Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Comparing Galway’s Conor Whelan and Joe Cooney
It’s hardly surprising that when Galway reached last year’s All-Ireland decider, many fans began to believe that a sustained period at the top table was on the cards.
With traditional giants Kilkenny and Tipperary stuttering and back-to-back finals reached for the first time since Joe Cooney was cutting a swathe through defences in the 1980s, the future looked bright for the men in maroon. Even the fact that their stirring comeback fell just short as they ceded their crown to Limerick did little to dampen the optimism.
All of which meant that this year’s early exit at the hands of Dublin came as a rude awakening. But is it just a blip or a sign of something more serious?
As part of a new series in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy, official sponsor of the All-Ireland Senior and 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 Galway’s finest.
Given the change in how the Championship is structured, expecting the current crop to emulate the Galway side that reached four finals in a row between 1985 and 1988 was always a big ask.
After all, the vagaries of the provincial system meant that the Tribesmen played a total of 10 Championship games across those four seasons. In comparison, it took nine games from last season’s opener until their reign was ended by Limerick.
But the lack of game time in that golden era should not be regarded as lessening the impact that Joe Cooney had on the county and the game as a whole.
One of a family of 14, the Sarsfield's man certainly wasn’t short of children to puck a sliotar with. Five of the Cooney brothers celebrated club success together and elder brother Jimmy was on the Galway team that won a first Liam MacCarthy for 57 years in 1980.
While Jimmy was tasting All-Ireland glory, Joe was gaining attention in the underage grades. A national crown at minor level in 1983 was followed by an U-21 title three years later. Yet Joe’s progress had been such that by the time that U-21 medal was secured, he’d already made his senior breakthrough with Galway reaching the ‘85 showpiece. A late disallowed goal meant Offaly held on to triumph 2-11 to 1-12 but a first All-Star in his debut season meant Cooney had arrived.
A second shot at a Celtic Cross ended in similar fashion 12 months later, with Cork’s win meaning the 21-year-old’s only prize for scoring 0-4 in the final was a second All-Star.
But the third time is often the charm and so it proved in 1987. A first senior medal was secured with his 2-6 in the National League final, making up over half of Galway’s 3-12 as they pipped Clare by two points.
Entry to the All-Ireland fray came at the semi-final stage against Tipperary. Cooney was centre-stage, his 0-6 only bettered by 1-4 from fellow forward Éanna Ryan in a 3-20 to 1-17 victory. A third different opponent awaited for their third final in the shape of Kilkenny.
While the game wasn’t a classic, Cooney was again the difference. Top scorer for Cyril Farrell’s men with 0-5, a typical burst late on finally shook off the Cats. Cooney’s lay-off worked its way to Noel Lane who bundled the only goal of the game home. A 1-12 to 0-9 win saw Cooney pick up his first MacCarthy Cup and earn a third successive All-Star and the Hurler of the Year award.
1988 saw their league defence end with a quarter-final defeat to Offaly but come the summer, the Tribesmen were back in the groove. Cooney hit 1-7 in a facile quarter-final win over London before the serious business started. Another 0-4 backed up by goals from Lane, Ryan and Martin Naughton were enough to dispatch Offaly and earn Galway a shot at a fourth different final opponent, with Tipp lying in wait.
Taking up more of a playmaking role, Cooney only provided 0-1 from the half-forward line but another Lane goal was the icing on the cake in a 1-14 to 0-13 win. Back-to-back All-Irelands had been brought west for the first time.
With that Galway team now reaching their pomp, the talk was all of three-in-a-row. And the hype upped another notch as an inspirational Cooney scored 1-7 to help reclaim the National League against old enemies Tipp.
But with the three-month gap between the league win and an All-Ireland semi dominated by the Tony Keady affair, the wheels finally came off. A ridiculously harsh 12-month ban had been applied to Keady after he stayed in New York after the All-Stars tour and played in the local championship. Galway's last-minute appeal to Central Council came to naught, leaving one of their stars sidelined.
A bad-tempered semi saw their hopes of history dashed with the 0-3 contributed by Cooney overshadowed by 0-8 by Tipp’s Nicky English and a final score of 1-17 to 2-11. A fourth All-Star was scant consolation.
Appointed captain in 1990, Cooney seemed on a mission to make up for the side’s league relegation. He scored 0-9 in the quarter and 0-8 in a semi-final win over Offaly to set up a fifth final in six years.
Cork were the opposition this time and Cooney’s first-half performance was the stuff of legends, an astonishing 1-5 from play seeing Galway five clear by the break.
But they say goals win games and Cork were full of them in the second period. Their haul of four, added to their one in the first half, was too much to withstand. A late Cooney free to bring his tally to 1-7 and the gap back to the puck of a ball ultimately wasn’t enough as Cork held on 5-15 to 2-21. Galway’s late 80s domination was at an end.
