AS sure as night follows day, the presentation of silverware comes following the conclusion of a final.
t’s a time-honoured tradition in the GAA, but what happens when there is no cup to be handed out?
It doesn’t seem fathomable that such a situation could arise in Croke Park with the GAA eyes focused squarely on Leinster hurling final day, but that’s exactly the scenario that played out in 1964.
Laois captain Billy Phelan and his team-mates were in jubilant form as they basked in their four-point defeat of the mighty Kilkenny, 4-9 to 3-8, and waited to get their hands on the Walter Hanrahan Cup.
To the victor goes the spoils, but not on this occasion. There are different theories as to why the trophy – which Wexford won the year previous – was not present, with some saying that it was being replaced at the time.
Others believe the Model men had little interest in returning it with Kilkenny expected to pounce once again, but all that matters is that Laois’ fourth Leinster minor success, and their last to date, resulted in no presentation to the winning skipper.
With Abbeyleix providing the captain, having landed minor club honours the previous year, it should have been a special day for Phelan. Instead, they were quickly ushered off the pitch as the great Eddie Keher and Kilkenny prepared to do battle with Dublin in the senior decider.
Phelan, who lined out in the half-back line and moved between wing and centre-back, had led Laois through a bear pit with victories over Carlow, Offaly, Dublin and Kilkenny, but there would be no day in the sun for the O’Moore men on that July afternoon at GAA HQ.
“We were waiting for something to happen and someone said, ‘Ye may go and head in lads, there’s no cup’,” Phelan recalls 56 years later from his Abbeyleix home. “I had a bit of a speech made up and all but we went in, we didn’t mind at the time.
“We had the final won and we were happy with ourselves. When you’re young, you don’t mind. I trained young lads since and whether we won or lost, all they’d say was, ‘when are we playing again?’ That’s all they care about and we were the same.
“We were looking forward to the next match and that was very new to us. We didn’t pay much attention to it at all. It would have been a nice one to give a speech in Croke Park in the Laois colours with all the lads down there, but it didn’t happen.”
That’s just one of many tales which Phelan recalls from an extraordinary season which also saw him learn of his selection for the Laois minor footballers just days later when a co-worker informed him that he was “going to be roasted” by subsequent Offaly great Tony McTague.
Phelan wasn’t even part of the football panel prior to his selection for the Leinster decider against the Faithful when Laois “kicked it away” in a one-point defeat to a star-studded side featuring future icons like Martin Furlong, Willie Bryan, Eugene Mulligan and McTague.
“The one regret was that we didn’t win the two of them,” Phelan says, but at least attention in the county could still be turned to the small ball, where a glorious chance had presented itself to feature on the game’s greatest day.
They set off for St Brendan’s Park in Birr on August 16 to face the Connacht champions – Galway were playing in Munster at the time – but got a few rude awakening upon arrival.
“We went down to Birr to play Roscommon and who turned up only Mayo. They tell me after that the Connacht final was only played on the Tuesday night before, between Roscommon and Mayo, and Mayo won it. They haven’t won one since,” he says before detailing another astonishing story.
“I was playing wing-back and this fella came back on me and says ‘Howya Billy’. All I could think of was where was he after getting my name. He says, ‘Do ya not know me? Sure you do know me. I sat beside you in school’. Pierce Ryan was his name, his father was the station master in Abbeyleix and when the station closed down, the Ryans moved to Mayo,” he added.
Laois had no problems disposing of Mayo to set up an All-Ireland final date with traditional aristocrats Cork, and in a remarkable turn of events the Rebels also had no cup presentation after their Munster final win as “Tipp forgot the cup”, as recalled by captain Kevin Cummins, brother of the legendary Ray, earlier this year.
That Cork team housed a number of future stars with Con Roche, Donal Clifford and Charlie McCarthy adding Celtic Crosses when graduating to the senior ranks. They blew Laois away, with Phelan insisting they were like “lambs to the slaughter”.
In what was the first televised minor decider – “a few Laois lads tried to watch it after, while some others didn’t want to see any of it” – Cork fired in 10 goals, with Laois’ preparations leaving plenty to be desired.
“We had no collective training up until the Leinster final, we never even got together once. Even in the All-Ireland final, we were let out like lambs to the slaughter. Someone should have known better and we were badly brought out,” he painfully recalls.
“For the All-Ireland final we were told to ‘bring a white togs, a pair of blue-and-white socks and two hurls’ while Cork came dancing across the field in their red-and-white tracksuits.
“We had no ball going out on the field. We’d to go back and try to get one. It was shocking. Going back and talking to the lads about it years later, you realise how bad it was and how badly we were treated.”
They departed for Dublin the day of the final via various hackney cab services around the county. Yet someone, in their wisdom, thought it fit that they could return home the following day via bus, despite not travelling up to the capital together by that means.
The lengths which Phelan – who had started working as a psychiatric nurse in St Fintan’s Hospital in Portlaoise that summer and would remain there for the rest of his working life – had to go to ensure that he was off work for the final are also a stark reminder of that era.
“On the Friday before the All-Ireland final, I still had no one got to work my Sunday to go and play the All-Ireland. I spent more energy trying to get people to swap and change. I would have lost my job but I was in no doubt that I was going to go anyway,” he says. “I had my mind made up, if I can’t get off I was going anyway.
“A fella came up to me and said he’d swap for the following Sunday, I probably had a match that day as well but I took his hand off. I spent more energy getting time off to play matches.”
Phelan, a keen GAA historian, did get some solace when a low-key presentation of the Hanrahan Cup was made to him at the Laois county convention the January after their Leinster triumph, but there was little fanfare and “no pictures taken on the night as I put it under my arm and walked off with it”.
The nature of his work was “a disaster for a sportsman” with regular shifts on Saturdays and Sundays, but Phelan would go on to play some senior hurling for Laois around the early 1970s, while his club career went well into his mid-50s with Abbeyleix and saw him line out in primrose and blue alongside his sons Liam and Cathal.
The 74-year-old looks fighting fit and is involved in a variety of capacities with the Abbeyleix club. But he still thinks of that trophy-less day 56 years ago and wishes that history could be rewritten some day.