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'It was just a fierce relief as we had got back on the horse again'

March 20th, 2022 3:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

Enniskeane man Johnny Crowley won five All-Ireland senior hurling championship titles with Cork.

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In an excerpt from new book Cork Hurling: Game of My Life by Denis Hurley, JOHNNY CROWLEY, originally from Enniskeane, recalls the centenary All-Ireland hurling final in 1984 when Cork defeated Offaly in Thurles

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IT was the centenary final and we had lost the two prior to it in 1982 and ’83.

I had been on the three-in-a-row team and then in 1979 we lost to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, Limerick beat us in ’80 and Clare knocked us out in ’81. The losses to Kilkenny in 1982 and ’83 were very disappointing. We had chances in both but we didn’t take them and that’s sport. Kilkenny were good too, to be fair, and there wasn’t much in the games. Sometimes matches just go away from you and, against Kilkenny, it’s very hard to drag it back.

After that, there were a lot of people questioning us and a few fellas retired as well so the pressure was on. The media were wondering if it was the end for that team – nothing changes really, does it?! We knew we were capable enough, that we had good players and that we hadn’t been far off it in the previous two years. We had still won Munster and got to the two finals, so it was a case of sticking with it.

There was such hype attached to ’84 because of the year that it was and then playing in Thurles was like a home game for us because we were used to it. I could have picked the first All-Ireland or the last one in 1986, but ’84 just stands out in my head.

 

I’m originally from Enniskeane in West Cork. I was born in 1956 and we moved to Bishopstown in ’63 – I came in under the Viaduct! My father was an agricultural advisor and he was transferred in to Cork. He worked from home and used to call to farmers – he was over grants and things like that.

Nowadays, Bishopstown is a suburb in the city but back then it was in the countryside, too. Where Cork University Hospital, or the Regional as it was originally known, is now, that was where we played soccer and fellas would go on their bikes, ‘the Mounds’ as we called it. The club had only been founded in 1956 and my father became involved in it when we came in. Bishopstown won the county intermediate football championship in 1974 and I was a dual Cork minor the same year – we won the All-Ireland double.

I had gone to Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown up to the Inter Cert. I have three brothers and they all went to Farranferris – there would have been a strong tradition of West Cork fellas boarding there – so there was a kind of an expectation that I would go there sometime so I went up there after the Inter. Fr O’Brien was there and my brother Michael had won a Harty in 1972, so that was part of me getting recognised. They might have thought they’d make a priest out of me up there too, but that never happened, they failed dismally there!

Farna won the Harty twice while I was there, in 1973 and ’74, when we went on to win the All-Ireland colleges title, so that was three national medals that year. I came on to the senior panel in late 1975 for the Oireachtas Cup final against Wexford up in Croke Park and I was the only real ‘new’ fella on the panel in 1976, to a certain degree. Then in ’77, Tom Cashman, McCurtain and Fenton came on it. I had been U21 in 1975 and 1976, so there were a good few of that team moving up. I was very lucky to get on that team in 1976. You were playing alongside the likes of Charlie and Gerald McCarthy, Ray Cummins, Martin O’Doherty – some serious players.

I was playing wing-back and corner-back a lot of the time that year but then, before the All-Ireland final against Wexford, there was a reshuffle. John Horgan had been centre-back but he was replaced by Pat McDonnell from Inniscarra, who went full-back. Pat Barry went from full-back to right half-back and then I was told by Denis Murphy, who was a selector, that I’d be playing centre-back. It was a bit of a shock at the time! At the same time, I had no worries because I’d played centre-back at minor and for Farna, so it didn’t faze me. We played a lot of backs and forwards in training and what you’d face from the Cork attackers would be as tough as anything you’d come across in a championship match. Kevin Kehilly, another West Cork man, was doing the physical training. People might look back and say that the training done wasn’t as hard as now but, for the time, we were training at the optimal level.

After winning the three-in-a-row as a young fella, you think that there’s a bundle of it ahead of you at that stage but you’re brought back to reality very quickly! The pressure was on at the start of ’84 but we had Justin McCarthy and Fr O’Brien as coaches and a very good backroom team. The Canon always wanted to be top dog but Justin was a great coach. The two of them were very good coaches in their own right but Justin more so on the field. O’Brien was great for motivation and he had a good eye for hurling. He was dynamic in his own sense and he got the best out of fellas. I knew him from Farna and he had prior knowledge of so many of us as he had been the minor manager for six All-Ireland wins between 1969 and ’79.

Justin was big into the hurling skills and Noel Collins was involved, too. He was out in Cork RTC at the time and he had new training methods. His methods brought us on that little bit again. It’s like anything – you’re always evolving when you’re playing. You’re learning from the next fella and from the younger fellas coming up and the older fellas above! It’s a case of trying to pick up as much as you can – the day you stop learning is the day we’re all in trouble!

