Brennan, Shefflin have extra incentive to prevail
Few thought anyone would ever match the medal-winning feats of Ring and Doyle, writes Dermot Crowe
I N the 1967 All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Tipperary, John Doyle, a man on a mission, made his last championship appearance aged 37.
Doyle had filled his pockets in a lucrative career dating back to 1949, including three All-Irelands by the age of 21, and now history beckoned as he sought a record ninth senior medal. It wasn't to be. Kilkenny defeated Tipp for the first time since 1922, inspired by Ollie Walsh.
His bid for immortality provided an intriguing sub-plot to the day's main point of interest, the issue of who would actually win the All-Ireland. Tipperary had their eyes set on overtaking Cork, 20-time winners, at the top of the All-Ireland leaderboard. Instead Kilkenny won their 16th All-Ireland, precisely half their current haul, to close the gap on their two rivals.
"A big thing was made of it, because it was huge at the time, to pass out (Christy) Ring would have been astonishing I suppose and John, like Christy, had won all his medals on the field," says Len Gaynor, who was outstanding for Tipperary the same day. "John Doyle was the coolest man on the field and played quite well that day, he would not let things like that affect him. He was just happy playing. He hated training, but he loved hurling."
Doyle retired with the consolation of having matched Ring's record of eight medals won on the field of play (none as an unused substitute), which the Corkman had accomplished 13 years earlier. For 43 years their feat has stood supreme. Some, like Frank Cummins, a winner of eight All-Ireland medals, seven on the field, came close -- none could match it. Ring went to his grave perhaps wondering if it would ever be emulated. Now Doyle, who turned 80 this year, will see Henry Shefflin and Eddie Brennan reach that pinnacle if Kilkenny win today's final and complete the five-in-a-row.
"It looked insurmountable," agrees Gaynor, "especially in modern times with more teams in the running for the All-Ireland every year. But the fact that it's Kilkenny fellas who could achieve that, we would not begrudge them; we would be the first to congratulate Shefflin if he were to achieve that record. It's about great, great hurlers and Shefflin is a great hurler. Ring was too. As is Eddie Brennan. And if they go and win eight, nine, ten medals, there would be no jealousy there."
If the honour is bestowed on a hurler of Shefflin's stature then it will be entirely fitting. Shefflin can feel at home in such illustrious company as Ring and Doyle and has on all fronts proven his merit as one of the most prominent figures to have played the game. Kilkenny are breaking records of every description during their current power surge, but All-Ireland medals are the most prized measure of a team's, and a player's, legacy. For Shefflin to bag eight on the field of play would offer further endorsement of his elevated place in the game's history.
He holds a slight edge over Brennan in that the latter's first medal was won as a substitute; he came on and goaled in the 2000 All-Ireland final against Offaly. Shefflin and Brennan are two of four survivors from that first winning campaign under Cody ten years ago. Of the others, Noel Hickey missed out last year through injury, which means a victory today will earn him a seventh All-Ireland medal, while Michael Kavanagh has won seven on the field, but lost his place on the team this year.
The achievements of the modern inheritors of the Ring-Doyle mantle are even more extraordinary, though, given the timeframe in which they have been established. Shefflin is chasing his eighth medal after just 11 seasons. It took Doyle 16 years to accumulate the same total in spite of roaring off the blocks with three in the first three years.
Had Shefflin won in his first year, instead of losing to Cork in the final, then he could also have matched Doyle's distinction of winning medals over three decades. Others are following in their slipstream. Martin Comerford and Derek Lyng, neither of whom start today, are seeking their seventh All-Ireland medals. With Kilkenny favourites to win next year's All-Ireland, as well as today's, they could also catch up with Ring and Doyle.
Ring played his first senior championship match for Cork in 1940 and while he won his first medal a year later, the achievement was overshadowed by the foot-and-mouth outbreak which ruled Kilkenny and Tipperary out of the All-Ireland race. In October, Tipperary defeated Cork in a delayed Munster final. The win stands however and began a run of four All-Irelands in succession, leaving Ring with four medals before he had turned 24.
When they won another in 1946, Ring had accumulated five medals in six years. He won three more back to back from 1952-'54 and his hopes of adding a ninth two years later were ended by Wexford. Shefflin and Brennan are poised to win eight medals in three years less than it took Ring. From 1954 to his final season in 1962, Ring failed to add to his collection.
For longevity, Ring can't be beaten, even by the modern generation. It was strongly speculated that he was to return to the Cork panel at the age of 45 in 1966 but declined -- not enthused at the prospect of being a substitute. When he finished in 1962 he had hurled for Cork for 22 years. Shefflin has been hurling for half that time and is already in his 30s and troubled by a serious knee injury.
Despite that, Ring's record number of championship appearances, 64, is now endangered as well. Changes to the championship system, with the introduction of the back-door and ending of the old straight knock-out format, have helped place it under greater threat.
The nearest challenger to Ring in this regard also plays today, for Tipperary, the experienced goalkeeper Brendan Cummins. He has already moved past Doyle's record for the highest number of championship appearances for Tipperary, and looks certain to outlast Ring too. Currently, he has played 61 games; today will leave him just two short of the magical number. Next year, barring injury or some unforeseen circumstance, he will knock Ring off his perch.
Kilkenny under Brian Cody have always been reluctant to bow at the altar of the individual, emphasising the principle of playing for the team as the higher and true purpose. But the winnings are never evenly distributed and the survival of the fittest applies; along the way good hurlers are let go or choose that they don't want to stay badly enough. A fusion of remarkable endurance, outstanding ability and the good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time have conspired to leave Shefflin and Brennan one leap from the elusive ledge occupied by just two hurlers for 43 years.
For over four decades, the Ring-Doyle medal distinction remained an exotic accomplishment, emblematic of old hegemonies that no longer seemed practical. Cork's four-in-a-row in the 1940s formed part of Ring's private collection; Tipperary won four in five years in the 1960s with Doyle on board. Not long ago, winning All-Irelands back to back seemed as wild as it got.
Winning the treble in 1976-'78, Cork set a standard that no team could follow until Kilkenny managed it in 2008. No county looked capable of the kind of sustained dominance that would make eight medals a feasible target. To win a single All-Ireland is, and has been, the dream, often a forlorn one, of thousands of hurlers alive and dead. To win eight appears almost ludicrous in the modern age.
John Doyle famously said that Ring had won eight medals for Cork but Tipp had won eight medals for John Doyle. In Shefflin's case, certainly, there are no grounds for embarrassment or guilt if he makes it to the Holy Grail for All-Ireland medal winners in hurling; they would not have won as many All-Irelands without their best player. Could this be the time they win it for him? And if Shefflin and Brennan join that exalted company they will be short odds to move on to a new dimension in a year's time.