Welcome to John Duggan's Six of the Best, where I will pick six things about a sport, personality or moment that we love. This week: Hurling.
I am an all rounder when it comes to sport. The FIFA World Cup is my favourite event; Cheltenham sends a shiver down my spine, I love the mentality of golf, I am passionate about everything sporting related apart from Basketball. Sorry, Eoin Sheahan.
However, if I was to pick one thing to attend every year, it would be the All-Ireland hurling final.
I love the skill, the speed, the physicality, the ebb and flow and the drama of hurling. I love the electric excitement the game delivers to supporters.
I have been privileged to attend 23 All-Ireland hurling finals. Sunday will be my 24th.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As we build up to the 2019 showdown between Tipperary and Kilkenny at Croke Park, I can recall my first final, on my first week in secondary school, back in 1991. The teams were Tipperary and Kilkenny. The ticket cost £19 punts. A Michael Cleary goal helped the Premier County to a 1-16 to 0-15 win against a black and amber side that featured DJ Carey.
Having watched hurling in the flesh since 1987, when I attended the National League decider between Clare and Galway, I have always been hooked. I remember listening to Mícheál Ó'Muircheartaigh's spellbinding commentaries of Tipperary and Cork that summer.
On July 9th 1995, my father and I hopefully made the journey to Semple Stadium to watch Clare v Limerick in the Munster final. We spent £10 punts each on tickets in the corner of the ground and drank from a flask of tea, eating sandwiches in the baking sun.
Dad was from Clare, born in 1933, a year after Clare's last Munster crown of 1932. He had never been alive to witness a Banner bonfire. After losing two provincial finals in a row, Clare took Thurles apart, beating Limerick by nine points. It was a very special day. So special that when I buried Dad seven years later, I placed his ticket stub in the breast pocket of his suit.
So health permitting, I will go to every All-Ireland hurling final until I die. If I miss a replay due to prior commitments, so be it, but I will never miss an initial final.
Here is what I believe are the six best hurling games I have seen. I am sure you have favourites of your own. I would love to hear them on Twitter @offtheball or @johnduggansport
In descending order:
6. Cork 0-19 v Offaly 0-16, 1999 semi-final
As a 19-year-old student, I came home from a party at 7am. I went to bed and woke up just in time to watch a classic between champions Offaly and young guns Cork. Played in desperate conditions, with driving rain, it was a war of attrition, but in a brilliant way. Brian Whelehan defended like Ireland was on the line, clearing ball after ball, while Brian Corcoran was Cork's portcullis. Offaly had such natural beauty, but it wasn't enough to stop a fast finishing Rebel artillery. Ben O'Connor hit a lovely late score in a flurry of five unanswered points and Cork would go on to win the Liam McCarthy Cup.
5. Clare 0-20 Tipperary 2-13, 1997 final
Clare captured the nation's hearts in their romantic 1995 All-Ireland triumph, the first for the county in 81 years. Two years later, they would return, beating Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary (twice) to cement their status as a great side. I was there with Dad again and it was one of the best days of my life. It's also the last time I remember having barely controllable nerves as a fan. That's what journalism does to you, it makes you detached! Clare were four points down at half time, but then produced their best ever hurling of the Ger Loughnane era. It was pure power hurling, as they unleashed a tornado on Tipperary. The problem with Clare was that they never did it easy. Liam Cahill and Eugene O'Neill found the net in the blink of an eye late on and suddenly it was up for grabs. Jamesie O'Connor scored a brilliant point right in our eye line and at the other end, Davy Fitzgerald made an incredible save from John Leahy. When the final whistle went, it was this feeling of pure euphoria. Dad and I were locked in this group embrace with some random Clare supporting stranger. To win that final by beating all of the traditional powers and scale the summit for a second time was joy unconfined.
4. Cork 5-15 v Galway 2-21, 1990 final
This was the game that caught my young hurling heart. I was watching it on television as an 11-year-old down in Schull, West Cork, on a family holiday. I was captivated by the end to end play, the sheer excitement, not having the foggiest notion what was going to happen next. I had seen Galway win in 1987 and 1988 and when they went six points up, they were set for victory. However, Cork back then could emerge from nowhere and seize All-Ireland titles. They were red shirted and red blooded winners. John Fitzgibbon crashed home two goals inside 90 seconds and the Leesiders were on their way to a senior hurling and football double. No wonder I begged to go to the following year's final.
3. Kilkenny 2-22 v Tipperary 0-23, 2009 final
Brian Cody's Cats were going for four-in-a-row against a coming Tipperary team, managed by Liam Sheedy. Sound familiar? Tipperary would get their hands on the silver 12 months later, but they were arguably unlucky not to win this classic. The Premier County made a man-of-the-match out of Fenians goalkeeper PJ Ryan, who produced a string of stirring saves. Tipperary were ahead when Benny Dunne was sent off for striking Tommy Walsh, and were still in front when Kilkenny were awarded a debatable penalty. Henry Shefflin buried it, and sixty seconds later Martin Comerford had the sliotar in the net. What I always admired about Brian Cody's greatest time of all time, which they are, was their ability to kill off teams with quick goals. They were also also able to win big matches when not at their best, illustrated by the way they pulled it out of the fire in 2012 and ground down Galway in 2015. I was working at the 2009 decider and I marveled at how Kilkenny could always find a way.
2. Kilkenny 1-16 v Cork 1-13, 2006 final
All great sides put down a marker, be it Manchester United winning an early double in 1994, or Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry ransacking Dublin in 1975. In a different universe, Cork were bidding for three-in-a-row in 2006 and both they and Kilkenny had fantastic hurlers. Giants like Séan Óg Ó'hAilpín, Donal Óg Cusack, the O'Connor brothers and Joe Deane, Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin and young Cats skipper Jackie Tyrrell. I remember shaking my head in the office the following day in awe at Kilkenny's ferocity, the way their forwards were the first line of defence. Aidan Fogarty hit a total of 1-3, evidence that there is always a new match winner waiting in Kilkenny. They did win All-Irelands in 2002 and 2003, but to me, this was they day when they ended Cork's superiority and began their hegemony. Cork haven't won the Liam McCarthy Cup since. The philosophy of 'Cody' work rate, hunger and intensity still lives to this day, 13 years later. Ask Limerick. 2006 was the ignition.
1. Kilkenny 3-22 v Tipperary 1-28, 2014 final (drawn game)
I am as neutral as they come when Kilkenny and Tipperary are in the conversation. I walked out of this game, known as the 'Hawk Eye final' just dazed and confused at what I had seen. 54 scores, only 9 wides. No wides between the 44th and 72nd minute, when Tipperary's John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer (pictured) saw his free go to technology.
Earlier, 'Bubbles' and Richie Hogan had me high on life in the stand, such was their array of brilliant stick work and lightning quick scores. Kilkenny would score three goals. Amid all of their points, Tipperary missed two penalties. It had everything, it was hurling as the definition of freedom. That the final act of the game was a screen that flashed 'Miss' just added to the incredulity. Kilkenny won the replay, but in ways, the counties should have shared the All-Ireland for what we saw the first day. 'What a time to be alive!' is what American sports commentators say, but in seriousness, after being there to see that, I knew and I know that life would be a poorer, less enjoyable place without the magic of hurling.
Enjoy the 2019 All-Ireland hurling final!