Silke recalls how U-21 breakthrough in the '70s set Tribes on road to senior glory
GALWAY hurling legend Sean Silke pinpoints a long-forgotten
U-21 fixture as the seed from which the Tribesmen germinated a new, winning tradition that was to peak in the 1980s.
The occasion was the 1972 All-Ireland U-21 hurling final in which Galway beat Dublin and for Silke, it was a small, but significant turning point in his native county's fortunes.
He didn't play in the match as he was too old, but members of that successful squad, including Iggy Clarke, PJ Molloy, Frank Burke and Andy Fenton, came through the ranks to senior level.
"The U-21 team that won in '72 provided the nucleus of the teams that became successful and we had some very talented players such as John Connolly, who was an extraordinary player. In the late sixties, he was definitely the best hurler in Ireland," recalls Silke.
The progression meant that when the modern era of Galway v Cork clashes in All-Ireland Hurling semi-finals began in 1975, the Tribesmen were ready.
Silke enjoyed 12 years as a senior player, winning a National League, an All-Ireland medal, and two All Stars as a stalwart centre-back.
The players of his era raised the profile of Galway, but the process was organic, beginning in the sixties with the formation of a Coiste Iomana and a system to identify and nurture young talent.
By the 1974-75 season, a new sense of belief permeated Galway's hurlers and in winning the NHL for the first time since 1951, they overcame Kilkenny in the semi-finals and Tipperary in the final.
Next up, Cork. A tall order at any time, but particularly for the men in maroon who only had a quarter-final win over Westmeath as their 'warm-up,' while Cork had come through to win Munster -- and remember, there was no back door in those days.
The semi-final clash in August 1975 was to be the first of five meetings between Galway and Cork over an 11-year period.
Silke and his fellow Galway men knew the measure of Cork from playing against them at under-age level during the Connacht county's placement in Munster for 11 years.
This was something new, however -- and as events transpired, when it came to a clash in the last four, Galway had the edge over the Rebels between 1975 and 1985 inclusive, winning three of their five encounters.
"The big thing would be that we always had great respect for Cork and we rated them highly as skilful craftspeople.
"From our point of view, we always acknowledged that Cork were going to let you hurl.
"A big thing for us always was that they weren't going to choke our style.
"We were going to let them do a bit and they'd also let us do a bit and we were coming in as underdogs, which is always the favoured way.
"There wasn't much ever expected from Galway because prior to that Cork had always hurt us in big matches.
"Cork had a lot of very talented players. At under-age we had played against them in Munster and they had beaten us well. We had great respect, that was the big thing.
"Remember, after they beat Limerick in the Munster final of 1975, they had beaten a team that had contested the previous two All-Ireland finals.
"We had great respect for them and we knew we were going to be in a game, but what we had going for us was that the team was very settled after coming through the league," said Silke.