I had played with Justin in 1975 for Seandún, the city divisional team, and he came out to Bishopstown coaching for a time too, so I had a great time for him. He was still a great player and we had got to the semi-final of the county championship in ’75, so that was probably another thing that had brought me into the fold. We had beaten the Barrs down in the Mardyke and Blackrock beat us in the semi-final and went on to win it after. He was great at the hurleys. He was meticulous – he’d shape them and round the bas and change different things. It helped to give pride in them. I still have the hurley that I played with in 1984.

 

The Munster final in ’84 was more pivotal than the All-Ireland, to a certain degree. Tipp were really up for it that time as they had been in the wilderness for a long time and hadn’t won the Munster championship since 1971 but they had been successful at minor and U21 so they were coming, as they proved later in the decade.

When they got the goal to go four points ahead, I thought we were beaten – I think we all did. One of their players running out gave me a shoulder and said, “Ye’re in trouble now!” and we were a bit deflated, but within two minutes, the whole thing had changed again and that player got a belt in return. That’s the way sport is! It was a very intense game and down to the wire. Seánie’s goal, Lord have mercy on him, was integral to that.

We beat Antrim in the semi-final and that set up the final against Offaly – Cork’s first time to play them in the championship. Offaly had won the All-Ireland in 1981 and when you look at their players, they had a lot of strong operators. They were a good team, a physical team and capable of strong running.

But, while we respected them, we still felt that we had a great chance ourselves as Thurles was like a home ground for us, to a certain degree. The public would have been even more confident and we went in as hot favourites but the hype was kept well away from us, Fr O’Brien and Justin did a great job that way.

We’d normally train the Monday or Tuesday night and finish up on the Thursday, you’d be told the team and it would be a fairly light session. You’d try to keep away from the chat as much as you could and not read the papers, though you’d generally come across them somewhere along the line! You tried not to take in too much and just concentrated on yourself, made sure you were right and that the gear was right, that you had the right hurley and spares and that everything was in order. In fairness to O’Brien, himself or Justin might ring for a chat, just to make sure everything was good. A lot of us were fairly experienced anyway and the younger fellas had come in in the early 1980s were fairly clued-in, as well.

Normally, for an All-Ireland final you’d get the train up on the Saturday but because this one was in Thurles we didn’t travel until the Sunday. It was great to be able to sleep in your own bed the night before. It was a warm and humid day.

Going to the convent was a masterstroke by Fr O’Brien. We drove straight there and, while it’s not half-a-mile from Thurles, it was very secluded. Nobody knew we were there – and even when Derry Gowen came to the door and asked to be let in, he was told we weren’t there! It meant we could have the grub and a puck-around and that kept it very low-key for us. Normally we’d be up in the Anner Hotel and you’d be out on the green trying to puck around and having hundreds watching us! It was being part of the whole thing, it kept us very grounded.

The talk for tickets beforehand was savage and people were told not to travel if they didn’t have one – so a lot of people didn’t, people who might normally have gone up to Dublin without one, hoping to get a ticket up there. Of course, what happened then was that there were people who had hoarded tickets and there was nobody to buy them! When we got to Thurles and got off the bus outside the stadium, there was a garda with a bunch of tickets that people had given him in case anyone wanted one but he couldn’t give them away. There were still 50-odd thousand there, but they were just afraid that the whole thing would be over-run.

Brendan Bermingham was the guy who was centre-forward for Offaly. You’d know about these guys from having played against them previously and you might have seen them on the telly but I wouldn’t have gone into the nitty-gritty on the fella I’d be marking. I had Tom Cashman and Dermot McCurtain either side of me, two great wing-backs. We had been playing together with a while and we had a good understanding. Tom Cash was one of the best stick-players I’d ever played with, a great pair of wrists, and Dermot had good speed and for the size of him, he was tough as nails. So, even though they had a good half-forward line with Mark Corrigan and Pat Carroll on the wings, we had a formidable half-back line. We played well on the day, everybody came into the game at certain times – the work was distributed, as the fella says.

Overall, it was just a fierce relief as we had got back on the horse again. In fairness to Offaly, they lined up as we were coming out and they clapped us out, which was a lovely touch. RTÉ had the outside-broadcast unit there and, straight after the game, they were recording a piece for The Sunday Game that night, the man of the match and all that. Tony Sull got it and I tell him I should have got it! After that, we went down to Dundrum House Hotel and there was a function there that night. There was a great camaraderie in that team and we celebrated well.

It was nice to win a fifth All-Ireland in 1986, but I retired after Tipp beat us in 1987. I got an injury in the Munster final replay in Killarney – I broke my nose and got six stitches. That puts you thinking a bit! I had got married in 1983 and our first daughter, Claire, was born in 1984, after the All-Ireland. Things are moving on and there was a bigger commitment involved. I did go back training for a bit after that but I made the call to retire.

I can’t complain. I had a great innings, with nine Munster championships and five All-Irelands from seven finals. You look at fellas in the current crop and they haven’t won any All-Ireland with Cork – luck comes into it as well, being in the right place at the right time in the right year.

  • Cork Hurling: Game of My Life is published by Hero Books and is out now, priced at €20. It will be launched by Cork author Tadhg Coakley next Thursday, March 24th at 6.30pm in Waterstones on St Patrick’s St in Cork.

 

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