Wednesday 21 August 2019

Rising stars vs legends of hurling: Wexford's Rory O'Connor and Tony Doran

Wexford's Rory O'Connor
Wexford's Rory O'Connor

Tony Considine

Ask any historian to name the parish of Boolavogue’s most famous son and it’s likely the answer will be Fr Murphy. After all, the parish priest and 1798 rebellion leader has been immortalised in the ballad that takes its name from the Co Wexford village and his execution left him as renowned a martyr for Irish freedom as the 1916 leaders.

But ask any GAA historian the same question and their answer will undoubtedly be Tony Doran.

As part of a new 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 Wexford's finest.

It may have been 1968 when a 22-year-old Doran really imprinted himself on the national consciousness but he was already something of a local hero in the Model County by then. Two goals as Wexford claimed a first minor All-Ireland in 1963 had meant a swift promotion to the newly created U-21 grade. And Wexford’s reputation as a team on the up was duly enhanced by appearances in the first three finals.

Although Doran missed the ‘64 decider through injury, he was on the mark the following year as he, alongside his brother Joe, added a 21s medal to his minor with a 3-7 to 1-4 win over Tipp. Doran was still in situ in 1966 as Wexford reached a third U-21 final on the spin but despite finding the net in all three games, Cork eventually prevailed after two replays.

His form at the underage grades meant that progression to the seniors was a given and the goals kept flowing. The 1967 league saw him hit the net twice against Laois, bag a hat-trick against Offaly and grab another in a Division 1A final defeat to Kilkenny.

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Tony Doran (right) pictured with Offaly’s Aiden Fogarty

Come the knock-out stage, he was at it again. A brace in the semi helped dispose of Limerick. He got another at Headquarters, as the Yellow-bellies took revenge on the Cats for their earlier defeat to take the title home on a 3-10 to 1-09 scoreline.

Finishing second top scorer for the campaign behind Kilkenny great Eddie Keher was some way for a 21-year-old to announce himself on the senior stage. And although Kilkenny would end Wexford’s championship in the Leinster final, a Cú Chulainn award - that era’s All-Star equivalent - was just reward for a stunning season.

It was Doran’s eye for a goal that really marked him out. A physical player no doubt, but one blessed with fantastic hand-to-eye coordination. A ciotóg, his ability to pluck a ball out of the sky was so great that people said he could show the sliotar to his opponent before he buried it.

The following season brought even greater heights. Having grown up in the golden era that saw Wexford claim three All-Irelands between 1955 and 1960, expectations in the county had been raised by the league win. With Galway competing in Munster, the All-Ireland final was set to be contested between the Leinster and Munster champions.

2-2 from Doran in the Leinster semi helped see Dublin beaten 3-15 to 1-11. All-Ireland champions Kilkenny were waiting in the final but another two Doran goals were vital as Wexford prevailed by a single point, 3-13 to 4-9. A free-scoring Tipperary had rampaged through Munster scoring 7-24 in their two games and would make up the opposition.

‘The Game That Belonged To Tony Doran’ screamed Monday’s headlines. Eight points down at half-time, most present believed the jig was up. There’d be no dancing at the crossroads this year. That was until ‘tall Tony Doran from Buffer’s Alley came thundering into a game with which his name will henceforth always be remembered in hurling history’ wrote Padraig Puirseal the following morning.

With nothing to lose, Wexford boss Podge Kehoe had instructed Doran to hang at the edge of the parallelogram, having moved him to full-forward towards the end of the half. The tactic paid dividends almost immediately with a Doran goal six minutes into the half and from there on the Model were unstoppable. Two more goals from Jack Berry and Paul Lynch followed and by the time Doran added his second with eight minutes to play to put his team ahead, Tipp were done.

Incredibly, another Berry goal added to the points that were flowing, including one from Doran, seeing Wexford eight clear with four minutes left. Two late Tipp goals were in vain. Wexford 5-8, Tipperary 3-12, and Liam MacCarthy was heading to the crossroads after all. His 6-3 over three Championship games meant Tony Doran had arrived.

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Doran takes on Offaly’s Eugene Coughlan in the Leinster final

While further All-Ireland honours proved impossible to come by, Doran’s prowess as a hurler remained on an upward curve.