Having collected a fifth All-Star in 1990, Cooney made a final All-Ireland in 1993 although Kilkenny proved too strong once again. A last senior final came in the 1996 National League with Cooney’s goal proving vital as Tipp were put away 2-10 to 2-8.
His inter-county career even stretched into the 21st century with game-time and scores during Galway’s run to another league title in 2000. One final appearance in the All-Ireland semi saw him sprung from the bench in a failed attempt to rein in a Kilkenny team en route to Brian Cody’s first Liam MacCarthy. His achievements saw him named on the Supreme GAA All-Stars team as the new millennium began.
"He won everything that could be won and was one of the great stylists in the game," Galway boss Mattie Murphy paid tribute at the time. “Although he was a class apart, his modesty was an abiding quality. He never put on airs and graces and was as happy presenting medals to U-12s as taking part in high-profile events. He was always willing to make a contribution.”
That new millennium saw Galway repelled by Tipperary and Cork as they knocked on the door in 2001 and 2005 but it was the Joe Canning era by the time they really challenged again. The drawn final with Kilkenny in 2012 was particularly heart-breaking before the Cats romped the replay.
Three years later, an All-Ireland quarter-final saw 18-year-old Conor Whelan mark his senior bow by scoring 1-2 in a defeat of Cork. Although medals at underage level proved elusive with final defeats at minor and U-21s, Whelan had been noted as one to watch.
A winning performance in the 2015 Leinster Intermediate final had led to his fast-track to the seniors and that senior debut 10 days later. Once in the team, Whelan proved impossible to shift.
His two points helped Galway get past Tipp by a solitary point in the semi and, in only his third game, Whelan lined out in his first All-Ireland final.
While deposing Kilkenny ultimately proved beyond a Canning-inspired Galway, Whelan certainly didn’t look out of place, contributing 0-2 with his only blemish a mis-hit goal chance in the last five minutes as the Tribesmen chased the game. Regardless, it had been some arrival for the Kinvara man.
A late Tipp comeback in the 2016 All-Ireland semi saw Whelan miss out on a second final appearance but by the time the following April rolled around the experience gained had the player and the county in a good place.
His first senior medal was secured with 0-5 in a 3-21 to 0-14 hammering of Tipp in the National League. A second soon followed with a Leinster final defeat of Wexford. But the best was yet to come.
Joe Canning may have grabbed the semi-final headlines when his audacious 74th-minute point from the touchline broke Tipp hearts but Whelan’s 0-4 in a clinical display had some commentators touting him for Hurler of the Year.
At only 20 years of age, Whelan faced into a second All-Ireland decider. And while he may not have reached the same heights in the final that saw Canning finally earn his Celtic Cross, his performances over the season were enough to earn an All-Star and the Young Hurler of the Year award for 2017. Also starring that day? One Joseph Cooney Jr, son of the great man himself.
The 2018 league campaign proved relatively forgettable for Galway but the new provincial round robin system introduced that summer proved an ideal stage for Whelan to showcase his development into a top echelon player.
The six games en route to Galway’s Leinster title saw a ‘majestic’ Whelan dubbed their ‘most important player’ by Declan Rooney in the Irish Independent. A total of 2-13 helped Galway retain their Leinster crown after a replay saw them shake off Kilkenny.
It took another replay to get past Clare in the semi. A stunning point from wide left in the first game, essentially replicated by Joe Canning minutes later, showed the rarified air Whelan was now moving in.
Another element of the young forward’s game was on view in the replay with his ability to win frees vital in giving Canning the platform to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Not to mention his own three points from play as Galway finally squeezed past the Banner.
It’s a matter of history now that Galway were unable to replicate Cooney’s team and win back-to-back All-Irelands. Yet even not at his best, Whelan’s stoppage-time goal sparked the revival that saw Limerick hearts flutter.
Only the referee’s final whistle prevented a collective Treaty county cardiac arrest as their eight-point lead was frittered back to the minimum. His collection under the high ball, turn and finish was reminiscent of Cooney at his best.
Unlike Waterford, Galway’s early exit this year won’t see a huge rebuilding process. Canning’s loss through injury probably proved a bridge too far, and at only 30, their talisman should have another few seasons left. But when Father Time eventually catches up with their biggest legend since the Cooney days, it’s Conor Whelan who looks the best-placed rising star to take over the mantle of main man.
If you missed our first comparison between Waterford’s Shane Bennett and John Mullane, you can find it here.
Bord Gáis Energy sponsors the GAA All-Ireland Senior and U-20 Hurling Championships, as well as the GAA Legends Tours of Croke Park. Every Wednesday, they release GAA Rewards as part of their Rewards Club, offering fans exclusive ‘money can’t buy’ experiences and unmissable rewards.
Galway’s rising stars of today will get their campaign for the Bord Gáis Energy U-20 Leinster Championship underway on July 4 against Kilkenny. For more information, check out the Bord Gáis Energy GAA Rewards website.