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Sunday 18 August 2019

Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Comparing Tipperary's Nicky English and Jake Morris

Nicky English is tackled by Galway's Gerry McInerney and Conor Hayes in the All Ireland Hurling Final
Nicky English is tackled by Galway's Gerry McInerney and Conor Hayes in the All Ireland Hurling Final

Tony Considine

Liam Sheedy’s second coming as Tipperary boss has had more than a touch of going back to the future about it.

Last season had seen a number of rising stars such as Jake Morris make their mark before exiting in the group stage of an ultra-competitive Munster Championship. It felt like a changing of the guard was coming and the questions asked were if this was the end of that golden generation of Premier hurlers that took top honours in 2010 and 2016 during a Tipp/Kilkenny rivalry for the ages.

But with Michael Ryan departing following that defeat to Clare and the 2010 Liam MacCarthy-winning manager re-entering the stage, Sheedy kept faith with legends like the McGraths, the Mahers and the O’Dwyer’s. He’s been repaid with a superb Munster round-robin as well as a bounce back from their provincial final defeat against Limerick to take their place in this weekend’s All-Ireland final.

Yet, while there’s little doubt that those names will rightly take their place in the Tipp roll of honour when their time is eventually up, it’s unlikely they’ll find a perch on it as high as Sheedy’s one-time team-mate and one-time boss, Nicky English.

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 Tipperary’s finest.  

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English in action against Antrim in the 1989 All-Ireland Hurling Final

It’s a funny little fact that Nicholas English’s first appearance in the famous Blue-and-Gold was as a footballer but a fact it is. A talented dual player, in a county not known for its prowess with the bigger ball, the young Lattin-Cullen player broke onto the Tipp minor football panel in 1979 before playing both codes at that grade as the 80s began.

It was to be a successful entry with his first season in inter-county hurling rewarded with Munster and All-Ireland minor medals after big wins against Limerick and Wexford. A move to U-21 level in 1981 would prove equally bountiful with the feat repeated, Cork and Kilkenny the victims on those occasions.

In a county known to describe itself as ‘The Home of Hurling’ since the 1800s when Michael Cusack remarked: “The championship of Tipperary is almost as good as the championship of Ireland”, the sort of drought being experienced at senior level in 1982 was borne heavily. With no provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland since 1971, it’s little surprise that the minors and U-21’s sweeping all beneath them was garnering significant attention.

Fast-tracked into the senior set-up, English would make his debut in 1982 while still competing at U-21. There was little chance to shine with Cork ending Tipp interest in the Munster opener but that wouldn’t be the case 12 months later.

Even though the Premier’s 1983 campaign would only last one additional game, English’s performances in the win over Clare and the defeat to Waterford were enough to secure a first All-Star.

It was the beginning of an astonishing run of individual awards but the wait for team glory continued as Tipp’s improvement was incremental rather than instant. A Munster final was reached in ‘84 but English’s goal couldn’t prevent Cork coming out on top. All-Star number two followed.

The same story applied in ‘85 as English’s eye for goal developed. Two in a provincial semi-final replay win over Clare were backed up by 2-3 in the final only for a John Fenton-inspired Cork to deny them once again. A third All-Star on the bounce duly arrived.

A disappointing 1986 defeat to Clare in English’s absence meant the drought had stretched to 16 years when the 1987 season rolled around. And Tipp were finally about to emerge from the shadows on an epic Munster Championship journey.

A returning English had missed a handy opening win over Kerry but was back in harness for a semi-final against old rivals, Clare. He wasn’t long announcing his return with a goal on six minutes. But a late Gerry McInerney goal meant English’s 1-3 was only enough for a draw and the sides would clash again two weeks later.

A goal in each half added to four points in what the Irish Independent reported as an “impeccable” performance helped a rampant Tipp to an incredible 23 point win and left them in good fettle for a chance to reap the revenge on Cork they'd waited two years for.

And after English had found the net with his boot - having lost his hurl - on 49 minutes to put Tipp seven points clear, their fans started believing the famine was over.

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English celebrates kicking a goal against Cork after losing his hurl

But this Cork side were made of stern stuff and with old foe Fenton to the fore, they started chipping away at the lead. A Fenton point on 66 minutes reduced the deficit to two before a Kieran Kingston point incredibly put Cork in front for the first time in the game. When Fenton pointed again, the Premier fans had moved from elation to despair.

Yet where previous Tipp teams may have crumbled, they dug in. Pat Fox had reduced the gap to the minimum entering stoppage time and when English managed to win a free two minutes beyond the 70, Fox took aim and Tipp lived to breathe another day on a scoreline of 1-18 apiece.

That day arrived a week later where, unbelievably, the sides were once again level after 70 minutes. In fact, the game couldn’t have been more different from the previous week with English’s first-half goal keeping Tipp in a game that they were 1-10 to 1-5 down in at the break.

