Golden era of Waterford-Kilkenny rivalry
Widely acknowledged as one of the greatest occasions on the annual calendar of Irish sport, Sunday’s eagerly-awaited All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final involving near neighbours Kilkenny and Waterford has captured the interest and imagination of hundreds of thousands of people the world over, and it promises to be a cracker.
The reigning champions are trying to emulate their arch rivals Cork in winning two three-in-a-rows, while Waterford are within seventy minutes of the Holy Grail, an ultimate glory last achieved some four-and-a-half decades ago
Long before the Gentle County made claim to hurling prominence, a special, many would insist unique rivalry prevailed between Waterford and Kilkenny – one that hasn’t been confined to the inter-county arena. Club teams from either side of the River Suir have been in regular opposition.
There’s no disputing, however, that the counties’ rivalry reached its peak and found its greatest expression during the 1957-’63 period when they clashed in three All-Ireland Finals and produced four of the most outstanding and memorable games of the 20th century.
These matches deserve to be recalled, however fleetingly, on the eve of another Croke Park meeting between the counties – if only to pay tribute to the players involved and this great game called hurling.
1957: the one that got away
Most Decies folk who can vividly recall the first All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final meeting between Waterford and Kilkenny are forever inclined to regard it as ‘the one that got away’. For of their many and successful occasions they’ve enjoyed at headquarters, Noresiders who flocked to Croke Park on that particular September Sunday back in 1957 will be the first to admit that the gods smiled ever so benignly on them as they watched their heroes annex their 14th All-Ireland crown.
Across the Bridge that spans the River Suir, along the Quays and out beyond the historic city walls into the Decies territory beyond, Waterford hurling followers can likewise recall their glory days, even if they fall considerably short of their neighbours’ exalted record. They too are forever proud of their deep-rooted attachment to the game, and notwithstanding a far more formidable provincial barrier each year, Waterford teams have played their part in making the national game so attractive and appealing to all sports loving people.
Back in ‘57 a dashing young Déise side broke onto the hurling scene like a breath of fresh air. Their dazzling performances in the hot-bed of Munster endeavour won for them a host of new admirers, and when they swept into the All-Ireland Final to face their neighbours from Kilkenny for the first time ever, the country at large was agog – and they were not disappointed either.
In excess of 70,000 excited fans flocked into the national stadium to witness one of the real classics of the modern era, and who best to describe what happened than the late John D Hickey, one of the most prolific GAA writers of his day, who the following morning reported in the Irish Independent:
“Like the gust of wind that suddenly springs up as a storm gathers new strength and catches one’s breath, the hurling tempest we saw in Croke Park yesterday has left me groping for words to describe it all. Kilkenny won their fourteenth All Ireland senior hurling title by defeating Waterford by 4-10 to 3-12. Never was I more distressed by a hurling game than I was at this epic. Now that the frenzy within me has died down, I still feel a thrilling glow of satisfaction that I was privileged to see it. While a few days hence, when I am more composed, I may think differently. I now without reserve, assert that my predominant feeling is one of regret that it was not a draw.”
His report continued: “Many great finals I have seen – many more I was not lucky to see, I was born too late as far as my hurling desired is concerned – but never I feel can there have been a more pulsating All Ireland Final that the one we saw yesterday. Grey-beard hurling purists may claim that the standard of performance was not classical, I concede it was not, but I am utterly intolerant to those who would seek to belittle it on that account.
“When I visited the Waterford dressing room at the end of this hour of frenzied and wondrous effort, they were all downcast. I was aghast to find that the heads of the players and officials were not as high that I thought they should have been .But then I was a neutral, still overjoyed by it all. Now as I look back I can understand the dejection of the losers. They no doubt felt they had lost a match they should have won, and should have drawn.”
Returning to the actual contest itself, when Waterford led by 3-10 to 2-7 after sixteen minutes of the second half it was felt they could not be overhauled. But of course this reckoned without the dauntless spirit of the Kilkenny men, who looked adversity in the face, and mocked it as they surged back in waves of attacks.
Then in the 47th minute Billy Dwyer had a golden goal for the Noresiders and one felt that the fat was really in the fire, A brilliant point by way of reply from the Waterford captain Philly Grimes was enthusiastically acknowledged by supporters of the white and blue. Yet another capital point from Mick Kenny from a free kept Kilkenny in the hunt as Waterford held on to a three points lead entering the closing stages. Once more Philly Grimes found the opposing crossbar and the Decies were four ahead, with nine minutes remaining and it seemed then that the Munster men would surely prevail.
But Kilkenny proved that they were made of stern stuff. Their recovery was helped a great deal by a rather fortuitous Mick Kenny goal that first hopped on the ground, and ended up in the back of the Waterford net with just eight minutes left on the clock.
That score more than any other helped to change the course of the match, and Kilkenny, gaining fresh confidence as a result, eventually equalised in the 55th minute per their golden boy Sean Clohossey, and two minutes later Mick Kelly left a true captain’s imprint on the game when, from some fifty yards out, he sent the winning point straight and true between the posts.
