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'There Was A Stigma Attached To Losing That Game' - The Biggest Shock In Modern Hurling History

'There Was A Stigma Attached To Losing That Game' - The Biggest Shock In Modern Hurling History

"There was very little about the game. Everyone expected we’d just succumb like we always did but the warning signs were there. Nobody took any notice of them."

Maurice Leahy

"Even afterwards in pubs in Waterford. I certainly didn't go into bars for a while. There was a stigma attached to losing that match."

Paul Flynn

 

Listening to the Sky deal debate, an outsider could be forgiven for assuming that the right to watch championship matches on free to air television had at one point been enshrined in the constitution.

However, the modern RTE practice of screening at least one game live a week is a historically recent phenomenon. The GAA was long wary of televised games, believing it would adversely affect attendances. Even now, this occasional hostility re-surfaces. The GAA reduced the number of televised games for the 2012 season out of fear that attendances were being harmed.

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There were no RTE cameras around to capture the biggest shock in the history of the hurling championship in 1993. There wasn't even a highlights game on the Sunday Game evening show. If such a thing happened now, Des Cahill would be reading out irate text messages for a week.

At the time, you had Sports Stadium on the Saturday, and the Sunday Game was on the Sunday. That was kind of it. I don't think there was a camera at it. I've never seen footage of it. I'd say it was one of those games where RTE probably said 'there's a Connacht football match on and we'll go to that and sure Waterford will beat Kerry and sure whatever. It didn't cause any great national... people were shocked and that but if the equivalent thing happened next Sunday, social media and the press, you'd never get away from it. You'd be remembered for it for life.

Paul Flynn

'THE WARNING SIGNS WERE THERE. NOBODY TOOK ANY NOTICE OF THEM'

The early 90s was the worst of times for Kerry football. But the Kerry hurlers were flowering into a competitive outfit. They hadn't won a Munster championship match in aeons but their margins of defeat were getting narrower. The scoreboard was becoming easier to look at. It was only recently they had even begun to line up at the starter's block in the Munster championship.

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During the 1970s and 80s, up to 1986, they operated in the All-Ireland B championship, a kind of proto-Christy Ring event. The prize for winning was a hammering against Galway in a match which was called the All-Ireland quarter-final. The GAA was less worried about giving weaker counties a day out in Croke Park back then and so the match was played in some unglamorous location like Birr or Athenry. Galway would get no thanks for winning it off their people and would dispose of the B champs without much thought.

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In 1990, they lost respectably against Cork in Tralee. There were only nine points in at the end. Cork would murder Waterford in Thurles in the Munster semi-final, though not by enough to convince Babs Keating that they weren't donkeys. Their dressing room wall duly padded out with upsetting material, Cork went on to win the All-Ireland.

In '91, Waterford were only six points better than them in Tralee.

Christy Walsh flitted between midfield and the half-forward line during the 80s and 90s. A Kerry hurler from 1982 to 2000, today he operates as, among other things, the Kilkenny football manager.

A casual observer might term him a kind of GAA 'Patron Saint of Lost Causes' (or the 'Patron Saint of Difficult Challenges' as St. Jude's 21st century PR guru might be inclined to rebrand it).

His primary managerial role currently is at Bennettsbridge (he lives in Kilkenny) whom he has guided to successive All-Ireland club hurling titles, at junior in 2014 and at intermediate in 2015.

Around that time we were competitive, that’s the word. We played Cork in 1990 and we played very well, played Limerick in ’89 in Killarney.

We were reasonably competitive, like, we weren’t getting hammered out the gate. In Kerry, that’s where you start from, ‘are you going to get hammered out the gate?’ and then it gets better from that.

At the time, being honest, we wouldn’t have seen ourselves as too far behind Waterford anyway. Waterford weren’t exactly, compared with the Waterford of the last fifteen years, they weren’t hectic.

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Maurice Leahy, only recently retired as an inter-county player, had been manager for the 1990 campaign. In his autobiography, Paul Galvin described Leahy as 'Mr Kerry Hurling'.

A Kerry player until the age of 38, Leahy has been manager, on and off, for a rough total of 15 years out of the last 30. His earliest stints as manager came while he was still doubling as a full-back. He won two All-Ireland B championships with Kerry in 1983 and 1986. He was the default guy, the man usually persuaded to take the job when no one else wanted to know.

'When they were finding it hard to get managers, I was always the fallback guy. I could never say no to that job.'

