IT'S been a hurling summer of theatre, a season full of surprises. Perhaps it's even been the greatest championship of all time for sheer unpredictability and drama. A sense of occasion has been restored.
There had just been brief pockets of resistance to Kilkenny's dominance in the previous 11 seasons, so we were unprepared for this year's events.
Six counties remain in the hunt for the Liam MacCarthy Cup and each one harbours reasonable aspirations of winning it. But as Kilkenny wobble, they have never been as highly regarded or admired for their resilience and bravery in battle.
Not since the mid to late 1990s has hurling provided us with such impulsiveness and tremor, leaving the football championship, for once, firmly in the shade.
With that in mind, we asked four iconic names from that glorious 1990s period – two-time All Star Joe Quaid, All-Ireland winning captain Martin Storey, All-Ireland winners Dáithí Regan and Niall Gilligan – to sit down at the Abbey Court Hotel in Nenagh to compare this year's fare to their own electrifying era.
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Damian Lawlor: Lads, how does this year compare to the level of competition we saw in the 1990s?
Martin Storey: We're already there. It's at that level now as we speak. This summer has been a breath of fresh air for everyone.
Joe Quaid: Yeah, it's back now. I'm not saying Kilkenny won't win this year again, but it's all up for grabs. Next season could be even better – the most open ever.
Niall Gilligan: I agree. This season is only going to get better yet. Jesus, imagine if Limerick and Clare met in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Dáithí Regan: Seventy or 80,000 straight away. Maybe a full house.
MS: I couldn't get a ticket for Tipp and Kilkenny. Not for love or money. They were gone the Monday before the game. How long since you had that for a qualifier?
JQ: I still think another team will have to beat Kilkenny before the rest lose the fear factor. There's still something about facing Cody and that jersey. Some teams are beaten before the game even starts.
MS: But sure Dublin took them. And if they meet Kilkenny again they'll have no fear.
JQ: I know, but I'm sticking to my guns. They rattled through against Tipp and Waterford. They're still standing. 'Twill take another team to beat them to end their era.
MS: I have a sneaky feeling Dublin might go all the way. They're starting to get a few followers as well. We had some vicious battles with them in the early to mid '90s. I ran away from their manager, Lar Foley, one day because I was afraid of him. Another time, I got three days in hospital after my nose was smashed. So, by the time I played them for one of my last games, I'd had enough. I was marking some chap who was centre-back and he hit me a dig straight away.
'Young lad,' I sighed. 'Can you tell me what's written on the sole of my boots?'
'How the fuck am I supposed to know, Storreyyy, you bleeding clown,' he replied in a deep Dublin brogue.
I said, 'Well, you'll know soon enough because you'll be chasing my heels for the hour.'
About 40 minutes later he came at me again.
'Bleeding FILA,' he said, wheezing.
I asked him what he was on about.
'FILA. That's what's on the heel of your boots, Stoorreeey.'
JQ: Yeah, the Dubs were always great for the one-liners but they're a serious machine now. Still, they'll need to match the passion of other counties. They are still behind in terms of numbers who go to look at them.
NG: Hey, Dalo will make up for that, don't worry. Passion won't be a problem anyway.
DR: The Dubs are a gas crowd. I remember Offaly were playing them in Croke Park. Paudge Mulhare was over us and gave us a pep talk on the pitch. He started off, 'Lads, there'll be a shower of Jackeen fuckers on the Hill raining abuse down on ye, but pay no heed to them.'
Next thing he spotted a cameraman walking around our huddle – the game must have been live – and as the cameraman lurked just outside the huddle, Paudge completely changed tack.
'Now lads, these Dublin lads, we respect them. They are great to keep the game alive in the city.'
The cameraman moseyed off anyhow, and Paudge looked up again. 'Is he gone? Lads, those shower of pricks, if they beat ye, I'll personally clatter every one of ye. I was in the stand when Antrim beat ye last year and ye fucking clapped them off pitch. Everyone said ye were great lads to do that. Clap them off! Jaysus! Now, do this stretch,' he trailed off, putting his leg out in front of him.
We were in floods of tears laughing. We loved Paudge. But that was the thing back then. We took hurling so seriously, but we could have a right bit of crack too. That's gone out the window now.
JQ: Tom Ryan was the same with Limerick. I played my first match against Cork in '94 and thank God I had a blinder. I came into training on the Tuesday night pumped up, delighted with myself and ready go again. Tom came over. 'You bollocks, you were on every paper all week, thinking you're great because you made a few oul' saves'.