To their credit Waterford were not going to die easily. They mounted a magnificent assault that almost brought a score before the ball was shot wide. It was the last throw of the dice, however and those who had timed this epic accurately readily vouched for the fact afterwards that Limerick referee Stephen Gleeson was remiss is as much as he did not allow for ‘lost time’, something that would not be tolerated nowadays. And to compound matters from a Waterford viewpoint, he whistled time up with a Waterford player in possession in the Kilkenny half of the field and a likely equalising point his for the taking.
Still as the large crowd made their way out of Croker that afternoon, most of them agreed that they had seen a game to savour for nine lifetimes. This was hurling as it should be played, full of vitality, majestic in skill and most sporting from start to finish. Kilkenny people were of course elated that they has seen their heroes collected the county’s 14th crown, but even the most partisan amongst them was the first to admit that perhaps the result might well have been so different.
Waterford’s day of reckoning did come two years later, as will follow, but still that Final was really something special – the stuff that memories are made of.
The 1957 finalists lined out as follows:
Kilkenny: Ollie Walsh, Tom Walsh, Jim Walsh, John Maher, Paddy Buggy, Mick Walsh, Johnnie McGovern, Mick Brophy, John Sutton, Denis Heaslip, Mick Kenny, Mick Kelly (captain), Dick Rockett, Billy Dwyer, Sean Clohessy.
Waterford: Dick Roche, Tom Cunningham, Austin Flynn, John Barron, Mick Flannelly, Michael O’Connor, Martin of Morrissey, Seamus Power, Johnnie O’Connor, Philly Grimes, (captain), Tom Cheasty, Larry Guinan, Frankie Walsh, John Kiely, Donal Whelan.
1959: The year of atonement
Waterford are All-Ireland champions
The last drawn All Ireland Senior hurling Final occurred all of 49 years ago, and Waterford and Kilkenny were involved then, as now. The teams concerned lined on the traditional first Sunday in September and taking up where they had left two years before, came up with another pulsating encounter, in front of a packed to the rafters Croke Park attendance. Both sides paraded a number of heroes that day, none more so perhaps than Mount Sion’s Seamus Power, whose late goal made a second meeting necessary four weeks later.
Having won a thrill packed 3-9 to 2-9 Munster Final victory over Cork, in which the highlight was Joe Harney’s duel with Christy Ring, everything was right as Waterford measured up to another All-Ireland showdown with Kilkenny. A crowd of 73,707 people turned up to watch this South Eastern derby and they weren’t disappointed. The Munster champions undoubtedly held the upper hand in the opening period and enjoying a five-point interval lead (0-9 to 1-1), which they quickly increased to six on the restart with a marvellous point from the dashing Tom Cheasty. The Ballyduff powerhouse beat off five tackles in one great solo run of fifty yards before lofting the ball unerringly over the Kilkenny crossbar.
Two subsequent Kilkenny goals by the youthful Tommy O’Connell during a period of marked supremacy brought about equality (0-12 to 3-3), and this electrified the scene; and the sustained cheering continued right up to the end. Again Waterford went four points ahead, thanks to a brilliant brace by Tom Cheasty and one each from Philly Grimes and Frankie Walsh, but then the game took another twist when Ned Power in the Decies goal was impeded by his own defenders and a long ball from Paddy Kelly went all the way to the net.
The outstanding Grimes put his side two points clear as the minutes ebbed away, and then as luck would have it, Kilkenny responded with a flourish and with just two minutes of normal time left Mick Walsh pointed a ‘70′, Dick Carroll rounded off good approach work with a goal, and then added two points – one from a solo run and another from a free – and surely now the McCarthy Cup would remain on Noreside.
Waterford made one last desperate effort to save the day and, just as many of their supporters had resigned themselves to the seemingly inevitable, midfielder Seamus Power struck for the levelling goal, when a low pile-driver of a shot that took a deflection and beat Ollie Walsh.
From the puck out Power once more gained possession, but this time his high shot went narrowly wide of the mark, and the teams had to do it all over again. Final score that day: Waterford 1-17; Kilkenny 5-5. The starting fifteens were:
Waterford: Ned Power, Joe Harney, Austin Flynn, John Barron, Mick Lacey, Martin Óg Morrissey, Jackie Condon, Seamus Power, Philly Grimes, Larry Guinan, Tom Cheasty, Frankie Walsh (captain), Charley Ware, Donal Whelan, John Kiely.
Kilkenny: Ollie Walsh, Tom Walsh, Jim Walsh, John Maher, Paddy Buggy, Mick Walsh, Johnnie Mc Govern, Mick Brophy, Paddy Kelly, Denis Heaslip, Michael Fleming, Sean Clohossy (captain), Billie Dwyer, Tommy O’Connell.