He stepped aside following the 1990 season but returned as a selector with John Meyler in 1992. Kerry had reached the quarter-final of the League in 92/93, partly thanks to the generous qualification criteria, which allocated two spots to the leading Division 2 teams. They were beaten by an imperious Tipperary team in a low scoring quarter-final.

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They had a nucleus of experienced players who'd been together a long time. Asked to instance the standouts, Leahy plumps for Walsh, midfielders Mike O'Shea and Brendan O'Sullivan, his brother DJ, the converted centre-back/corner forward, and the corner-back, the late Seamus McIntyre.

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Christy Walsh was always a fantastic hurler, Seamus McIntyre, God rest him, from Kenmare, he was full back, he was a great hurler and footballer, Mike O'Shea and DJ Leahy, my brother, Brendan O'Sullivan from Ballyheigue... and many more

Their championship outing was scheduled for 23 May in Walsh Park.

There was very little about the game. Everyone expected we’d just succumb like we always did but the warning signs were there. Nobody took any notice of them.

'WATERFORD CRYSTAL GAVE EVERYONE A MCGEE SUIT. SO WE ALL GOT MEASURED UP FOR THAT'

Waterford hurling had been busting a gut to keep the wolf of irrelevance from the door for around a decade at that point.

They remained enough of a speed bump for Cork and Tipperary to retain their designation as a hurling county.

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In 1989, they reached the Munster Final after beating Cork in a replay. In ’92, they beat Clare, another team paddling in shallow waters, also after a replay. The drawn game that year is solely remembered for providing an anecdote for Anthony Daly’s All-Ireland winning speech three years later. After lobbing over the equalising score, Kieran Delahunty advised Daly and Clare to ‘stick to the traditional music’.

In 1992-93, things appeared to be looking up. Waterford won their first, and to date only, All-Ireland U21 final. In a bumper year of Waterford's hurling youngsters, they also reached the All-Ireland minor final, losing to Galway.

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Paul Flynn played for both teams, coming on as a sub in the U21 Munster Final before breaking into the starting team for the All-Ireland final(s).

At the age of 18, he made his senior championship debut in 1993. In terms of bequeathing riches to subsequent senior teams, the triumphant Waterford class of '92 were more in the mould of the Limerick three-in-a-row side of the 1990s or the numerous victorious Galway underage teams.

The funny thing about the '92 U21 Waterford team, less than half of them went on to play any significant role at senior level... That Offaly team that we beat in the final in Nowlan Park. That's the amazing thing about it. I would be surprised if there wasn't eleven of that team that played in the All-Ireland final in '94 against Limerick and won a senior medal. And in '94 then, we beat Clare in Fermoy in the Munster U21 Final and seven of that Clare went on to win a senior medal the following year. So (laughs) if you wanna win an All-Ireland, let Waterford beat you in U21, that was the way it was in the early 90s.  

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The captain of the All-Ireland winning 1992 team - Mr. Tony Browne - had already graduated to the senior side where he would remain for roughly another thousand years. He played in the 1992 championship but was away for the Kerry match in '93.

He wasn't away in America for the summer, trying to find himself on some building site. No, he just on a fortnight's holiday. He'd be back for the Tipperary game.

Tony (Browne) didn't play. Tony went on holidays. He came on in '92. He went on holidays in May 93 and he would be back for the Tipperary game. He was in Spain or somewhere.

One of the embarrassing tidbits that everyone remembers is the Waterford players posing in their new McGee suits out on the pitch before the game.

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Sponsors had been plastered across jerseys for the first time in 1991. Cork were sponsored by 'Barry's', Galway had 'Supermacs', and Tipperary had 'Tipperary Water' in those days. Waterford weren't big time enough to attract a sponsor initially. But the 1992 U21 win convinced Waterford Crystal to get involved. They provided new suits for the championship panel.

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In his book on Waterford hurling, 'The Ecstasy and the Agony', Damien Tiernan records that the Kerry players were filtering into Walsh Park before the game while the suited up Waterford players were grinning for the cameras.

Inevitably, it is remembered that John Meyler used this in the dressing room. 'Complacent' Waterford were deserving of a smack, etc, etc. Although, Flynn says that the players were at best ambivalent about posing in their suits. The county board insisted on it.

While they had been eaten alive by Cork in the League quarter-final (5-16 to 1-6. Not a promising sight), Flynn contends that the team were doing fine in the pre-championship challenge matches.

