BATTLE SCARS: The greatest hurlers of the 1980s
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BATTLE SCARS: The greatest hurlers of the 1980s

I HAVE received some interesting comments from readers of The Irish Post about the hurling decades.

Mick Coleman, a Kilkenny man living in Kings Heath, Birmingham, has come up with his best team of the seventies, which includes ‘Fan’ Larkin and ‘Chunky’ O’Brien of Kilkenny.

No doubt, like Mick, readers will select their own hurling team to rival mine and good luck to them.

I want to take you back in time, revisit some of the greatest games from the past 60 years and focus on the players who I consider the greatest of the bunch.

Now let’s take a look at hurling in the eighties.

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This was certainly a decade of change, with Galway and Offaly illuminating the opening seasons and Galway winning their first All Ireland senior hurling crown since 1923, bridging a 57-year gap.

They were always the bridesmaid, never the bride, losing a staggering nine finals since 1923.

I suppose it’s fair to say, Gaelic football is by far the most popular sport in Galway, where hurling is confined to the east of the county.

It was so nice to see the perennial underdogs break the cycle of failure in 1980, with a tremendous win against Limerick.

For the ‘Tribesmen’, winning this final set the county ablaze and spurred them on to further successes in 1987, 1988 and 2017.

The meteoric rise of Offaly hurling during this decade was nothing short of miraculous.

At the time they had to battle hard to remain in third place in Leinster behind Kilkenny and Wexford. Offaly contested all ten provincial senior hurling titles in the eighties, winning six of them.

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There was no tradition in hurling outside of parish level on which to build hopes.

If you were born in Kilkenny, Tipperary or Cork, you always knew you had a chance, if good enough.

Coming from such a small hurling base to the south of the county like Birr or Banagher, it was difficult to gain recognition, as Gaelic football was very strong at the time with back-to-back All Ireland wins for the county in the previous decade.

The hurlers had something to prove. They certainly silenced their critics who had dismissed them as ‘also rans’.

Offaly is one of the few counties where a player has a realistic chance of winning All Ireland medals in both codes. Galway, Cork and, to a certain extent, Dublin would be the others.

Another title came their way in ‘85, but the ’81 title was precious. The ‘Offaly Rover’ had finally come home to roost.

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary were also there, Cork and Kilkenny sharing the spoils with two each and Tipperary propping up the decade in ’89.

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Kilkenny were first out of the blocks in ’82 and ’83, with Brian Cody occupying the full-back position.

As we all know, he went on to better things with success as the ‘Cats’ manager in the noughties and after.

Although the overall decade belonged to Galway, Cork supremacy in Munster had seen the ‘Leesiders’ capture five successive provincial titles (1982-1986) and were still a force to be reckoned with, winning All Ireland titles in ’84 and ’86.

Altogether, it was a disappointing decade for Tipperary, winning their first title in 18 years in ’89, a mighty long time for a county with such talent and pedigree.

The opposition, Antrim, were appearing in their first decider since 1943, and were rank outsiders on this occasion. The team came in under the radar to get to the final.

I have chosen this panel of players as the best of the eighties. A toss of a coin separates some of them.

Goalkeepers

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Ger Cunningham, Cork

A suburb goalkeeper, who ranks with the greatest in Cork’s history. A player with a great eye for the ball, razor-like reflexes and essence of dependability.

Damian Martin, Offaly

From the famed St Rynaghs club in Banagher, Damian was not an overnight success and had to endure many years as an Offaly hurler with no huge reward. He was agile and brave, with unlimited hurling skills.

Defenders

Niall McInerney, Galway

A key figure in Galway’s success of the eighties, he had great ball control, with an amazing burst of speed to safeguard the defence.

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Terence (Sambo) McNaughton, Antrim

The Cushendall man reached the pinnacle of his career when he lined out for the county in the 1989 All Ireland hurling final against Tipperary. Terence never pulled out of a tackle, no fancy stuff, just direct hurling.

Brian Cody, Kilkenny

Brian was fortunate in his playing days, that Kilkenny embarked on a period of unparalleled success. He was inordinately strong, with a huge talent. His presence as full back was a major factor in Kilkenny’s success of the eighties.

John Bohane, Laois

The Portlaoise club player was made of stern stuff and could be described as a stonewall defender.

Pat Fleury, Offaly

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Pat played the game hard but fair, with good positional sense and mighty deliveries to his forwards. Few will dispute the extent of Pat’s contributions to Offaly’s hurling.