I got a right shock although it kept my feet on the ground. But you couldn't talk like that to a player now. There would be war. We used to get crowds of 4,000 to watch our training sessions back then and I think they were often there to watch Seán O'Neill and Mike Houlihan flake each other, like they often did. I was trying to keep things cool so I hit no ball down in their direction. Next thing Tom comes over and tells me to puck it down on top of the two of them. I said, 'Jesus Tom, there'll be holy war'.
But he looked at me and roared. 'Fucking hit it down'. I did, and sure the crowd got what they wanted. That stuff only helped us, though. But nowadays, managers are closing the doors to training. For God's sake, are they that worried about what others think? Tom Ryan would never have dreamed of that; he wanted to promote the game.
NG: But those characters are not taking over teams now, Joe.
DR: The current players don't want those characters now, Gilly. They want statsmen, video analysis, sports psychologists, drills, balls and cones. Fair enough, you have to meet expectations but you must have some levity too. I wonder do the current players really get to enjoy it when they win anymore?
NG: Cian O'Neill, the Kerry trainer, had a great article lately on how it's now about a huge volume of training sessions. Managers get huge satisfaction from saying they did 120 sessions, but that just means that lads in their early 20s must live like monks. They're listening to their friends going around meeting women and talking about their nights out. I know the current Clare lads and other county players have lived like monks since January. I played 13 years for Clare and you must have balance, but I don't think that balance is there one bit.
JQ: Has the game improved, though, since we were there?
MS: No, it's gone more cynical. There are an awful lot of belts and strokes to the head and it's creeping in. A lot of sledging too.
JQ: Ah, the sledging was always there. I remember when I lost my testicle (after making a save against Laois in a 1997 league match) and my first game back was against Tipp. I was ready for the abuse but it actually came from the Tipp crowd, not the players. As soon as I went down to their end it started, 10, 20 lads at first . . . but then the whole terrace joined in. 'Joe Quaid's only got one ball, Joe Quaid's only got one ball.' To the tune of Go West. I was mortified for a while, then I turned around and grabbed my crotch and they all cheered. Two or three Tipp lads tried to start it again a few minutes later but the rest of the terrace turned on them and told them to leave me alone.
NG: I wouldn't find sledging a big issue, but I think the game itself has definitely become much quicker again. And teams can stay at full pelt for longer.
DR: In fairness, it's also a lot more physical now. I don't know, though, if the hurling skills have improved all that much. I think too many teams were trying to copy Kilkenny. Like, we in Offaly have spent the last couple of seasons trying to match what Kilkenny do. Sure you won't achieve that. We should be instead looking to develop an Offaly breed of hurler with different skills. We're known for direct hurling and movement but instead we're trying to compete with Kilkenny in the air. Nuts.
Now, I know we did okay against them this season, but we're still out of the championship a good few weeks with the season exploding into life around us.
MS: You're right, it has exploded. The highlights for me were two new provincial winners, Dublin and Limerick.
JQ: My highlight was the pitch invasion at the Gaelic Grounds. It was a complete outpouring of emotion; the first time the hairs have stood on my neck since the 1990s. If Limerick do win an All-Ireland, the lads at Croke Park may start looking at a Plan C because Plan B won't hold them.
DR: There are actually too many highlights and isn't it great to see. The only negative I have is the Kilkenny fans' reaction when Lar Corbett pulled up with his hamstring. Some of them roared in unison and jeered him going off the field when the hammer went. When the same thing happened Henry (Shefflin) in the 2010 All-Ireland final, there was a standing ovation from both teams. I felt Lar was due that same respect. And we're told that the Kilkenny fans are the best in the world? They are when they are winning. I found that a bit ignorant.
NG: Everyone speaks of Brian Cody and rightly so, but I firmly believe Shefflin is the main man in Kilkenny. They lost an All-Ireland that day when he had to come off – he won them an All-Ireland last year. He's the main man.
JQ: I don't know, I met Mick Fennelly recently and asked him what their secret was? He said just one word. Cody.
MS: Yeah, it's definitely Cody. He sets the tempo for the others.
DR: But it's not like their training is over-scientific, or anything. They drill balls at each other, play a match and get on with it.
NG: Yeah, but their aura goes before them. We were the same with Loughnane. Jaysus, the shite that used to be going around and Ger loved it; he gloried in the hype. He was at it again there lately with (John) Mullane, saying he had let Waterford down. He'd only love to sit back and soak up the reaction, sure.
But the shite that I had to listen to when I was playing. A circus followed us. We'd do a five-mile run over at Crusheen, a few sprints and finish with a mile run, but the whole country thought we were doing survival camps.
