Offaly All Ireland winner reminisces about the making of one of hurling's all time rivalries
It's 10AM in downtown Boston in August 1987. The centre is a heaving mass of people. Galway jerseys are everywhere, a few Tipp ones are dotted around the place.
I along with 300 other souls are waiting anxiously for the screen to come on. We are gathered to watch Galway vs Tipp in the All Ireland semi final. The excitement is palpable. I am in Boston, hurling with Fr Tom Burkes for the summer of 1987. We have a game later in the day against none other than Galway (the Boston version to be more precise). A number of us watch enviously as many supporters are sipping at bottles of Miller, Bud, you name it.
We instead are on the coffee because we have a big game later and we need to beat Galway to get through to the final of the New England Championship. Then the place erupts. The screen is on, the lights go down, Galway run onto the pitch and it seems half of Boston is here cheering them on. Tipp come onto the field to less rapture but the excitement is unreal. We are in Ireland - or so it seems, for the next 70 minutes we are enthralled at this most brilliant spectacle. It is magnificent hurling. Galway have lost the last two All Irelands and Tipp have won Munster for the first time since 1971.
A rivalry has been born that will not be matched for another 10 years when Tipp and Clare went at things and matched the bile that became associated with Tipp vs Galway between 1987 and '93.
Galway beat Tipp in that classic in 1987, and heralded the beginning of Galway's greatest ever side. They downed Kilkenny in the final that year in a bitter, dour struggle, with Noel Lane completing Kilkenny's misery with a goal that came when time was nearly up. Lane would prove to be Tipp's nemesis in 1988 in the All Ireland final, again scoring a late goal to secure back to back Al Irelands. Folklore has it that with time up in that final, Tipp were awarded a penalty. Galway were ahead by four and everyone knew the final whistle would be blown. Galway were about to create history. Nicky English took the ball, placed it on the '21; he forlornly turned to the ref and asked, 'How long have we left, ref'. With that , Slvyie Linnane shouts over, '12 months Nicky.'"
Michael McGrath of Galway scores a point ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
Eleven months later, Nicky would find himself stretched out in front of the goal, Sylvie standing over him, roaring sweet nothings at him. Sylvie has just been given his marching orders for an off the ball incident in the All Ireland semi final of 1989. This game would go down in history for the infamous "Keady Affair" - Tony Keady, Galway's talismanic centre back - a prince of centre backs at a time of great No 6s like Ger Henderson, Pat Delaney, Tom Cashman - stood out for his hunched shoulders, catching ability, bravery, long range free taking, a warrior type of hurler adored by the Galway public. But he couldn't take part in that semi.
Tipp would go on to win a most fractious game. Sean Treacy replaced the suspended Keady and had a fine game.
Galway considered pulling out of the game as a protest to the harsh suspension Keady received and they weren't in a good mental place. They wanted to lash out at everyone and Tipp were going to take the brunt of it. I sat in the stand that afternoon in August, feeling well pissed off. I had just been part of an Offaly team that had been ambushed by Antrim. We had been beaten in the first semi final that day in a most historic win for the Glensmen. My instinct said 'Pints, get away from Croker and drown my sorrows'. But how could you leave when the most venomous game of hurling was about to be played? The game is shadowy now in my mind; Nicky laying prone on the ground, Sylvie screaming down at him. The transgression? Well, no one knows. It was off the ball.
Noel Lane of Galway and Conor O'Donovan of Tipperary ©INPHO
Only the umpire seems to have seen what happened. Who could ever forget Hopper McGrath, the brilliant wing forward, running at startling speed, jumping off the ground, both knees thundering into Tipp's full back, a split second after he cleared the ball? Another sending off for Galway as their dreams of three in a row left shattered. John Leahy is dropped as Hopper is leaving the play. The transgression? Again, who knows because it's another off the ball incident.
They also played a spellbinding league final that year in front of 54,000. After 1989, Tipp took over as Galway's great team broke apart.
For five years they played out a rugged, brilliant, spiteful, spellbinding series of games, with Galway the masters at the start and Tipp eventually taking over.
Has a new rivalry begun? They have played out some classics over the last few years but this one is the one to savour. This is Heavyweight Hurling stuff that's about to unfold this weekend and it brings me back to a different time.
We left the centre in Boston that morning, out into sweltering heat. It was hard to believe for the previous 70 minutes we were transported back to Mother Ireland, watching a game that would ignite one of GAA greatest ever rivalries. Bring it on again on Sunday lads.
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