Sport Hurling

Monday 18 December 2017

Another seismic shift could now be on the horizon

Twenty years after Offaly upset the landscape, is there another revolution in the air?

John Troy and Johnny Pilkington celebrate Offaly’s All-Ireland SHC win in 1994
John Troy and Johnny Pilkington celebrate Offaly’s All-Ireland SHC win in 1994
Ger Loughnane
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In 1994, Offaly's All-Ireland victory in the so-called 'six-minute final' set in train hurling's 'Revolution Years'. It was a period in which the counties that Ger Loughnane referred to in his autobiography 'Raising The Banner' as "the big three, the rich farming lands of Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny", lost their grip on the game.

That revolution would last until '99 when Cork's triumph pre-empted an unprecedented 14-year stretch of new dominance by the old oligarchs. Dominance that survived until Clare's spectacular victory last September.

So, approaching the 20th anniversary of Offaly's famous mugging of Limerick, it's timely to pose the question if revolution is in the air again.

As a portent of the tumult that would define the most rebellious decade in hurling, '93 lit few torches.

If anything, it hardened the conviction that the game had become indifferent to romance. Apart from Antrim's extrovert dance into the '89 All-Ireland final, little had been seen of hurling's supposed underclass at the business end of the championship since Offaly's win in '85.

And now '93 did all in its power to keep the oppressed subdued.

Waterford's ebullience after winning an All-Ireland U-21 crown in '92 was brutally decommissioned by senior championship eviction at the hands of John Meyler's Kerry in Walsh Park. Wexford played three tumultuous National League finals against Cork as well as two Leinster finals against Kilkenny, winning none of them.

Clare famously lost a Munster final against Tipperary by such withering arithmetic that the mortification was virtually scalded into Loughnane's brain with a branding iron.

Offaly in '93 had been snared in Leinster by a controversial last-minute DJ Carey penalty; Limerick in Munster by a hail of rumour about dressing-room indiscipline, backed up by recrimination against the county board's culpability in agreeing to play their tie against Clare in Ennis.

And Dublin? They might as well have existed on the far side of the moon.

Only Galway seemed to exist as any kind of bulwark against the suffocating presence of Tipperary, Cork and Kilkenny, yet their great team of the '80s had unravelled. They were now rebuilding.

In '93, hurling looked like it was a closed book then. Until, suddenly, revolution started charging over the hill.

Should it have been foreseen? In part, yes. Between '84 and '94, Tipp and Cork did not meet in a single Munster U-21 final. Limerick appeared in eight, winning two; Waterford in two, winning both; Clare in four, winning none.

Clare were Munster minor champions in '89; Waterford Munster minor champions in '92, the same year they won Munster and All-Ireland crowns at U-21.

In Leinster, Offaly won three provincial minor crowns en route to All-Ireland wins in '86, '87 and '89; their U-21s reached six provincial finals between '86 and '92, winning half of them.

That Offaly team would come predominantly from a Birr Community School team that won the All-Ireland Colleges title in '86 and a Banagher side that won the All-Ireland Vocational Schools crown the same year.

Laois (twice), Dublin and Offaly all made Leinster minor finals between '90 and '94, albeit Kilkenny beat them all. Offaly won the National League in '91; Limerick succeeded them in '92. In other words, none of the glories that followed were exactly plucked from thin air.

So let's do a forensic test on the big hurling counties now, comparing where they stood in '94 and, 20 years on, what their condition is today.

CLARE

Then? Clare didn't look a team ready to make any back-page headlines. Limerick hammered them in the '94 Munster final and, though they'd won that Munster minor title in '89, their fancied U-21s of '92 had been snared by Waterford. Without a senior Munster crown since 1932, they seemed no-hopers to everyone bar a certain Ger Loughnane (left). He had other ideas.

Now? Clare are reigning All-Ireland senior champions with a conveyor belt of talent rolling in from three All-Ireland U-21 crowns in five seasons. Munster minor champions in 2010 and 2011 too, they look unrecognisable from their past.

1994 Rating – 5

2014 Rating – 9

CORK

Then? Having lost the '92 All-Ireland final to Kilkenny, Cork might have been an ageing team, but they could never have countenanced the struggle coming. League winners in '93, Clare beat them in that year's championship and Limerick would catch them in '94.

Now? Beaten All-Ireland finalists last year, yet without a Munster senior crown since 2006. The big concern for Cork is the lack of underage success. Have not even reached a Munster minor final since '08 and their last provincial U-21 crown was won in '07.

1994 Rating – 7

2014 Rating – 7

DUBLIN

Then? Had reached the Leinster senior finals of '90 and '91, but been narrowly beaten by Offaly and Kilkenny respectively. Looked to be drifting ever further away from any remote chance of bridging the gap to their last provincial crown in '61.