JQ: That's only a warm-up now, Gilly.
DR: Ah, but training is a lot more scientific now, Joe, and that's a good thing.
NG: Still, we weren't up at 5.0 every morning like the myths suggested. We trained early once a week, on a Saturday, so we could have the day off. But sure rumours flew around like wildfire.
DR: Fair enough, Gilly, but those myths were great. They fed the hype and had the whole place talking. There are no myths there now and that's a shame.
NG: Loughnane had the whole hurling world in his hand back then. The Sunday Game would come on and the whole place would hush when he came on. I remember my father roaring at me to come down from the top field because Ger was on Clare FM, addressing the nation. It was like the Lord himself speaking.
I went to college in IT Tralee in 1998 and I met a mad hurling man from Limerick. The stories I used to tell him every Monday and he lapped it all up. I told him one weekend that Mike Mac wanted to test the strength in our bellies so he asked us all to lie down and walked across the line of us, a big man walking on our bellies. Your man soaked up every bit of it and off the rumours started again. There was always a circus. I only came in around 1997 and I was pure delighted to be there, but in '98 it all went too far. The 1998 circus cost us another All-Ireland, I'm convinced of that. Another time we lost a Munster championship match and a lad approached me in a bar. "Well, did Loughnane tell ye to throw it?
Was it deliberate to go through the back door?" I nearly hit him. But that's the hold he had on people.
MS: Ye had a lot of mad bastards in Clare, though, Gilly, and that didn't help. But Offaly were the worst for rumours, I think. A team of alcoholics if you believed everyone. We used to laugh at that – sure I had a bottle of wine most nights before a game. In fact, I'd say I had one every night before a championship match.
MS: Yeah, sure I'd sleep all night after it. I'd have to do something because I'd be eating my nails with nerves.
JQ: Jaysus, I couldn't do that. Now, the nerves killed me too, but I couldn't do that. Not that it stopped the gossip, mind. Before we played Clare at the Gaelic Grounds in 1996 I was driving into the pitch when I heard Declan Copus on Limerick radio wishing the team all the best. I pulled over the car, hung out of the back of the boot and puked into the ditch. The Limerick fans passed me, saw me vomiting, and suddenly I'd been out until all hours the night before.
DR: Another myth. We had no shortage of them in Offaly either. Johnny Pilkington was always at the centre, but we had lads that would drink three times more than Johnny and never a word was said about them. It was all shite to a great degree. We loved the fun, but we were serious about the game.
MS: Look, everyone is different. Sure, I'd have a fry the morning of every game as well.
NG: So would I. We'd usually leave Shannon Airport at 8.0 for a Dublin hotel, I'd get a fry there and we had two hours in a room to kill with a roommate. Lads would doze, sleep or whatever. For the 1997 All-Ireland final they put me with Fergal Hegarty. Hego was picked to play but everyone knew I was starting instead of him. We spoke of it down in the room.
JQ: What? The morning of an All-Ireland final and you hadn't been told you were playing?
NG: Look, I had scored three points off Willie O'Connor in the All-Ireland semi-final. They were hardly going to leave me off.
DR: But that chap (Hegarty) had family in the stands. I've heard many tales of Loughnane's dummy teams where families travelled home from the US and other places only to find their relations on the bench.
NG: Sure that's still going on.
MS: It is. My own buddy Liam Dunne made 13 changes to the match programme against Dublin and other managers do it as well.
JQ: The GAA have to step in there. Is it too much for a punter to pay 20 0r 30 quid and expect to get a programme with a proper team.
NG: Ah, does it really matter, lads?
JQ: It does. 30,000 people upwards going to games. They deserve better.
DR: Fine them. Sure you get fined for everything else. It's a basic requirement that a punter comes to a game and sees the team laid out before him. Plus it's not good for PR – Jamesie O'Connor used to say that when a team was announced on a Tuesday night it would grip the county and be the talk of the whole place until Saturday or Sunday.
NG: Yeah, it's bad for the hype. There's no real talk of that now.
DR: Mad. For Galway's game today, Cyril Donnellan could be named in the forwards but he's been centre-back for the past few weeks at training. The dogs on the street know that and yet their training is held behind closed doors. Managers are terrified if anything gets out.
NG: Over the top. The only thing people want to see from Galway today is Joe Canning playing at full-forward. With due respect to other players, that's what people want to see from Galway.
DR: I heard Galway had three by 40-minute halves recently and a lot of home truths were laid on the table by both management and players so we'll see what transpires today.
