Sunday 18 August 2019

Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Comparing Dublin’s Paddy Smyth and Des ‘Snitchy’ Ferguson

Tony Considine

The curse of the dual player has been a perpetual problem in Dublin hurling for generations now. The revolution kick-started by St Vincent's and Kevin Heffernan in the sixties and copper-fastened in the seventies has seen many talented hurlers who would have graced many an All-Ireland winning team throw their lot in with the footballers.

In the present day, players such as Ciaran Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan have admitted their love for hurl and sliotar but their Celtic Cross ambitions are better served with the bigger liathróid. Even current stalwart Conal Keaney stepped away from the hurling in 2005 before returning six years later.

With the All-Ireland club success of Cuala and Dublin hurling on the rise, there are signs that this may change although setbacks like that just inflicted by Eddie Brennan’s Laois never help.

To be fair, even those names that lit up Dublin’s limited hurling glory days can often also be found on the football roll of honour. The last Dublin team to contest an All-Ireland final, way back in 1961, was dotted with dual players. The great Foley brothers, Des and Lar, had won the Sam Maguire in 1958 before that attempt to add Liam MacCarthy three years later. And so had Des ’Snitchy’ Ferguson.

As part of a series in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy, official sponsor of the All-Ireland Senior, the U-20 Hurling Championships and the GAA Legends Tour Series, we’ll be comparing rising stars and legends of hurling. This week, we look at two of Dublin’s finest.

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Des “Snitchy” Ferguson

Nicknamed after the Beano characters Snitch and Snatch (his brother Brian taking the Snatchy moniker), Ferguson would come through the famed Vincent’s nursery that did so much to popularise the game in the capital. Representing the club in both codes, Snitchy played most of his football in the forward line but could generally be found further back the pitch when he had a stick in his hand.

At club level, his tussles with Christy Ring as Vincent’s took on Glen Rovers during the 1950s were the stuff of legend. With the Marino outfit dominating both Dublin championships, Snitchy racked up the club medals but things were different at inter-county level.

He featured in a Dublin side full of goals, who won the 1952 Leinster title 7-2 to 3-6 against Wexford, a scoreline that seems bizarre by today’s terms. Unfortunately for a Dublin team that had scored 18 goals across three games in Leinster, they dried up in the final as Christy Ring’s Cork ran out easy 2-14 to 0-7 winners.

That was as good as it got in Leinster for a decade. While there were credible showings in draws with Kilkenny in ‘53 and ‘58 and with eventual All-Ireland winners Wexford in 1960, replay losses meant no involvement at the business end of the Championship.

For a dual star like Snitchy, there was always the football to fall back on. After a near-miss in a three-point defeat by Kerry in 1955, Ferguson was instrumental in bringing a first Sam Maguire in 16 years back to Dublin. His assist for Paddy Farnan’s goal in the 1958 decider finally put paid to a tenacious Derry who had just levelled the game.

But, delighted as he was, it was a hurling medal he longed for. That season he retired from inter-county football to focus on hurling. And three years later, most commentators agree he should have completed his set.

Through no fault of his own, Des Ferguson will always be inexorably linked to the 1961 hurling Championship and the one that got away. As long as this writer has watched Dublin hurling, they’ve always had to rely on goals to win games with this year’s defeat to Laois another painful example. Looking back through the archives, 1961 was no different.

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The 1961 Dublin squad who played Tipperary in the All-Ireland Final

As with 1952, they scored more goals than points in the Leinster final, another magnificent seven coupled with five points leaving them well clear of Wexford’s 4-8 and propelling them into an All-Ireland final with Tipperary.

Unlike 1952, this final was tight. The Dublin team had three sets of brothers and its share of characters. Snitchy’s brother Liam started alongside Des and Lar Foley and Achill and Bernie Boothman, two Crumlin lads who were surely the first GAA players to sport earrings in an All-Ireland final.

A wasteful first half saw Dublin 0-10 to 0-6 down at the break. But the boys in blue got moving in the second half with a Willie Jackson goal six minutes in. When this was followed up by three points from Achill Boothman, their tails were up.

Ferguson was having what would be described in the Herald match report as “an outstanding and possibly his best ever game”. His speed and power were cutting off any access towards the Dublin goal much to the chagrin of Tipp, who sent on Tom Ryan for Mackey McKenna to change the dynamic.

It certainly did that. A fired-up Ryan’s first act of the game was to clean out Snitchy as he attempted to clear the ball. With the ref on his way over to deliver retribution, Ferguson’s Vincent’s clubmate Lar Foley decided that it was his job and clattered Ryan. One sending off became two and instead of seeing out the game with a man advantage, it was 14 on 14.

With Foley now missing from the left of the backline, Jimmy Doyle and Donie Nealon suddenly found space and three from Doyle plus one from Nealon put Tipp back in front. Dublin stayed in touch and with the gap at one, the fates transpired against Snitchy again when he was penalised for picking the ball off the ground.

