Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Comparing Limerick's Joe McKenna and Kyle Hayes
Forged in Offaly, polished in Clare and worshipped Shannonside. It’s an unusual route for a legend to travel but when your name is Joe McKenna then your final destination is far more important than the route you travelled to get there.
As part of a series in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy, official sponsor of the All-Ireland Senior and U-20 Hurling Championships, we’ll be comparing rising stars and legends of hurling. This week, we look at two of Limerick’s finest.
Born in the Faithful county village of Shinnore, McKenna had played hurling since childhood with the local club and in national school before continuing his education as a boarder in St. Flannan's College in Ennis.
It was there that he first came up against future teammates such as the great Pat Hartigan as he battled against Limerick schools for the prestigious Dr Harty Cup. But it was his 1970 move to work in the grain industry in Limerick that would shape both his career and his life.
Having transferred to the renowned South Liberties club on the outskirts of the south of the city, McKenna actually turned out for his native county’s seniors on 20 occasions between 1970 and 1973. However, only two of those games were at championship level, a win over Westmeath in 1971 and a defeat to Laois in 1972. Things were brighter at club level with a first Limerick Championship secured with Liberties in the latter year.
With Offaly hurling not the powerhouse it would become a decade later, by the time the 72/73 National League finished with a 1-10 to 3-8 defeat to Cork, McKenna was considering declaring for his new home. It was a decision he and the Treaty wouldn’t regret.
After being parachuted into the panel for the Munster Championship, McKenna made his debut in a semi-final against Clare, having impressed in a number of challenge games. But, come the Munster final, the 22-year-old was on the sideline.
Considering his omission for the Munster final and the subsequent All-Ireland semi against London, it’s fair to say eyebrows were raised when the teams were announced for the All-Ireland final on August 27 and, with Eamon Cregan moved to centre-back, McKenna’s name was listed at left corner-forward.
Yet, come the pre-match parade, there was the big forward marching with his new teammates to face holders Kilkenny, his second game for the county destined to become his most famous.
“I was surprised and delighted to get on in the first place,” McKenna would later say. “And then I had a good start in the match. The half-backs and midfielders were on top and we got the right kind of service.”
Although Seamus Horgan’s miracle save from John Crotty with the sides level on 46 minutes has always been pointed to as the turning point, McKenna more than played his part.
An early point from left corner was followed by a successful move to centre-forward where the big Offalyman helped provide a platform for Richie Bennis’ haul of 10 points. And when Moss Dowling scrambled home the rebound from his shot on Noel Skehan’s goal two minutes after Horgan’s save, Limerick hit the front for a lead they never relinquished.
Despite a knock almost curtailing his involvement, McKenna himself played the full 80 minutes, the game being played in that window when the GAA experimented with the longer duration. And when the final whistle went, ending 33 years of hurt with a 1-21 to 1-14 final score. McKenna’s status as an honorary Limerickman was assured.
It’s unlikely that anyone involved with Limerick hurling imagined that win would be the beginning of another drought, let alone one that lasted an even longer 46 years. Yet despite the best on-field efforts of McKenna and his teammates, that’s what came to pass.
They’d come close the following year, finishing runner-up to Cork in the league before a 6-14 to 3-9 demolition of Clare earned McKenna a first Munster medal. But with the Treaty having waited over a month for the All-Ireland final, Kilkenny were too sharp and took their revenge for the previous year’s defeat in style, 3-19 to 1-13.
Despite the defeat, McKenna’s own performances had been recognised with a first All-Star and it was individual honours that would mark that spell of his career. Further All-Stars followed in ‘75, '78 and ‘79 but it would be a new decade before the team would experience glory again.
1980 had started well with a good league campaign finally ending after a replay defeat to Cork in the final. By now often moving into the full-forward line, McKenna’s eye for goal was truly in with his 6’3” frame ideal for his trademark catch, turn and pull contributing to his 4-11 in the knock-out stages.
Limerick didn’t have long to wait for revenge after a semi-final win over Clare found them back in a second consecutive Munster decider against the Rebel county. Unlike the previous year and the league, this time Limerick led almost from start to finish. Four years after his first, Joe had a second Munster medal.
By now, Offaly were making moves in Leinster and McKenna’s former team had turned heads with a 3-17 to 5-10 Leinster final win over Kilkenny. Alas, we were denied the sub-plot of seeing the big man turn out against his native county when Galway proved too strong for the Faithful in their All-Ireland semi.