MS: But isn't it great. That game could go either way.
NG: The one thing about this year is that while Kilkenny are 6/4 to win in the bookies, the other teams are only as far out as 12/1 whereas at this stage in the past they could be out to 250/1. The form lines are all over the place.
MS: So, who'll win the All-Ireland, lads? Kilkenny, I think.
DR: Kilkenny, but Clare at 5/1 look great.
JQ: You couldn't look past them yet.
MS: All that will change, though, soon enough. Right?
NG: It goes in waves; the wheel always turns. But it turns slower in counties likes Clare and Wexford. Don't mind Kilkenny, Tipp or Cork – they'll always pick up the odd All-Ireland. Kilkenny have 13 leaders on their current team and only needed two new faces this season. But it's much tougher for the rest.
JQ: It boils down to who is best positioned when Kilkenny eventually do fall. Like, we're years trying to get back but the development squads, schools and minors are all flying it now.
DR: Ye have to make hay while the sun shines.
NG: That's it. We should have won more, too, I think, but when that great Clare team folded, there wasn't enough left to drive on at the same level.
MS: Our biggest problem in Wexford is football. The dual thing is killing us.
JQ: The club rivalries too? After the 1996 All-Ireland I went to Oulart with Tom Dempsey the following day and stayed with him after the GOAL match. I was fairly down after losing a second All-Ireland but Tom, a Buffers Alley man in Oulart, lifted me. As we got out of the car, he said, 'Watch this.' About 30 Oulart kids ran to the car but they all by-passed Tom and came to me for an autograph. We broke our holes laughing.
MS: That club thing has calmed down now, but we seriously need to sort this dual player issue. I'd make them decide at 14.
JQ: Ah, you can't do that. You have to let them pick up skills and experiences from other sports while they are growing up.
DR: No, I agree with Martin. We have a small enough pool to pick from in Offaly; a few hurling clubs but now even the schools in Birr, the hurling heartland, are promoting football. From a selfish point of view, I cannot bear to see that.
MS: I was with the Wexford minors for three years and dual lads were being pulled everywhere. Look at Kilkenny. Hurling is the only thing. When I took over the Wexford underage set-up, I rang Ned Quinn for advice and went to watch Kilkenny train for the Arrabawn Cup. They were averaging 13 hours a week hurling while we were only doing five – imagine how wide the gap is a few years later.
NG: Our biggest problem is that Ennis has a population of 20,000 and Shannon 10,000 – but the teams there are playing senior B. We should be getting most of our team from there, just like Kilkenny are drawing from their city.
JQ: The positive thing, though, is that the madness now looks set to start all over again. That might mean a hunt for tickets. I reckon it cost me £200 a game to play championship for Limerick. One woman called me a couple of nights before the '96 All-Ireland final looking for six stand tickets in a row. I said it was no problem, that I'd get Mary Robinson to shove over and make room for her.
NG: Don't start. My father would come home from the mart at Ennis looking for four tickets for lads I wouldn't even know. I'd be writing a list down and sometimes it would be up to 60 tickets. You'd be going to training with £1,500 in ticket money and then Sunday evening you'd be left with three or four because lads didn't turn up. And I a student!
DR: You daren't say no to relations either!
JQ: It's great, though, isn't it? Like, we have our identity back in Limerick now again. Munster rugby led the way in marketing themselves but when I was with the Limerick development squads we gave our guys something unique; a top or sweatshirt that no one else in the county had. That's all back now.
DR: Still, take whoever wins the All-Ireland, will they enjoy it like we did?
NG: I don't know if panels are as close as they once were. I still play senior hurling at home with Sixmilebridge and on a bonding night we went into some bar. I ordered a pint of Guinness with two lads but no sign of the others. Most of them were under 24 and they came in late with naggins, added it to their drinks and were sculled after two or three. Now for me the crack was always developed drinking slowly between pint number two and eight.
JQ: At that stage you'd be wondering were you drinking pint two or eight!
NG: Fr Harry Bohan said it at Mass yesterday. With all the social media, Skype and stuff, we are great to keep in touch with fellas who are in Oz but we don't get to know our next-door neighbour.
JQ: I don't think the public can relate as well to the current players.
NG: Sure there is no interaction. Half the time they're not let. But look, everyone can see Kilkenny are creaking and they'll do whatever it takes.
MS: No, it's all gone overboard.
DR: It is but we have six teams still in contention and if that's what it takes to have a cracking championship like this every year, so be it.
NG: There's another wave coming. The wheel's turning again.
JQ: It's feckin' great.