While 2-3 from him wasn’t enough to stop Offaly ending Wexford’s Leinster reign in 1969 following a league final defeat to Cork, they regained the province in 1970. Doran was central to that success, scoring his usual brace against the Dubs and the Cats before only managing one in a semi-final win over Galway,

He was back on the double in the final but Cork were just too strong in a game which featured an astonishing 11 goals. With Wexford captained by Enniscorthy Shamrock’s Michael Collins, the Rebels’ would slay another big fella, their 6-21 leaving Wexford reeling despite scoring 5-10 themselves. 

While Doran would keep knocking the goals in, turning those goals into medals proved difficult in an era, like so many before and since, when Kilkenny were dominating the province. No matter what the Doran family, with his brother Colm now also on the panel, or Wexford produced, the Cats had an answer.

Five successive Leinster final defeats between 1971 and 1975 were at least broken by a league win in 1973. Again Doran was on the double in the final, his two goals helping dispose of Cork. The fact that Kilkenny had topped the league campaign only for fourth-placed Wexford to squeeze past them by the minimum in the semi-final added something extra to the success but it was business as usual in the Championship until 1976.

That year would begin with Wexford suffering the vagaries of the league play-off system by losing to third-placed Clare in the semi-final. But the fact that they’d topped the league imbued them with a sense of confidence facing into Leinster.

A tighter than expected semi against Kildare, where the by-now captain Doran’s 0-5 contributed to a 2-19 to 2-15 win, shook off any complacency facing into yet another clash with Kilkenny.

‘Doran’s Heroes End Years of Frustration’ ran one of the following day’s headlines. But to say that Wexford finally regained Leinster in 1976 doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

By the final whistle, a Kilkenny team who had beaten them by an average of seven points over the previous five years lay battered and broken as ‘Wonderful Wexford’ ran in 2-20 to put 13 points on them. As usual, Tony Doran led from the front with his 1-2 only four points shy of the Cats’ entire 1-6.

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Doran lining out for Wexford

Having finally got the Kilkenny monkey off their back, Wexford were in no mood to leave the All-Ireland stage quietly and they and Doran served up one of the great semi-finals in a see-saw battle with Galway at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. As usual, Doran grabbed his ubiquitous pair of goals but with 10 minutes left, the Model found themselves three down.

A Ned Buggy goal after a foul on Doran levelled matters before Galway edged ahead again only for Buggy and Martin Quigley to put Wexford one up. Yet, just when it seemed a first final since 1970 was within grasp, a Sean Silke ‘70 resulted in what all agreed was a fair draw.

The sides would do it again the following week. Again, only a cigarette paper separated them for 60 minutes until points from Doran, John Quigley and Mick Butler opened up a three-point gap that a spectacular last-minute save from PJ Molloy ensured remained in place. Cork lay in wait.

Unfortunately for Doran, there was no happy ending to report. Doran was rampant early on, laying on two goals for Martin Quigley as Wexford stormed into a 2-2 to no score lead within seven minutes.

But Doran’s influence waned when Brian Murphy was moved from his station at right-back into the centre. Cork found their way back into the game and the sides were level at the break. A Doran goal at the start of the second-half opened the gap once more and the sides were level again on the 44th, 53rd and 62nd minutes before Cork finally prevailed.

From being two points clear on the hour, the final six scores going Cork’s way meant a 2-21 to 4-11 defeat for the Slaneysiders. No doubt Doran would gladly have swapped his Hurler of the Year award for another Celtic Cross but that and his All-Star would be his only consolation.

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Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael, Aogán Ó Fearghail, presents the Hall of Fame award to Doran in 2016

To have to battle against a side as great as Kilkenny was unlucky for Wexford. To finally shake them off as Wexford did, only to come up against another, is beyond unfortunate.

Yet, that’s what transpired the following year as another Doran masterclass put Kilkenny to the sword. Two goals, a goal assist and a point meant that a last-gasp Eddie Hehir goal did nothing more than put a gloss on the 3-17 to 3-14 score.

With a Cork team waiting to retain the cup they’d pipped Doran’s men to 12 months before, revenge was on Model county minds. Alas, despite Doran hitting the net on 20 minutes, Cork kept them at arm’s length and led by eight on 57 minutes.

A rousing Yellow-belly comeback brought it back to three as the clock turned to 70 but their race was run when Martin Coleman made a superb save from Christy Keogh to close the game out. For the second year in a row, Doran would end up as losing All-Ireland captain.