The replay four weeks later if anything surpassed the thrills of the original, with a whole rake of outstanding performances on both teams. The opening ten minutes saw Kilkenny very much to the fore as Waterford fell six points in arrears – and then it happened: after a superb passing movement inspired by Tom Cheasty, Mick Flannelly found the Noresiders net and as if by pre-arranged signal Waterford improved out of all recognition.
Two more goals were to follow: one from Tom Cunningham, who connected brilliantly on an overhead ball, and the other from Tom Cheasty. Captain Frankie Walsh led by example to quite rightly be acclaimed ‘man of the match’; indeed no captain could have accomplished more towards inspiring his colleagues.
In addition the Waterford full-back line did its job well, keeping the lethal Kilkenny inside-forwards at bay and restricting them to just one goal over the hour. Also, Waterford had learned well from the mistakes of the drawn match and in the end emerged most comprehensive 3-12 to 1-10 winners and worthy champions.
For that October replay, Mick Flannelly replaced Charley Ware in the Waterford attack, with Larry Guinan switching to top of the right and Donal Whelan taking over on the edge of the square.
1963: Eddie Keher comes of age
The 1963 All-Ireland Final was the last time Kilkenny and Waterford disputed supremacy for the McCarthy Cup and notwithstanding the fact that the Noresiders avenged the 1959 defeat, with a number of the same personnel in each team on board, the game will always be remembered as Eddie Keher’s greatest day.
The young man from Rower-Inistioge registered 14 points in his team’s victory, and considering that it was exceedingly close at the finish, 4-17 to 6-8, his contribution obviously proved critical to the result. The comparative newcomer could not fail to find the posts, and Kilkenny owed everything to him for getting through this difficult test.
After 13 minutes Waterford led by 1-4 to 0-2 – then disaster struck when goalkeeper Ned Power came out to intercept a high lobbing ball, and made contact, but the block fell kindly for the incoming Tom Walsh, who slammed the sliotar to the unguarded net.
Within a further minute the Decies’ cause suffered another body blow and again their custodian was involved, as Ned Power, clearly confident that a Tom Murphy shot was going wide of the mark, allowed it to roll over the line, and Kilkenny were in full control.
At the break, the scoreboard read 3-6 to 1-5 in the holders’ favour, and when the game resumed Percy Flynn came on in goal for Waterford. Even so the flying Tom Walsh notched a further goal and Eddie Keher swiftly rifled over another point in the opening minutes.
Waterford were in serious trouble, but two quick goals by way of response put them firmly back into the equation. Tom Cheasty, getting clear of the shackles imposed on him, drew the Kilkenny defence in a terrific surge along the right wing, and his perfectly-placed centre was hammered home by Seamus Power as the arena erupted. Then after Ollie Walsh saved a Power pile-driver, the ball fell to Mick Flannelly, who duly hammered it past the Thomastown legend and suddenly a new ball game existed for the 73,000 spectators.
The champions steadied and scored three points in as many minutes, the first from Seamus Cleere and a brace from the immaculate Keher. Still, Waterford kept pegging away and another great goal from Mick Flannelly raised renewed hopes.
However, Kilkenny, again through Keher’s unerring free-taking from every conceivable distance, stayed on course, though the outcome remained very much in the balance, especially after Philly Grimes billowed a 21-yard free to the net in the dying minutes.
Ollie Walsh brought off yet another super-human save from Seamus Power as the seconds ticked away and in the end the black and amber men held on for the narrowest of wins: 4-17 to 6-8. But even in defeat Waterford had managed to do themselves and their county proud.
It was the elegant Bennettsbridge man Seamus Cleere who had the honour of lifting the McCarthy Cup that particular September Sunday 45 years ago. It marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Noresiders’ 1913 triumph (the first ever 15-a-side All-Ireland decider) and will go down in the annals of hurling as one of most exhilarating finals ever, made possible by the frequency and accumulation of scores, 35 in all, including 10 goals.
As well as Keher, others to really stand out for the winners were Denis Heaslip, Johnny McGovern, Billy Dwyer, Ted Carroll, and even star goalie Ollie Walsh, despite letting in six.
For the vanquished, with no fewer than eleven of their 1959 winning team in the starting line-up, Joe Condon who was partnered in the middle of the field by Mick Dempsey, played a captain’s part, while Jimmy Byrne, Frankie Wash, Philly Grimes, Tom Cheasty, Mick Flannelly and Larry Guinan also stood out.
Kilkenny: O.Walsh, P.Larkin, J.Phelan, M.Treacy, S.Cleere, T.Carroll, M.Coogan, P.Moran, S.Clohessy, D.Heaslip, J.McGovern, E.Keher, T.Walsh, W.Dwyer, T.Murphy.
Waterford: N.Power, T.Cunningham, A.Flynn, J.Byrne, L.Guinan, M. Óg Morrissey, J.Irish, M.Dempsey, J.Condon, M.Flannelly, T.Cheasty, F.Walsh, S.Power, J.Barron, P.Grimes.
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