Flashback: The Centenary Munster final

September 03, 2009

Tipperary's Bobby Ryan gives chase to Cork's Tomas Mulcahy during the 1984 Munster Hurling Final.
The passion, intensity, skill and breathtaking sense of occasion that has made the Munster SHC final one of our greatest sporting establishments was never more evident than in the Centenary Year of the GAA in 1984. A quarter of a century has passed since the hurlers of Cork and Tipperary served up an epic encounter at Semple Stadium in Thurles, with the Rebels snatching a dramatic victory en route to winning the All-Ireland title and thus making up for the disappointment of losing the final to Kilkenny in the previous two years. There were many wonderful highlights during 1984 as the association celebrated 100 years and when it came to the action on the field of play there was none better than that July day in Thurles when Cork triumphed, as they were widely expected to do, but Tipperary did so much to restore pride after many years of under-achievement. They had slipped alarmingly since their previous Munster and All-Ireland successes in 1971. By contrast, Cork had won eight provincial crowns in that period, including five in-a-row between 1975 and '79, and lifted the McCarthy Cup in 1976, '77 and '78. Tipperary suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the 1973 Munster final when Limerick stunned them with a late winning point and it was all downhill from there. For nine successive years they failed to win a first round championship game. They went close on occasions, but they just couldn't do it. It was a dreadful time for a proud hurling people and the supporters were saddened and disillusioned. While others feasted at the top table - among them Galway and Offaly who had made tremendous breakthroughs - Tipperary suffered. But there was hope. The work that might herald a brighter future was being carried out and a significant breakthrough had come in 1976 when Tipperary won the All-Ireland minor title for the first time in 17 years and there were further outright successes in that grade in 1980 and '82. All-Ireland under-21 titles were annexed in 1979, '80 and '81 and there was much rejoicing in 1983 when the seniors broke the losing habit by defeating Clare in the first round of the Munster Championship. However, the joy was short-lived as they flopped in the semi-final against Waterford who, in turn, were trounced by Cork in the final. Tipperary's pride continued to take a pounding, but looming large on the radar was 1984 - Centenary Year. In recognition of the founding of the GAA in Thurles 100 years earlier it was decided to stage the All-Ireland final in the refurbished Semple Stadium. If ever Tipperary needed an incentive to awaken from their slumber this was surely it. But they were a long way adrift in the pecking order of potential All-Ireland winners and there was no time for a five-year plan or anything like that. The big year was just around the corner and Tipperary needed to organise themselves thoroughly, in mind and body, if they were to be contenders. Donie Nealon was chosen as coach, with Pat Stakelum, Len Gaynor, Fr Ray Reidy, Liam Hennessy and John Kelly acting as selectors, but there was little sense of progress when Tipperary were eliminated by Laois at the quarter-final stage of the Centenary Cup. Cork looked good in their championship opener when they beat Limerick, while Tipperary were less than inspiring when they overcame Clare. Cork, coached by Justin McCarthy and Fr Bertie Troy and trained by Noel Collins, were clear favourites for the final which was watched by a crowd of over 50,000 spectators who were treated to a gripping, enthralling encounter. The noise was deafening and the exchanges fiercely intense from the word go. Tipperary were fired up to the last, as if years of failure inspired rather than hindered them, while Cork looked more composed and assured during those hectic opening exchanges. Tipperary took a risk by starting Pat Fitzell, who was hampered with an ankle injury, and the signs were ominous when the dangerous Kevin Hennessy edged Cork ahead with a point. But there were hopeful signs for the underdogs, particularly in the performances of outstanding centre-back John McIntyre, midfielders Ralph Callaghan and Philip Kennedy and centre-forward Donie O'Connell. Seamus Power gave Tipperary a big boost when he goaled after a Callaghan centre, but Jimmy Barry Murphy had Cork ahead when he netted on 11 minutes. Tipperary suffered a blow