Tuesday 24 April 2018

Dermot Gilleece: I admire Eddie Keher (Kilkenny hurler)

Eddie Keher
Eddie Keher

During my teen years, as a keen observer of Gaelic games in the 1950s, my sporting icons were, predictably, from my parents' generation. And when I thrilled to the explosiveness of Christy Ring, who could turn a match in seconds, there were reminders that he lacked the majestic dominance of Mick Mackey in the green of Limerick.

Against this background, I probably yearned for heroes of my own time, which may explain why my first meeting with Eddie Keher made such a lasting impression.

Our paths crossed in the wake of the 1963 All-Ireland Hurling Final when I was assigned to write a feature article for The Irish Press by way of marking his record 14 points in Kilkenny's victory over Waterford. He was then 21 and possessed a hurling swing of stunning elegance.

The piece began with a reference to a fan I had talked to leaving Croke Park, an American visitor who claimed that Keher's swing bore comparison with anything he had observed at the highest level of tournament golf. Certainly, its smoothness and technical brilliance must have contributed hugely to his marvellous consistency as a free-taker.

Interestingly, some years later I happened to get into conversation with the player about Tiger Woods and his eye-hand co-ordination as exemplified in flicking balls on the face of a wedge in a famous Nike advertisement. "I'm sure he would be a brilliant hurler, provided he could adapt to the physical contact," said Keher.

Which prompted thoughts of bravery and the occasions I saw Keher with blood streaming down his face from head wounds inflicted by lesser practitioners. One particularly bad injury from an opponent's hurley which cleaved through Keher's helmet, came as a stark reminder of the price of competitive supremacy.

The All-Ireland finals of 1971, 1972 and 1975 remain etched in the memory as wonderful examples of Keher's brilliance. And the first of these, a three-point defeat to Tipperary, proved that great players can still contribute handsomely, whatever the circumstances. By scoring 2-11 that day, Keher established a championship record of 55 points, surpassing the previous total of 51 set by Wexford's towering full-forward, Nick Rackard, in the 1956 campaign. Still, it wasn't enough to match a free-scoring Tipperary side spearheaded by the irrepressible Babs Keating.

A year later, Keher and Kilkenny were back at Croke Park on All-Ireland day. This time, a team considered too old for combat at the highest level, responded with a sparkling victory over Cork, by 3-24 to 5-11. Keher, as it happened, was especially effective in the closing quarter for a final contribution of 2-9.

By September 7, 1975, he was fast approaching the fine old hurling age of 34 when Kilkenny faced Galway in yet another final. In a 16th season at senior level, this would deliver his sixth and final All-Ireland medal, which nobody could dispute he had earned, by scoring 2-7.

It was also when, typically generous to the Westerners, he recalled the great Galway players, Josie Gallagher and Joe Salmon, he had admired in his youth.

When questioned on his remarkable achievements, he modestly suggested: "I don't go out consciously with the idea of scoring, but I have found my colleagues make it easy for me to do so." Of course in truth, sporting greatness often defies explanation.

Sunday Independent

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