are no longer with us. That bias towards bygone days wasn't influenced unduly by sentimentality or nostalgia; more a recognition that those players hurled at a time when you had to be tough to survive, let alone thrive. And while hurling has changed, becoming less and less like the old model - off the cuff and hip to hip - there is still room for players who would not have looked out of place 50 years ago. Modern players might be moulded differently but it would be naive to think they are any less brave.

Like the men involved, the terms of reference needed to be clear and unequivocal. Viable candidates required a concoction of toughness and bravery and fearlessness; it wasn't meant to be a team of wilful law-breakers and dirty stroke merchants. Though they weren't all saints and, in some cases, the lines between those two broad natures may have blurred. In their defence, many of the players were creations of their environment, when hurling was more ruthless and raw-boned, when you needed to be able to protect yourself.

Today's game is a more measured, possession-driven construct and some even worry that it has become too sanitised through rule change and other modern developments. But out of this era of tactical strategy and heads-up play, there was still nothing lacking in physicality in the Kilkenny team that dominated the last 15 years. They were peerless at winning ball in the air, as capable in the forwards as they were at the back in outmuscling opponents and winning hard ball. At one time Kilkenny were regarded as too tidy, too malleable, but that has changed. The team of the '70s and the more recent vintage had serious competitors who stood back from nothing.

There are stories aplenty glorifying the deeds and heroics of steely gladiators from the past. Take the celebrated John Keane, who helped inspire Waterford's first All-Ireland win in 1948. In David Smith's biography of Keane one recollection sums up what differentiated these men and held them in such high esteem. In 1943 Keane suffered a workplace accident that left him with a fractured ankle and tendon damage. Medical opinion advised that he would need four months' recovery before playing again but he paid no heed and returned much earlier to face Tipperary, a match in which he was outstanding. At the end his ankle was so badly swollen that the former GAA president and Mount Sion legend, Pat Fanning, had to cut the boot of his foot while he lay on the pitch. By then a crowd had gathered around him.

"I well remember," recalled Fanning, "the old Tipperary man who pushed his way through the throng of admirers to where John lay and, bending down and thrusting out his hand, he said that he 'wanted to shake the hand of John Keane - the greatest man in Ireland'."

Hurling holds dear its reputation as a warrior game and the drama and suspense of who breaks first. If you see clips of All-Irelands from the late 1960s or early '70s, the goalmouth skirmishes on Reeling in the Years for example, it is plain how different the rules of engagement were: the goalmouth was a crowded house, everyone piling in, swinging for dear life. Think of the famous showdown between Timmy Crowley of Cork and Galway's Tony Keady in the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final when they stood toe-to-toe, for a while the centre of everyone's attention, pulling repeatedly like men possessed, neither yielding an inch. Keady had strong claims for inclusion here too, as did so many others: Jackie O'Gorman, Diarmuid O'Sullivan, John Power, Colin Lynch, and the Offaly player of the 1960s Paddy Molloy, who helped sow the seeds of later revolution in the county. Honourable mention goes to other hard men like Brendan Hennessy of Kerry, Red Willie Walsh of Carlow, Jimmy Cullinan from Clare.

In Pat Critchley's beautiful memoir, 'Hungry Hill', he recounted his first senior match with Portlaoise against rivals Camross when aged 16. After the newcomer took an early belt, one of his team-mates remonstrated with the guilty party, reminding him that Critchley was only a chap. 'This is no place for chaps,' came the reply. Critchley was hard, though he didn't make a big deal of it. One day in a league match against Tipperary in 1984 he carried on after taking a swipe to the face, spitting out blood and bits of teeth. He played, like John Keane, through injury. "On the field of play," Critchley said, "you are allowed right up to the line, but not to cross it." He despaired of pervading cynicism: feigning injury, showboating, goading.

An American sportswriter who saw hurling for the first time when Limerick played New York in Yankee Stadium 80 years ago noted: "(Hurling) is no game for a fellow with a dash of lavender in his make-up." Yet over the generations there were recurring concerns expressed about a perceived decline in the game's physicality. Only two years before the game in Yankee Stadium, the renowned Gaelic games writer PD Mehigan outlined his fears for the game changing from the one he knew. He wrote of the transition from the "rushing, impulsive, sweep-all-before-you game" of the 1880s to the "discipline, speed and science" he was witnessing at the time of writing. "Are we," wrote Carbery, "catering for a diminutive race of men? Are the magnificent six-foot giants, wide shouldered and of unsurpassing power, being elbowed out in the recent revolution of the game?"

Those concerns are still being heard. Yet they were in circulation when the GAA was only 50 years in existence. The days when Mick Mackey was bulldozing through defences is hardly viewed now as having lacked physicality, nor being short of hard men. The pace of the game's evolution, though, has accelerated. Consider the riveting Leinster final of just 20 years past between Offaly and Wexford: it looks a radically altered version of the game we see today: players holding position, more rigid match-ups, no recourse to sweepers, an abundance of instinctive and direct hurling.

Life for a hurling goalkeeper in Tony Reddin's day was a great deal more treacherous than it is for his modern equivalent. Reddin died only last year at the age of 95. He underwent a remarkable career change in his late 20s when he moved to work in north Tipperary from his native Galway; unable to win a place in his own county, he became a Tipp legend, winning three All-Ireland medals. By all accounts, he had everything a goalkeeper would wish for, not least, bravery, essential at a time when forwards could wade in, full throttle, under the high ball.