Sylvester ‘Sylvie’ Linnane, Galway

Sylvie was a vital cog in the success of the team. His daring runs from the back line, not alone relieved pressure, but were instrumental in setting up scoring opportunities for his colleagues.

Peter Finnerty, Galway

Peter came into the team later on in the decade, a powerhouse in the back line, whose galloping runs upfield split open defences. He relished the challenges of the toughest attackers, and usually came out best.

Taghg O’Connor, Tipperary

The Roscrea man captained the ‘premier’ county to All-Ireland glory in the seventies and was still at his best in the eighties. An inspirational player who was as tough as ‘old boots’

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Ger Henderson, Kilkenny

Another of the famous Henderson clan from the ‘Fenians’ club in Kilkenny, Ger was fiercely competitive with a determined style of play. He was all power, which made him a firm favourite in his home county.

Seán Silke, Galway

Seán was at the veteran stage when honours arrived for Galway in the eighties. A wonderful anchor man and a rock in the half back line. An all-inspiring figure.

Dermot MacCurtain, Cork

A terrific player, and the ‘jewel in the crown’ for Cork, during their heady days of the seventies and eighties. Dermot was one of the most skilful and talented hurlers ever to come out of Cork.

Pat Delaney, Offaly

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Pat could play in any position for Offaly and was never fazed by the reputation of an opponent. He filled his defensive duties with authority and was adept at avoiding trouble.

Midfield

John Fenton, Cork

In a county like Cork, where superstars are fairly common, John Fenton reigns supreme. He was stylish to his fingertips, with his deft touches and high standard of marksmanship.

Frank Cummins, Kilkenny

Frank was a tower of strength in midfield and won seven All Ireland senior medals over two decades in the Black and Amber jersey. A clever player who was extremely effective helping out his defence as well as picking off long range points.

Forwards

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John Callinan, Clare

A delightful hurler, whose prowess and hurling expertise were second to none. John had great vision, together with an uncanny ability to drill over points from acute angles.

John Quigley, Wexford

Easily recognised with his red hair and dashing style of play, which lit up the games, he unfortunately arrived at the wrong time to share in any of the yellow bellies’ glory.

John Connolly, Galway

It would have been tragic if Galway, after failing in the All Ireland finals of ’75 and ’79 had not won a title before John Connolly went into retirement. He had laid the foundations and was central to their success in the eighties.

Paddy Quirke, Carlow

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Paddy is without doubt Carlow’s greatest dual player, equally at home in either codes. A natural athlete, with an indomitable will to win. A skilful striker of the ball.

Pat Carroll, Offaly

Pat was a warrior, who battled for every possession. He was regularly shifted around the pitch, usually to shore up some leaky positions. He had a never-say-die attitude, An immense hurling talent.

Pat Fox, Tipperary

The Tipperary man certainly suffered his share of disappointments, living in Cork’s shadow for most of the eighties. A tenacious forager, who produced many scoring records whilst in the blue and gold jersey.

Padraig Horan, Offaly

A lynchpin of Offaly hurling for so many years, Padraig was a most versatile hurler who played in every position for the ‘Faithful’ county in a career spanning over 17 years. He had the honour of being captain when Offaly won their first All-Ireland title in ’81.

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PJ Cuddy, Laois

The Camross club completely dominated Laois hurling in the seventies and eighties, backboned by a family of Cuddys. PJ was a nightmarish proposition for defenders, the classic goal poacher supreme.

Joe McKenna, Limerick

Joe stood well over six feet tall and stood like a giant around the goal-mouth. What he lacked in speed, he made up for in stamina. He would soar into the air, catch the dropping ball and bury it in the net.

Christy Heffernan, Kilkenny

A huge man with a penchant for scoring gaols, Christy was a battering ram who expressed the spirit of Kilkenny with dash and courage.

Nicky English, Tipperary

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You think you’ve seen the greatest of all Tipperary’s hurlers over the decades, then up pops Nicky English, the supreme hurling artist who dominated games with pace and clinical finishing.

Noel Lane, Galway

His scoring deeds will always be remembered, not just in Galway but the rest of the country as well. A man with a flair for scoring goals at the most vital times in important games.

So, there you have it. Bye for now and stay safe.

Henry Wymbs was born in in Cliffoney, Co Sligo. He moved to England in the late sixties, where he forged a successful career as a detective inspector for Thames Valley Police before his retirement.

He always had a great love of Gaelic football and hurling and played inter-county football for Sligo in 1967. He now presents ‘Irish Eye', a weekly Irish music programme broadcast from Oxford across BBC Radio Oxford, BBC Radio Berkshire and online via BBC iPlayer. Email [email protected]