And alas for McKenna, they’d also prove too strong for Limerick in the final. The first 10 minutes were what did for Limerick with goals from Bernie Forde and PJ Molloy seeing Galway 2-1 to no score ahead after a blistering start.
While Limerick would rally and a McKenna goal in the 52nd minute would make the score 2-10 to 2-6, the gap was always just too far to bridge. Two points was as close as they could get and when the whistle blew with the score 2-15 to 3-9, Liam MacCarthy was heading west for the first time since 1923.
A fifth All-Star was the reward for that season and a record sixth came in 1981, after what’s surely considered his finest Munster campaign.
A National League that ended in relegation had raised queries about whether it was time for McKenna and others of the class of ‘73 to move aside. And with the side 2-10 to 0-3 down at half-time in their semi against Tipp, those queries seemed legitimate.
But with the wind behind them, Limerick, inspired by a McKenna hat-trick in the seven minutes between the 51st and the 58th, roared back. The third goal incredibly put the Treaty two points ahead only for a John Grogan green flag to hand the advantage back to the Premier. With Gerry McMahon and Pat Fox swapping points, Tipp had their noses in front in the last minute but up stepped McKenna again, his final score the levelling point of a 4-10 to 3-13 thriller.
The sides would meet again two weeks later and once more McKenna’s marauding play from full-forward would be decisive. First off, he won a penalty which Eamonn Cregan converted and then immediately added a goal himself. From 2-5 to 0-6 ahead, the Treaty didn’t look back, running out 3-17 to 2-12 winners and headed for a final against a Clare side chasing a first provincial title since 1932.
Unbelievably, the final was another ‘Joe show’, a second hat-trick plus the same number of points taking his Munster tally to 7-6. His second and third goals in the 51st and 66th minutes were daggers into the Banner hearts as they battled to stay in the game. The ‘McKenna Is Magic!’ headlines were richly deserved. As was their All-Ireland semi-final shot at revenge on Galway, their conquerors from 12 months previous.
For Limerick, a scrappy semi turned into a case of what might have been. What might have been had Sean Foley not been sent off in the eighth minute? What might have been had Galway not been able to deploy that extra man to double mark McKenna, thus restricting him to two points? What might have been had Eamonn Cregan taken a point instead of seeing his second-half penalty saved? And what might have been had they managed to cling onto the 0-11 to 1-5 lead they managed to eke out on the hour mark?
But when Galway clawed back those three points in the last phase of the game, Limerick were facing into the second replay of their Championship.
If the first game was widely derided for the quality of play, if not the excitement, the second couldn’t have been more different. A see-saw battle swung back and forth with Limerick leading by a point at half-time, three points down on 44 minutes and four points up on 50 before a magnificent 2-8 without reply from Galway over the next quarter of an hour put the game beyond them. A final Limerick flurry saw them grab 1-2 and reduce the deficit to five but it was too little, too late. 4-16 to 2-17 saw Galway into the final.
Once again, that win deprived the masses of an opportunity to see McKenna face his home team in a final. But it would have been some consolation for him to see the Faithful finally produce a team to join himself and his Uncle Paul, who hurled with Tipp in the 1930s, as the only Offalymen to win a senior All-Ireland.
Although McKenna would keep banging the goals in, he would only see early championship exits until his retirement in 1985. There was time for him to complete the clean sweep of senior medals with a league triumph in 1984 in the twilight of his career. As usual, the green flag got an outing with his 2-2 setting the tone for a 3-16 to 1-9 win over Wexford. His second goal, a classic McKenna catch, turn and shoot was a fitting way to finish his last final.
While Joe’s playing days may have ended the following year, his contribution to Limerick hurling certainly didn’t. And while his two-year spell as manager from 2005 and 2006 may not have gone as well as he’d have hoped, his next involvement would prove instrumental in finally bridging that long road back to the peak he’d reached in only his second game with the county. And that’s where his story intersects with that of Kyle Hayes.
With Munster titles in ‘94 and ‘96 and National Leagues in ‘92 and ‘97 proving to be false dawns, Limerick’s All-Ireland drought had outstripped the one broken in 1973 by McKenna’s final year in charge. By the time player strikes were contributing to 22 and 31 point league defeats against Tipperary and Dublin en route to relegation in 2010, a change in approach was clearly needed.