Now? Reigning Leinster senior champions and 2011 winners of the National League. Dublin's underage scene is thriving as evidenced by their winning of four of the last nine Leinster minor crowns and three of the last seven provincial U-21s.

1994 Rating – 4

2014 Rating – 7

GALWAY

Then? Had lost the '93 All-Ireland senior final to Kilkenny, but looked to be successfully restocking as the great team of the '80s was dismantled. All-Ireland minor champions in '92 and '94 and U-21 champions in '91 and '93, the future again looked bright.

Now? The great enigmas of modern hurling. A puck of a ball away from winning the 2012 senior All-Ireland, they stockpile underage crowns while Galway clubs have won six of the last nine All-Ireland club titles. Yet Heaven alone knows when they'll bridge the gap to '88.

1994 Rating – 8

2014 Rating – 7

KILKENNY

Then? Arrived into '94 bidding for three-in-a-row, having appeared in the previous three senior All-Ireland finals. They'd been crowned minor champions in '93 too and looked to have seen off the underage threat of Offaly in Leinster where they were again becoming dominant.

Now? Brian Cody is rebuilding the greatest team of all, yet the bookies are still programmed to make Kilkenny favourites everywhere they go. No senior Leinster crown since 2011 however and previous underage dominance being exposed to greater stress tests as Dublin, particularly, build up a head of steam.

1994 Rating – 9

2014 Rating – 8

LIMERICK

Then? Some underage talent coming through as evidenced by those appearances in eight of the previous 10 Munster U-21 finals, yet just two wins in that period and no provincial minor title since '84 posed doubts about their winning pedigree. Still, the '92 league victory and recent successes for Ballybrown, Patrickswell and Kilmallock in the Munster club championship offered hope.

Now? Reigning Munster senior and minor champions, yet haplessly conflict-prone with a history of self-sabotage. Still trapped in the second tier of the league, albeit boosted by the two Munster club titles in three years for Na Piarsaigh and three Harty Cups in five for Ardscoil Ris.

1994 Rating – 6

2014 Rating – 7

OFFALY

Then? After winning five Leinster senior titles in seven years, Offaly looked to have lost their way a little as Kilkenny did the three-in-a-row. Yet an unexpected league title in '91 as well as provincial U-21 crowns in '91 and '92 as well as the emergence of Birr as a dominant force in the Leinster club championship seemed to signpost fresh stirrings.

Now? It looks desperately bleak for a county that, last month, almost dropped into the third tier of the National League. Offaly clubs (Coolderry and Kilcormac-Killoughy) have won two of the last three Leinster club titles, but county underage success has all but evaporated.

1994 Rating – 7

2014 Rating – 4

TIPPERARY

Then? Tipp believed that carelessness cost them a senior All-Ireland in '93 (they had won two of the previous four under 'Babs' Keating). They might have been an ageing team, but they would win the league in '94 and still oozed sufficient class to be considered red-hot favourites – even with key injuries – for a first-round game with Clare in Munster. What could possibly go wrong?

Now? Prone to infuriating inconsistencies (as evidenced in this year's league) yet, on their day, still capable of regal hurling too (as also evidenced in this year's league). The expected dominance anticipated after their 2010 senior and U-21 All-Irelands did not materialise and, in terms of underage, they have now clearly fallen behind Clare.

1994 Rating – 8

2014 Rating – 7

WATERFORD

Then? Despite that aberration against Kerry in '93, there was a sense that Waterford had a young talent pool equipped to push for the big prizes. The men who won an All-Ireland U-21 crown in '92 (Tony Browne et al) were about to be buttressed by another provincial title-winning team in that grade. Yet no senior Munster title since '63? Still very much on the outside looking in.

Now? Hoping to hot-house some of last year's All-Ireland-winning minors into senior status as the last remnants of the team that won four Munster crowns in nine years near their end. Plenty of fine young talent coming but relegation in the league may not engender the kind of patience that Derek McGrath would now find helpful.

1994 Rating – 5

2014 Rating – 6

WEXFORD

Then? The near-misses of '93 cursed them only with condescending smiles. Missing the boat seemed to be Wexford's natural setting and not many imagined much would change in the autumn of '94 when more than 60 players were called to a meeting with the new county manager in the Ferrycarrig Hotel. His name was Liam Griffin.

Now? Struggling to get traction at senior level, given years of underage neglect. Wexford have not won a Leinster minor title since 1985, yet last year's provincial victory at U-21 did offer a flicker of hope. Liam Dunne has got the senior team to address the modern requisites of strength and conditioning and, on a given day, they can worry bigger hitters (as in Dublin and Clare last year).

1994 Rating – 5

2014 Rating – 5

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