Though Doran kept the goals flowing, Wexford wouldn’t come as close again. As they do, Kilkenny came back strong again and with Offaly also emerging in Leinster, provincial final defeats to the latter in 1981 and 1984 were as good as it got. A point in the 1-15 to 2-11 loss would be Doran’s final score for Wexford as he hung up his boots after the match.

Yet, while there was no happy ending at inter-county level, as is often the case, the club provided a nice post-script. Fast forward five years and a 42-year-old Buffer's Alley man was making headlines again.

A county title was backed-up by a win over Ballyhale Shamrocks to claim Leinster. A Paddy’s Day date with Antrim’s O'Donovan Rossa in Croke Park awaited. And Doran didn’t disappoint, helping himself to 0-3 as he rolled back the years to turn around an early five-point deficit.

‘Ageless Doran inspires Alley’ ran the next morning’s Irish Independent report on the 2-12 to 0-12 victory. A neat 21 years after his first, Doran finally had the second Celtic Cross his career deserved. And while most men of his vintage may have decided to step away on a high, Doran plugged away for his club for another four years before finally putting the hurl down for the final time. 

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O'Connor celebrates after scoring the first goal against Carlow during the Leinster GAA Hurling Senior Championship Round 4

It’s a little unfair to try and imagine any rising star having as big an impact as a legend like Doran. Yet in Rory O’Connor, the Model have a young player whose calmness in possession already belies his youth. And like the Dorans, it’s a family affair with his elder brother, Jack, also on board and a second brother, Harry, a previous U-21 captain.

He scored 3-33 in the 2016 minor championship, where he finished top scorer despite going no further than the Leinster final after losing to Dublin. He moved up to both U-21 and senior level the next year. But getting beyond the province again proved beyond Wexford with Kilkenny in 2017 and Galway in 2018 leaving O’Connor to collect two runner-up medals.

His senior call-up was nearly over before it began as the leaving cert student, believing the text from Davy Fitzgerald inviting him onto the panel was from his classmates, responded with 'Good man Davy' and three laughing emojis. 

Luckily, Fitzgerald saw the funny side and after Jack convinced him the number was genuine, the young forward came on board immediately. A place on the bench for the Leinster final defeat to Galway was followed by a first start in an All-Ireland quarter-final loss to Waterford. Two points from midfield showed he belonged immediately.

O’Connor’s prowess from the dead-ball meant that his points tally in his first season was on a different level to Doran. Although Wexford fell short in Leinster once more in 2018, their third-place finish gave him a couple of extra games before Clare put them out. And O’Connor’s 0-46 from four games was impressive, especially the 90-yard point to edge them ahead of Dublin in stoppage time for a vital win.

He’s been even more impressive this season and with his brother Jack initially, and latterly Lee Chin, taking over on frees, he has added goals to his game. A first in the drawn game against Dublin was quickly followed by another against Carlow. But his crowning glory was the masterful performance in the Leinster final as Wexford finally bridged a 15-year gap.

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O'Connor celebrates Wexford’s win over Kilkenny in the Leinster final

His 0-3 in the first half was hugely important in a game that was nip and tuck from start to finish, as was his point in the second. But looking at his tally alone only tells part of the story.

With the game poised in the 63rd minute and Kilkenny leading by a point, the 20-year-old took matters in his own hands in a manner Doran would have been proud of. Receiving a pass about 35 yards out, O’Connor had only one thing on his mind. Goal.

And while Enda Morrissey’s foul halted O’Connor’s driving run before he could finish, Mark Fanning’s resultant penalty was the decisive score. The man of the match award stated that Rory O’Connor had well and truly arrived.

It’s the influence that O’Connor already has on the team that most likens him to Doran. When O’Connor is on song, the whole team seems to be. For such a young player to already exercise that influence is seriously impressive.

Last weekend’s gut-wrenching semi-final defeat to Tipp means that O’Connor will have to wait to have his name added to Doran’s on the roll of honour refrain if there’s ever a new version of ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ recorded. But it’s worth remembering that Wexford were still in front when he came off injured on 64 minutes after contributing 0-3.

We’ll never know if him remaining on would have made a difference. But what we do know is if this rising star’s development continues at the rate it’s going, The Wild Swans will surely have to pen that extra verse sooner rather than later.

Don’t forget to catch up on this series’ previous comparisons of 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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