Indeed, having scored a late point to take the game to extra-time, Tipp never held the lead until four minutes into the second half of those additional minutes. A brace of goals from substitute Michael Doyle followed by another by Donie O’Connell finally put paid to Cork after 170 minutes with the scoreboard reading 4-22 to 1-22.

“The famine is over!” roared captain Richard Stakelum in his acceptance speech.

“The dark cloud which brought despair to Tipperary for 16 years has finally been lifted,” read Donal Keenan’s match report. “The brilliant sunshine which now shines through has brought great joy, an emotion the blue and gold followers had often thought they would never again experience.”

English himself said years later that finally getting past Cork was a “major progression” and rated the game as his greatest victory.

The emotion of the win may have been a factor in the subsequent six-point All-Ireland semi defeat to Galway but the Munster title and English’s 0-6 in that Galway loss had him back on the All-Star selection and Babs Keating’s men were well placed to make the next step.

A first National League followed in 1988 with English now captain and beginning to take free-taking duties from Pat Fox. His 7-33 over the campaign was bettered only by Fox’s 6-40. Munster was successfully defended and though a nine-point win over Cork was less comfortable than it looks, the ghosts of those ‘84 and ‘85 defeats were laid to rest. But a new rivalry that would define this team had begun the emerge the previous year.

A semi-final against Antrim was easily navigated. English’s 1-7 was a decent portion of Tipp’s 3-15, outscoring the Ulster side’s 2-10. Waiting in the final were last year’s conquerors and champions, Galway.

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English in action against Galway

Unfortunately for the Tipp faithful, they weren’t ready to cross that Rubicon yet. Battle gamely though they did, an early Galway lead of three points after 16 minutes proved too much to reel in and while the gap was reduced to a point on a number of occasions, that was as good as it got. English finished with 0-6 from limited service which assured another All-Star, but the big prize would have to wait, a late Noel Lane goal sealing a four-point victory for the men in maroon.

There was more pain inflicted by Galway in 1989 when the Tribesmen pinched Tipp’s National League crown 2-16 to 4-8.  But with Pat Fox, John Kennedy and John Heffernan joining English on the injury list for the final, heads weren’t bowed by the defeat as the Premier marched back into Munster.

2-6 in the semi and 0-13 in the final put paid to Limerick and Waterford as English led his county to three provincial titles in a row and pushed memories of the famine even further away. The reward was an opportunity for revenge with Galway parachuted directly into the last four of the All-Ireland in the absence of a Connacht Championship.

“For some time now, explosive undercurrents have been bubbling menacingly just below the surface of the Galway-Tipperary rivalry,” began Martin Breheny’s column the following morning. “And yesterday, it erupted like an angry volcano,” it continued.

Yet, having suffered those losses in the previous two seasons, it’s unlikely that anyone in the Tipperary camp cared. Ten men including English had been booked but it was the two red cards issued to Sylvie Linnane and Michael McGrath that proved decisive as Tipp finally put the westerners away 2-11 to 1-17.

So, Tipp were back for a second shot at Liam MacCarthy in three years, this time against Ulster champions Antrim, who had shocked Offaly with a four-goal blitz in the other semi-final

There was another four-goal blitz to come the final but this time it was Antrim on the receiving end. The famine may have been referenced in the headlines again but this time a positive slant with a “Tipp feast ends famine” narrative sparked joy in the Premier. After 18 years, Liam MacCarthy was finally returning to the ‘Home of Hurling’.

English’s own final was one to remember, a record total of 2-12 making up exactly half of the Tipp total and matching Antrim’s 3-9 alone. The gap was the biggest winning margin since Antrim’s last final appearance in 1943 and the man of the match award was as one-sided a contest as the final itself. English’s contribution to a historic season was justly rewarded with a sixth All-Star and the Hurler of the Year award.

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English takes on Cork’s Dennis Walsh in the Munster Hurling Final Replay

Having bridged the gap, the hangover wasn’t long coming. 1990 saw a place in Division 1 of the league salvaged by a draw against Kilkenny in the final game and while a fourth successive Munster final was reached, Cork would put an end to their reign as provincial and All-Ireland champs.

1991 will always be remembered as the year when the drawn match became the main talking point in GAA circles. Dublin and Meath had already shared their run of four games in Leinster football and on the day that Laois and Louth were headed for another Croke Park replay, Tipp and Cork with at the same with the small ball in Munster.

Finding themselves seven points down as the game entered its final quarter, the Blue and Gold rallied and despite a late point from the boot of an off-colour English being incorrectly ruled out, Pat Fox stepped up to level matters.