“I didn’t pick it off the ground,” Ferguson would tell GAA scribe, Sean Moran years later. “I can still remember what happened.”

His team-mate Jimmy Gray backed him up, explaining: “Des had very long arms and used to sweep the ball up but he didn’t pick it off the ground. They’re the things you have to get to win matches.”

Either way, a free and another point it was. Despite a late Achill Boothman point and a missed goal chance from Jackson, the Premier held on to win by the minimum, Ferguson’s contribution to keeping them goalless in vain. Dublin’s chance to win a first All-Ireland since 1938 had passed. The boost that hurling may have got in the capital from a win would become a perennial source of barstool debate and they’ve not been as close since.

For Snitchy, a move to Kells due to work in 1961 had meant he was commuting to play for both Vincent’s and the Dubs. After more disappointing years that saw the Dubs fail to progress in Leinster, he bit the bullet and transferred to Gaeil Colmcille and even spent a season hurling for Meath.

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Des Ferguson and Norman Allen pictured in 2012 at a celebration of the Dublin footballers' National League Final win in 1953

Yet amazingly, his All-Ireland winning days weren’t over. The tale of how Snitchy Ferguson was tending his garden in Kells one June 1963 morning when Kevin Heffernan “happened to be passing” is one of the great GAA yarns.

Heffo himself had retired at this stage and was now a Dublin football selector looking for an edge ahead of a Leinster semi with Kildare. After a little small talk, the real reason for his visit was revealed when he asked his old friend to tog out at full-forward the next day as Oliver Callaghan was injured.

An incredulous Snitchy was lost for words but when one Vincent’s man asked another for a favour there was only one answer allowed. With the element of surprise essential, Ferguson was sworn to secrecy with not even his team-mates made aware.

So there was no arriving through the player’s entrance for Snitchy who became the only man to pay into a Leinster Championship game at the turnstile, sneak into the dressing room and end up scoring 1-2 in a 2-7 to 1-5 victory. His goal, with the sides tied at 1-5 apiece with six minutes left, was the match-winning score.

A win over Laois meant another Leinster medal and points against Down and then against Galway in the final meant that Ferguson had another coveted Celtic Cross, albeit not in the code he’d have preferred.

If the boys in blue are ever to get as close to an All-Ireland title as Snitchy and his team-mates did, then it will be through the likes of Paddy Smyth that success will have to be built on. Potentially lost to the sport after taking a year out to play rugby in 2014, Smyth was back in harness to captain Dublin to the fifth of six 21st century Leinster minor titles in 2016.

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Paddy Smyth captained Dublin to a Leinster GAA Hurling Minor Championship title in 2016

Marked out as one to watch back then, Smyth featured under Ger Cunningham in the 2017 league opener but was given his Championship bow by Pat Gilroy last year. He instantly looked at home. Strong showings as Dublin came out on the wrong side of two-point defeats to Kilkenny and Wexford and a single point loss to All-Ireland champions, Galway, had increased optimism for the future.

The fact that Smyth was still eligible for the Leinster U-21 championship later in the summer and shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy U-21 Team of the Year also highlighted his potential.

Despite Gilroy’s surprising departure, the Clontarf player moved seamlessly into Mattie Kenny’s set-up and has built a reputation as one of the finest young backs in the game. A solid ever-present league campaign even saw him notch a point against Carlow.

A goal-line clearance to deny Stephen Bennett in the win against Waterford highlighted his tenacity as Dublin came through the round-robin to dispatch Tipp, before losing a tight league semi to current All-Ireland holders, Limerick.

The nature of sport in general means that it’s usually those who appear on the scoresheet that garner the most attention. Yet stopping scores is just as important as taking them.

Smyth’s performance in the win that saw Dublin dump Galway out of the Championship was notable in that the back-line kept forwards of the calibre of Conor Whelan and Brian Concannon to a point apiece.

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Smyth in action against Galway in this year’s Leinster championship

While Smyth will be hurting as much as the rest of Dublin panel after their shock defeat to Laois, there's little doubt that a long career should stretch out in front of him. If his generation can finally be the one to break an All-Ireland hoodoo that’s now in its ninth decade, then this rising star will instantly make the step up to legend status.

On what’s been a traumatic week for Dublin hurling, let’s finish on a heartwarming note. Pictures emerged last Christmas of Dublin boss, Jim Gavin, bringing Sam Maguire out to Snitchy Ferguson’s Kells homestead to reacquaint him with the trophy he won twice.

How nice would it be to see Mattie Kenny do the same with Liam MacCarthy to let this legend finally get his hands on the trophy he’s always said he’d have swapped his two football medals for? And although this winter will see another return to the drawing board for Dublin, maybe young Paddy Smyth can be one of the men to help make that happen in the future. Don’t forget to catch up on this series’ previous comparisons of Waterford’s Shane Bennett and John Mullane and Galway’s Conor Whelan and Joe Cooney.

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