Eoin Larkin embodied Kilkenny’s hard-nosed defiance and insatiable hunger for success Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Eoin Larkin embodied Kilkenny’s hard-nosed defiance and insatiable hunger for success Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

"We thought he was invincible, that he would never die," said Ken Hogan of Reddin, after he'd passed away.

"He was not easily shifted," said John O'Grady, Tipp's All-Ireland-winning goalkeeper in '58. "I remember one match where the forward came in trying to drive him into the goal and he ended up staggering back five yards."

Even allowing for possible embellishment in handed-down verbal accounts, it appears that Reddin was ideally cut out for his job. Hogan, a highly respected goalkeeper himself, sought to explain his essence as follows: "He was just fearless - that was a word that was always used about him. He was daring, and at that time you had the usual mayhem around the square."

Donie Nealon, who carved out an illustrious career in the 1960s as a brilliant forward, joined in the tributes: "He didn't have a frying pan like they do today, he had an ordinary-sized hurley at that time. That is what made it all the more remarkable.

"They were all fantastic goalies in recent years but I would say Reddin was top of the pile. The thing about the modern goalies is that they have protection. Reddin didn't have any protection, the forward could come in on top of you. He had no nerves at all."

If a goalkeeper needed added protection then Pa Dillon was your man. He played through the hard-won transition of power from Tipp to Kilkenny, experiencing one of his proudest moments when the Cats won the 1967 All-Ireland final, the county's first championship win over Tipp since the final of 1922. He was in the thick of it in a notoriously spiteful league final in 1968 between the counties and behind him he had a goalkeeper with sometimes magical powers in Ollie Walsh.

His retirement was a slow denial of reality. Aged 46 he got split in a junior club game. "A high ball came," he told Brendan Fullam for his book 'Legends of the Ash', "I went up for it, still thinking I was 21 or 22." He asked the full-forward if he had hit him and a few other forwards in the vicinity and they all said no. "I began to feel I must have hit myself." In the hospital afterwards he lied, embarrassed, about his age. He then overheard a nurse say to another, "they never get sense do they?" He duly retired.

John Doyle is unlikely to raise much protest over his selection but the link to Hell's Kitchen tended to deflect from his hurling ability and the inconvenient truth that he was hard but fair for the most part. Sylvie Linnane and Pete Finnerty both offered old-school resistance in the Galway backline of the 1980s, a time when Ger Henderson was manning the heart of the Kilkenny defence with unshakable conviction. In the '87 All-Ireland final he played on after taking a blow which split his hand between the fingers. Frank Cummins and Tim Crowley were Herculean in their heyday, and Christy Ring and Mackey could take it and give it in equal measure.

Hurtling down the middle channels in the late 1950s and '60s, Tom Cheasty stood for all that was great in Waterford hurling.

"His towering displays during the great Waterford years between 1957 and 1963 will never be forgotten, and his distinctive style marked him as a man apart," said Pat Fanning. "He was as brave as he was strong, and he was happiest when the battle was at its fiercest." He described him as "indestructible". Hie finest moment was scoring 2-2 in the replayed All-Ireland final in 1959, when the Deise overcame Kilkenny. He won his last county medal with Portlaw at the age of 43 in 1977.

Tony Doran is synonymous with an age when full-forwards and full-backs tore strips off each another but Doran seemed to journey through three decades with a strange tranquillity in the midst of the storm, as if there was nothing more natural in the world he could have done than pluck balls out of the sky and wreak havoc on opposing backlines.

Eddie Keher weathered all kinds of hostile conditions while a leading and highly feared marksman and stayed the distance. All share similar traits, each with their own unique slant. Padraic Maher is a player still in the midstream of his career but carries many of the essential ingredients that would have made him equally formidable in the past as he is today.

Eoin Larkin is made of similar stuff, his performance in the 2015 All-Ireland final a testament to his immense strength of will and character; after a season sundered by injuries and illness he won an eighth All-Ireland medal at the age of 31. He broke his thumb two weeks before the final against Galway. He never intended not playing and how he played gave no hint that he'd been affected by the injury, mentally or physically. For a ball catcher, a fractured thumb a fortnight before an All-Ireland final is bad news. "I hate losing," he once revealed.

Dublin's Lar Foley once said something similar: "Losing is losing; winning is winning." He drew no comfort from honourable defeats. He tired of being reminded of the 1961 All-Ireland final when he was sent off along with Tom Ryan of Tipp after intervening in another man's row. They lost by a point and up to then Foley had been outstanding against prized Tipp's forwards of the day.

They don't make them like Lar anymore. Sean Shanley knew him well, serving as a selector when Foley managed the Dublin team that reached successive Leinster finals in 1990 and '91. "He was a man's man. He didn't put up with any nonsense, fellas getting hurt. He had never heard of hamstrings or groin strains. He didn't like fellas coming moaning with things like that."

What he expected of himself he expected of others. "You didn't shirk anything in the tackle," explained Shanley. "He had no time for anyone who would draw back, you had to keep going, there were fellas dropped from the panel for that."

Eamonn Clancy, part of Foley's squad and, like Foley, a St Vincent's man, put it like this: "Lar? Oh, a lunatic. He was very forward." He remembers the "big farmer's hands" prodding his chest and the quivering lips. "Are you up for it?' he might ask. You wouldn't say, 'no Lar'. No matter what it was!"

The members of this team were up for it. You didn't need to ask.

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