Perhaps English’s poor performance could be put down to the injury that made Babs Keating not risk him in the replay. And for most of the game, it looked like the gamble wouldn’t pay off as Cork again took control and led by nine with 22 minutes left.

But this was now a battle-hardened team and with Pat Fox leading from the front, they blitzed Cork over the next 15 minutes to take the lead just past the hour mark. They wouldn’t relinquish it and while Cork responded to Aidan Ryan’s stoppage-time goal with one of their own, come full-time, the Pairc Ui Chaoimh scoreboard read Tipperary 4-19 Cork 4-15. English would have his chance to play in the latter end of the Championship.

How much of a chance remained in the balance over the following two weeks as English battled with the hamstring injury that had been disrupting his summer. Picked for the semi-final against old foes Galway, the forward only lasted 30 minutes before leaving the fray. His absence made little difference as a fading Galway were ruthlessly dispatched 3-13 to 1-9.

With much of the following month’s discourse taken up with whether English and team-mate Cormac Bonner would be fit, it was a relief to the Tipp support to see both start against Kilkenny in the decider. And it was also a relief that when both succumbed to their injuries in the second half, Michael Cleary’s mis-hit free had dropped into the Cats’ net giving Tipp a lead they wouldn’t surrender. While it had been a fitful season compared to his dominance of ‘91, English still had a second Celtic Cross in his pocket.

Another title hangover saw Tipp miss out in Munster the following year with Cork accounting for them in the Munster semi. 1993 saw a final Munster medal for English only for the pendulum to swing back to Galway in the All-Ireland semi. And while it would be another three years before he finally hung up his boots, defeats by Limerick in the ‘95 and ‘96 Munster finals were as close as he’d come to adding to his medal haul on the field.

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Tipperary manager Nicky English is lifted by Tipperary fans after the 2001 All Ireland Senior Hurling Final win against Galway

Given his legendary status was long assured before he retired, the fact that English then added league, Munster and All-Ireland titles as Tipp manager between 1998 and 2001 brings that status to the next level. So it’s probably unfair to even imagine any young player having a similar impact. Yet by the age of 20, young Jake Morris has already emulated the early part of English’s career.

Top-scoring for Tipp with 1-3 as they won the 2016 All-Ireland Minor Championship, that was soon backed up with a 2018 U-21 All-Ireland, where his 1-4 again top-scored for the Premier.

Morris had already marked his senior Championship debut with a last-minute point from the bench to secure a draw with Cork three months before that U-21 final. The season may have ended on a low point for player and county with his shot off the Clare post on 65 minutes being collected and despatched into the opposite end only 20 seconds later ultimately leading to Tipp’s early exit, he showed great maturity not letting it affect him.   

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Jake Morris being chased by Limerick’s Conor Boylan in this year’s league

Morris’ development continued during this year’s league with a mixture of starts and substitute appearances. It’s been a similar story so far in this year’s championship. Decent cameos during the Munster group stage led to a starting berth for the final against Limerick. While that 2-26 to 2-14 was a chastening experience for Tipp as a whole, events since have shown no lasting effects on team or player.

Another cameo followed in the quarter-final victory over Laois but with Morris still being eligible for the new U-20 grade, he was also lighting up that tournament. With his side 2-17 to 2-15 down as the clock ticked into the last minute of stoppage time, it was Morris who popped up with Nicky English-esque timing to blast home a goal and secure another Munster title for the Premier.

Five days later, he almost did it again, only now at senior All-Ireland semi-final level. This time the sides were level on 70 minutes when Morris collected a high ball and crashed it into the net with a technique that belied his youth.

In the heel of the hunt, it was lucky that when the referee bizarrely chose to disallow the goal and call the play back for a Tipperary free, it made no difference. The energy that Morris and other young subs such as Willie Connors and Ger Browne injected was crucial as 14-man Tipp hauled in a five-point deficit.

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Morris celebrates the goal before it was eventually disallowed

And though his goal had been chalked off, it was Morris who popped up again in the last minute of stoppage time with the insurance point, as the Premier closed out a 1-28 to 3-20 victory in a game that will still be spoken about when Morris’ own playing days are done.   

With the level that Sheedy’s tried and trusted have performed at, it’s probably unlikely that we’ll see Morris start against Kilkenny this Sunday. But his case will have been helped by the 1-5 he’s scored as his U-20 side put Wexford to the sword in their repeat of the senior fixture at the same stage.

But though he may not begin the game, he’ll certainly see some action with few betting that he won’t leave some sort of mark. And while this 20-year-old rising star may have some miles to travel before he can be truly compared to a legend like Nicky English, if he can complete the triple crown of minor, U-21 and senior All-Ireland titles that it took English till the age of 27 to achieve, he’ll have made a hell of a start.

Don’t forget to catch up on this series’ previous comparisons of Limerick's Joe McKenna and Kyle Hayes, 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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