Waterford got together three weeks before that match, played one or two matches against Limerick and Kilkenny. And were going quite well, actually. And then, because of the U21 All-Ireland in '92, we got sponsored and Waterford Crystal gave everyone a McGee suit. So we all got measured up for that. And the match was in Waterford. And it was supposed to be a procession. And the winners play Tipperary and everyone thought Waterford would have a cut off Tipperary on the 6th of June. And Kerry came down and put an end to that.

'DID THIS JUST HAPPEN? ARE WE GOING TO WAKE UP IN A FEW MINUTES? 

They got goals every time. They'd go two or three points up, we'd pull it back level, they'd go two or three points...  As the game wore on, there was desperation among the crowd, desperation among us.

Paul Flynn

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Match reports are fairly dull. However, the absence of any footage means that they, along with the sketchy personal testimony of those who were there, are all we have to go on.

As an indicator of the level of media interest in the game, the Irish Independent and the Irish Press carried the exact same match report from Tom Young.

In one sense, Paul Flynn had a wonderful start to his senior inter-county career. He had two goals inside twenty minutes as Waterford looked to shake off Kerry. However, as soon as Waterford stretched five points in front, Kerry banged in two goals through Brendan O'Sullivan and the massively influential DJ Leahy.

At half-time, the situation was already alarming. Waterford trailed by a point despite being backed by a stiff breeze.

They settled matters early in the second half, hitting 1-4 without reply. Flynn completed his hat-trick, the least satisfying debut hat-trick in the history of sport, amateur or professional

Kerry refused to take this flurry as their cue to go down honourably. The one thing everyone remembers from the game is DJ Leahy scoring a point from a ridiculous angle out near the sideline, the kind of point that causes pre-match favourites to look in panic at one another and think to themselves 'what the hell is going on?'

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There used to be a real old concrete toilet in the bottom of Walsh Park. Horrible. Just a real old GAA toilet. Just a chicane of walls in and around each other. Looked like he was standing there when he hit it. Left-handed against the line and everything. I'd say if you put DJ Carey there, never mind DJ Leahy, he wouldn't put it over. But it went over and that's the kind of day it was.

Paul Flynn

Kerry full forward Joe Walsh booted in a goal and Christy Walsh levelled the game. With four minutes left, DJ Leahy, in majestic form all day, stood over a free thirty yards out. A point would send Kerry into the lead.

However, he mis-hit the free badly, landing it into the forest of bodies protecting the square. It ricocheted off a Waterford hurl and nestled in the net.

In the final seconds, Paul Flynn stood over a 25 metre. A fourth goal would get them a replay and avert (total) humiliation. However, it was repelled by the phalanx of bodies on the line. Terence Murray blew the final whistle and Waterford's season was over. Tony Browne would have no game to come back to when he came home.

'THERE WAS A STIGMA ATTACHED TO LOSING THAT GAME'

When the final whistle blew, we couldn't believe it. We were looking for holes to throw ourselves in. Waterford used to find it hard to beat the weaker teams but this was total embarrasment. I didn't want to talk to anyone.

Seanie Cullinane, in The Ecstasy and the Agony

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RTE Radio reporter Johnny O'Connor, seemingly one of the few national media figures to attend the game, was almost dragged into the showers by the Kerry players after the game.

Sean Kelly justifiably proclaimed it the greatest day in the history of Kerry hurling. It was over sixty years since their last significant win in the Munster championship.

The vice-chairman of the Kerry county board Liam Cotter sang 'The Rose of Tralee'. Tiernan writes that John Meyler personally thanked every one of the twenty-five Kerry people who travelled to support the team.

Italian football teams have had to duck out of the way of rotten fruit at airports when arriving back from unsuccessful tournaments. Giovanni Trapattoni was a member of the 1966 team which was greeted in this fashion after they disgraced the nation by losing to North Korea. The Waterford players had cans and stones thrown at them as they made their way down the tunnel in '93. They were protected by the netting which covered the narrow tunnel at Walsh Park.

Paul Flynn remembers a couple of players coming in for serious abuse, though he stresses that this was just a segment of the Waterford support.

Nights out in Waterford were curbed for a while, but not for the usual modern reasons.

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I don't mean to be disrespectful to the Kerry team that won the match, they deserved to win the match, but the jeering that went on after the match from the Waterford crowd, some of the Waterford crowd, towards the management and maybe a few select players. It was hard to believe that these lads would be on your side two weeks later.