Founded a year later by the likes of McKenna, Liam Hayes and Eibhear O’Dea with the backing of JP McManus, those involved were able to convince the county board that the Limerick Academy was the way forward.
Taking over the underage structure, the net was cast wide into non-hurling strongholds such as Kyle Hayes’ Kildimo-Pallaskenry club in an effort to nurture the best young talent in the county. As McKenna said; “The key in the early days was that at the ages of 14, 15 and 16 it was solely development. We missed no player. We didn’t win our tournaments but we just wanted to perform at minor level and get into Croke Park.
"Some other counties might have missed that point because there was too much pressure on winning. We just took a wider view that the players had to be developed and be allowed to grow the type of mindset and develop physically so that they could end up playing senior hurling for Limerick.”
With a young Hayes among those brought on board, things started happening quickly at the underage grades. An All-Ireland minor was reached in 2016 and although Tipp proved too strong, it provided a platform for two years later.
A step up to U-21 level in 2017 proved even more successful as a team including the likes of Hayes, Cian Lynch and Aaron Gillane were too good for Kilkenny and added a second All-Ireland at that grade for the Academy to that won in 2015. A spot on the Bord Gáis Energy Under-21 Team of the Year was a formality.
Hayes had already made his senior bow earlier that year in a league tie against Wexford and having played at full-forward for the minor, centre-half for the 21s and centre-forward for the seniors, it became clear that the county had a major talent in their midst.
Although Hayes himself has stated that centre-half is his favoured position, it’s in the forwards that Limerick boss John Kiely has placed his faith in him. And he’s been rewarded in spades.
Hayes notched his first senior goals in a defeat of Laois in a 2017 league match with 2-2 when he was still 19. And although his Championship debut ended in a Munster semi defeat to Clare, the occasion was marked with another goal. The manner he fielded, spun, found space and shot was McKenna-esque in its ease.
He was hitting the net again a year later as a win over Galway in the 2018 league secured promotion to Division 1A. And he was ever-present throughout the Munster Championship as Limerick’s third place was enough to see them into a Preliminary Quarter-Final against Carlow. A first-minute Hayes goal set the tone for an easy win but with Kilkenny waiting next, most thought 2018 would just be another step in the development of this team.
When the Cats were next to fall, people started sitting up to take notice of Limerick's free-flowing style. Only three of their 27 points came from the placed ball with Hayes’ own contribution of three helping towards a two-point win.
Even so, Cork were fancied in the semi yet a stunning comeback from six points down with six minutes left led to extra-time, where the youthful Limerick team finished the job on a 3-32 to 2-31 scoreline. Ahead of schedule, the Treaty found themselves in an All-Ireland final against the holders and old rivals from the McKenna era, Galway.
It was this final that would firmly imprint Hayes on the nation’s consciousness. A man of the match performance where he provided four points as well as assisting Graeme Mulcahy’s goal, a scrambled effort that brought back memories of Moss Dowling’s finish the ‘73 win, was vital in building the cushion that enabled Limerick to hold off Galway’s late surge.
While the winning margin may only have been a point, no one Shannonside was complaining. With the winning team sporting an average age of 23, no one could say the Academy hadn’t delivered. And while Hayes just missed out on a maiden All-Star, the Young Hurler of the Year award was justified recognition.
2019 brought further glory. A 22-year wait for a league title was ended in March as Hayes started in a 1-24 to 0-19 win over Waterford. And after watching their minors claim the Munster title in June, the seniors followed suit with Hayes on the scoresheet again. His second-half opportunistic finish opened up a six-point gap on Tipp that ultimately killed them off.
While McKenna took two matches to win his Celtic Cross against the two seasons it took Hayes, it had only taken Hayes 11 months to complete the clean sweep of senior medals as opposed to McKenna’s 11 years.
Limerick’s bid to retain the trophy may have fallen just short in contentious circumstances against Kilkenny this year. But with the work that legend Joe McKenna has put in to help bring through rising stars like Kyle Hayes, you’d get long odds on it being another 46 years before Liam MacCarthy arrives back at Colbert Station once more.
Don’t forget to catch up on this series’ previous comparisons of Wexford's Rory O'Connor and Tony Doran, Kilkenny’s Richie Leahy and Eddie Brennan, Waterford’s Shane Bennett and John Mullane, Galway’s Conor Whelan and Joe Cooney, and Dublin's Paddy Smyth and Des ‘Snitchy’ Ferguson.
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