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One Day In Thurles: The 2004 Munster Hurling Final

One Day In Thurles: The 2004 Munster Hurling Final
By Paul Ring
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It was the colour really. Not blood red but bright, brilliant red.  Flecks of blue and white crossed over from time to time. My eyes would dart at the change. They had flags, the louder the better. They had woolen bands floating from their arms and a lucky few had a number on the back of their jerseys. They must know someone, it was explained to me after, because there’s no way they played, although the lad with 19 on his back might be honest.

This was Thurles in June 2004. Munster final day.

Growing up I wasn’t so much skeptical of the GAA as hostile towards it. I was football, Puma Kings and upturned collars. Mud, shit and alcohol breath in some plot of land masquerading as a pitch at quarter to eleven Sunday morning. That was my world.

Maturity - or the altogether more realistic reason of watching your friends becoming local heroes - changed that. Two of my closest friends were from the village down the road. It was a hurling village. They said come to Thurles, we’ll have a laugh, and you might just enjoy it. There is a strange feeling of guilt now looking back that this was my first Cork hurling match in the flesh, a Munster final no less. Cork against Waterford. That Munster final. It's like having to confess that the first movie I ever saw was The Godfather or the first football game I saw in the flesh was the 1970 World Cup final.


I knew bits of course, how we came close the year before (I can say “we” now, sure I was there) and how Setanta was an awful loss. The lads helped me fill in the blanks and I caught the rest on the building site in the lead up to the game. If Cork lost, I was told it would be Timmy McCarthy’s fault, that erstwhile soldier in the half-forward line whose particular brand of solid hurling never seemed to earn him praise. I marked his card because people would say his full name and not just his first or some sort of abbreviation or nickname. He wasn’t Ben, Jerry, John Ga, Sully or Deano. It was as if you were legally obliged to say his full name.

I learned that on Munster final day, knowing someone who works on the train is the equivalent of knowing a bouncer on the door on Munster final week. I sorted that end out and felt as if I had contributed.


The train teemed with fans and the journey seemed to go in a flash. It was all second nature to those with me, muscle memory. In Thurles, they snaked through the crowds and got to the establishment where friendly-tasting cider could be quickly consumed. We weren't going to the minor match. You only went to the minor match if you knew someone playing, they said.

We took up position under the scoreboard at the town end, a prize for being somewhat early. The crowds started to file in soon after and I remember being struck with how easily familiar faces found us.


Throw in approached. Pageantry and tradition consumed the place. The players lined up opposite each other and marched around the pitch as if seeking our approval. The gentle wave of noise as the line of red trotted to our end ascended into a fist-shaking fury. No discernible words, just noise, a guttural Cork roar.

I had zero intel on Waterford. All I knew from the scraps of conversation I was nodding to before the game was Ken McGrath was a hard bastard, that you couldn’t trust Paul Flynn and I deducted from the volley of abuse hurled at Mullane that there was a bit of history between him and us.


I tried to keep up. It was sound and fury. The flags would gradually rise as the sliotar reached the posts. Cork started like the morning's train: point after point, a fluke of a goal, Ben O’Connor and Tom Kenny in particular seemed to eat ground. Waterford didn’t wilt and this tornado of a match swept all before it. The reckless abandon, the speed of light skill. Again, the colour red.


Eoin Kelly flashed in a goal from a ridiculous angle. But still Cork came. Point after point, pop pop pop. Ronan Curran would rise and emerge with the ball from under a slew of bodies and timber. The tactics were man on man, fourteen ferocious encounters with two guard dogs prowling the nets. Cork were pulling away before the half but then deadly Dan, their one-name man, rose above Diarmuid O’Sullivan right in front us and savaged a shot into the goal. Pause.

You never think at half time in Thurles how soon it is until you have to rush back for your train. We certainly didn’t that day. The second half started as if we had paused for just a second. Mullane did that thing where he drives at just about whatever comes his way and flew over another. He was starting to purr. Then something happened.


None of us knew, none of us saw it. But it involved Mullane. Brian Murphy was on the floor so Mullane must have hit him. The referee flashed red and how red rose all around him, how we jeered. The righteous noise of justice. He was gone and so was the game.


I then learned the strange GAA conundrum of the spare man and what to bloody do with him. Cork didn’t seem to know and an old adage that crosses any sporting border of a team redoubling its efforts when a man down came into play. Ken McGrath confirmed what I’d known about him for an hour now, that the buck toothed, shaven-head image was no mask. He was nails. Dan Shanahan continued to torment and then there was the lad you couldn’t trust.


Paul Flynn and the free. It was a moment you might just for a second divert your attention elsewhere because what else was he going to do? Flynn of course, arrowed an improbable shot into the roof of the Cork net from a distance he had no right to strike from or to try from. It was almost offensive to the seasoned watchers around him, an insult that he tried it.

There is a way of these things snowballing. Waterford chests puffed out, Cork receded. Seamus Prendegast hit a point that seemed to start from next to us in the stand and when it went over, even the rookie knew something was amiss.


Cork were desperate. Time somehow had caught us. There was to be one last moment though. One last warrior challenge. The Rock himself came rumbling down the field and positioned himself next to McGrath. It was like a boxer’s entrance. Everyone knew where he was going, who was going to pick him up and where Donal Óg Cusack was going to send the ball. Perhaps, as with a great many things and with something that cast such a spell over an impressionable mind, my memory has embellished this and many other things from the game, but the sight of McGrath towering over this Rock to finish the game is something I’ve clung to. It was as if a scripted finish. The clearest and most brutal indication of how this had to end. McGrath screamed after he made his catch and we had one free before it was up. I was told after that rarely does everyone stay right to the end because the trains.

A few weeks later I was sitting in the local with a friend of mine who always avoided sport as a conversation with me because of our different codes. That had thawed though. Cork had a qualifier against Tipperary in Kerry. They won too, a ball fell to a second half substitute who pulled on it instantly and it crashed into the net.

Timmy Mac, would you believe it.

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