There were two players in particular that did get a bit of abuse from fans behind the goal. Even afterwards in pubs in Waterford. I certainly didn't go into bars for a while. There was a stigma attached to losing that match.

Flynn has little to say about the Waterford dressing room afterwards, simply because he didn't spend too much time in it. There were no valedictory speeches or rallying cries and promises to be better next year. Or even angry managerial rants. What would be the point? Just get in, get out and get away from Walsh Park.

It was kinda like get in, get out, have your shower at home. That was kinda the atmosphere. There wasn't a blame game going on, it was just... not embarrassing, but it was a mood of 'did this just happen, are we going to wake up in a few minutes'.

It was thought inevitable that Georgie Leahy, the Waterford manager who'd stayed on from 1992, would have to get the door. He simply sighed to the local press that it had been a 'once off'.

Oddly enough, he remained in place.

Christy Walsh can empathise with the Waterford players.

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I’d say they got abuse from their own supporters, but sure don’t we all like. You always get abuse from lads who never played.

'THEY'RE LIKE NO OTHER'

Tipp were excellent that year. Actually, Tipp should have won the All-Ireland that year. They hammered us. They beat us 4-24 to 2-12 or something like that. But they hammered Clare in the Munster Final something similar.

Look, everyone knew that that was end of it. We’d do our best against Tipp. But we were never going to be beating Tipp.

Christy Walsh

Tipperary ended Kerry's season and then demolished Clare in the Munster Final, in what must have been considered at the time one of the handiest Munster titles ever won. They won their two matches by a combined tally of 36 points.

For Maurice Leahy, this was of a piece with Tipperary's general approach to one-sided games. Tipp were not a chivalrous bunch in these situations.

They didn’t have much mercy for us. I never forget playing against them one year and they were twenty something points up in the last minute and they got a 21 metre free and Declan Ryan went for a goal.

Tipp were ruthless. Whereas Cork were different. They’d have had more respect. If they went far ahead they’d just start taking their points. But Tipp always wanted to pull the trigger. There’d be more respect for Cork hurling down in Kerry than for Tipp.

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Waterford went into virtual hibernation until the late 1990s. While the hurling revolution raged, Waterford, for all their underage promise, remained in slumber. In 1995, the year when Clare turned the world upside down, Waterford were hammered by a Tipperary team who weren't exactly pulling up trees elsewhere. Their next significant win came against Tipp in the 1998 Munster semi-final.

We got a very bad beating in '95. In '96 Tipperary beat us by four points, '97 Limerick beat us. It was only with Gerald McCarthy's arrival and the change of attitude, that we started competing a bit. I'd have to say it did set Waterford back. At the time, did it feel it set us back, probably not. But looking back at it now, it did, it did, for sure.

Kerry won no more games in the Munster championship for the remainder of the decade. They were occasionally competitive in the League, reaching Division 1 in 1995-96.

After a violent dip in the early 2000s when hope seemed to have been extinguished, Kerry once more have a team to rival the side of the early 1990s. The Christy Ring champions of 2015, they find themselves once more in Division 1 of the League and competing in the Leinster championship.

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Paul Flynn's memories of the '93 game are probably more vivid than anyone's. He says it is still occasionally liable to be brought up. Primarily by journalists. Now, he just happy to wish Kerry well and he hopes they remain in the top Division for a long while yet.

They've got some lovely players. They're like no other. They just love their hurling, I assume. Because they're such a successful football county, it doesn't get the kind of support or exposure that the North Kerry lads would wish for. The League run they did this year was phenomenal. I hope they stay in Division B for a good few years and even build stronger.

Maurice Leahy is inevitably involved. He remains Games Development Administrator, a job he has held for a mere 27 years. Now 65, he steps down from the role at the end of the season.

The big difference between then and now is that we’ve no players from South Kerry now. Back then, we'd have had players from Killarney, Tralee, Kilgarvan...

The gap wasn’t as big then (in the early 90s). We played all the big teams in the League. But now the approach is so professional from the big teams and they have the resources to pull away.

We have only eight clubs. And they're really rural clubs. They're the kind of places you'd miss if you drove by them. We have no town.

But hurling will always survive in those eight clubs because, there’s a massive passion for the game there and it’ll never die.

Read more: Balls Remembers... Kerry: The Lost Years 1987 - 1996

Read more: The Only County To Have Won All-Stars In Every Position In Both Codes? - An Investigation

 

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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