when Dinny Cahill hobbled off injured, to be replaced by John Doyle who went on to play a stormer. Many disagreed with the subsequent decision to switch inspirational captain Bobby Ryan to corner-back, believing he had more to offer from the left-half berth. Cork began to find their range with points and when Barry Murphy scored his second goal after 16 minutes they were five clear at 2-4 to 1-2. As the half progressed, Sean O'Leary, Pat Horgan, John Fenton, accurate as ever from placed balls, and Hennessy grew in stature and Tipperary looked in danger of capitulating. That wizard of stickwork Nicky English, who had been chosen as an All-Star in 1983, was being well marked by Dermot McCurtain, as was Noel O'Dwyer by Denis Mulcahy. English, with his artistry and sheer genius, was vital to the cause, as was O'Dwyer, who had tasted All-Ireland glory in 1971. With that pair tied up, wind-assisted Tipperary were in trouble. But they didn't wither away and when Cork goalkeeper Ger Cunningham parried O'Dwyer's shot in the 23rd minute, O'Connell was alert to the rebound and netted. Inspired by McIntyre's brilliance at the heart of their defence, Tipperary hopes were raised, but Cork pushed five points clear again. As a spellbinding opening period reached its conclusion, Michael Doyle provided the ammunition for English to goal in great style and Cork's lead at the break was back to two points, 2-10 to 3-5. If it was possible, the second half was contested at an even more frantic pace and much of it was dominated by Tipperary as they took control at midfield. However, they suffered a massive blow within 10 minutes of the restart when Ryan was forced off injured and in a bid to counteract his loss to the defence it was decided to move Power from attack. That was a strange move considering the trouble he had been causing the Cork defence, but with McIntyre having the game of his life, Tipperary looked capable of overcoming the loss of three of their starting backs. With English growing in stature they were on level terms (3-9 to 2-12) by the 13th minute of the second period and gradually pushed ahead. With just six minutes remaining Tipperary looked to have taken a decisive advantage when they held a four-point lead, 3-14 to 2-13, but as their supporters willed their watches to speed up in anticipation of a famous victory, Cork pounced in lethal fashion to shatter their dream. It was apparent that many of Tipperary's players were tiring after such trojan efforts and that Pat Hartnett was storming into the game at midfield when the Rebels needed him most. Fenton converted a free with four minutes remaining and it was at this stage that the decision to introduce the gifted Tony O'Sullivan really started to reap rewards. He hadn't started due to illness, but what an inpact he made when he was. When a Hartnett shot was parried by goalkeeper John Sheedy, O'Sullivan reacted instinctively to fire to the net and leave the sides level. As the tension became almost unbearable, Tipperary lost possession from an advantageous attacking position. O'Sullivan's point attempt was batted away by Sheedy and that great poacher O'Leary was on hand to net. Fenton added a pointed free and Cork had won an amazing game by 4-15 to 3-14. They went on to finish the job when beating Offaly in the All-Ireland final, but for Tipperary there was nothing but agony. "Until the day I die I'll never forget the whole day," Bobby Ryan said in an interview for 'Hogan Stand' many years later. "I was captain at 23, the final was in Thurles, it was the GAA's Centenary Year and I had the world at my feet. "Cork were red-hot favourites, but we hurled magnificently on the day until we were caught at the end. We should have won. It was such a bizarre defeat and a dreadful disappointment. To add to the misery, I suffered a broken leg." The teams were: Cork - G Cunningham; D Mulcahy, D O'Grady, J Hodgins; T Cashman, J Crowley, D McCurtain; J Fenton (0-7), P Hartnett (0-1); P Horgan (0-3), T Crowley, K Hennessy (0-3); T Mulcahy, J Barry Murphy (2-0), S O'Leary (1-1). Subs - J Blake for O'Grady, T O'Sullivan (1-0) for T Crowley, D Walsh for Horgan. Tipperary - J Sheedy; J Bergin, J Keogh, D Cahill; P Fitzell, J McIntyre, B Ryan; R Callaghan, P Kennedy (0-2); N English (1-0), D O'Connell (1-2), L Maher (0-1); M Doyle, S Power (1-6), N O'Dwyer (0-2). Subs - J Doyle for Cahill, B Heffernan for Fitzell, P Dooley (0-1) for Ryan. Referee - John Moore (Waterford).

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