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Dublin: 14 °C Wednesday 16 April, 2014

Unforgettable: an oral history of the 2013 hurling championship, part 1

In the words of some of the men who made it happen, this is the story of a remarkable summer.

IT ENDED UNDER the Croke Park floodlights with the Liam MacCarthy Cup safely in Pat Donnellan’s hands.

But long before Clare’s moment of glory, the 2013 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship earned its place as one of the most magical summers in GAA history.

It was the story of the fall of the old order and the rise of a new one (for this year at least); of grown men in tears, celebrating provincial titles they feared they would never see again; of ups and downs, heroes and villains; and of two finals that will be spoken about for years to come.

In the words of some of the men who made it happen, this is that story.

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INPHO/James Crombie

June

Clare’s road to the All-Ireland started on the first Sunday of June. Having dodged league relegation by the skin of their teeth, Davy Fitzgerald’s men got their championship off to a winning start against Waterford.

Brendan Bugler (Clare wing-back): “One of the big goals this year was to win a first Munster championship game since 2008. Beating Waterford was big for us and it was the first senior victory in Munster for the likes of John Conlon and Colin Ryan, who’d been involved for a few years.

“Waterford destroyed us for about 20-25 minutes but we seemed to open up near the end. The victory was the main thing.”

Dublin’s challenge for a first Leinster title since 1961 very nearly came unstuck in the quarter-finals when they were held to a draw by Wexford.

Johnny McCaffrey (Dublin midfielder): “That was probably one of the big turning points in our year.

“It looked like we were going to be knocked out, they were on a roll and the crowd were behind them. Then Mark Schutte came on and helped Eamonn Dillon get a goal. Mikey Carton hit a super point. We didn’t play well but we stayed alive.

People remember Ger Loughnane’s ‘constipated hurling’ comment from that night. I suppose we were under pressure. With stuff like that, you just don’t let it start to effect you. You keep things inside your own house.

After pushing Kilkenny all the way in the league final Tipperary were strong favourites to claim their third successive Munster title, but in a barnstorming semi-final at the Gaelic Grounds it was Limerick who came out on top.

Brendan Maher (Tipperary midfielder): “I wouldn’t say the mood was confident or that we were happy because obviously there was a bit of disappointment there from the Kilkenny game. [The league final] was still a loss. It’s a results game and you still have the same disappointment whether you lose by one point or 20 points.”

Seamus Hickey (Limerick wing-forward): “Being perfectly honest, I was very confident beforehand. I believed in the group of players that we had. We coming together at a good time. The gameplan we had was good and we were getting the most out of ourselves. It was on in Limerick as well which gave us a great chance. I’d a lot of respect for Tipperary but I felt we were in a good place.”

“It was a gorgeous day, the sun really baking down. We did a shorter warm-up than usual, it was so hot. When the game started off it was all a bit frantic.

“We’d a load of chances for goals early on, (Seamus) Callanan had two chances for them. It was ebbing and flowing but then finally Seanie Tobin stuck one in the net.”

Brendan Maher: “It was just one of those games where Limerick were really up for it. Everything went right for them that day. They had the breaks. It’s just one of those things that happens, that’s the way sport is, some days it runs for you and other days it doesn’t.”

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INPHO/James Crombie

Seamus Hickey: “In the first ten minutes of the second-half, they got a run on us and were able to take their chances better. How did we turn it around? John made the changes and they made a big help. He brought on Dowling, Downes and Moran. They’re lads that would be on most other county teams.

They did the damage when the game was in the melting point. We got our noses in front and stayed there. It was a massive win for us. The memories of the celebrations after will stay with me for a long time.

A week on from their ‘constipated hurling’ in Wexford Park, Dublin were far too strong for 14-man Wexford in the replay. They won by seven points, setting up a Leinster semi against reigning All-Ireland champions Kilkenny.

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INPHO/Donall Farmer

Johnny McCaffrey: “We felt Wexford had got a hold in the first game and then bullied us. We weren’t going to let that happen again.

“Once we got to the replay and won it, we felt the pressure lifted from us. No one was going to be giving us a chance going in against Kilkenny.”

McCaffrey and Dublin then came within seconds of a massive shock, leading Kilkenny deep into injury time before TJ Reid popped up with a dramatic equaliser to force a replay.

Johnny McCaffrey: “It was a game that we thought we should have won. We went ahead after 55 minutes and it was tit for tat after that.

“I remember vividly that we got the score to go ahead and then the ball came back downfield. There was about 10 or 15 seconds when it was up for grabs and I thought this is our chance to clear it and win it. But then TJ got the score.

“A lot of people said we’d lost our chance and we were disappointed with the draw.”

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INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

That same day, Cork and Clare met in the Gaelic Grounds for a Munster semi-final that gave little hint of things to come later in the summer. With the wind at their backs the Rebels were rampant in the second half and won by eight points.

Anthony Nash (Cork goalkeeper): “We’d played them in the league twice so we knew a lot about them. We were under pressure as a lot of people had been saying bad things about us and writing bad things about JBM and the management.”

Brendan Bugler: “No matter where you went, people were talking about a Limerick-Clare Munster final. We were hearing all this talk but then you’re thinking that we had played Cork in a titanic league battle. We knew what they were about.”

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INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Anthony Nash: “We knew we were good enough going into the game. Clare opened us a few times and our shooting was a bit wayward. It was a pressure game for us internally so it was really good to get a win.

“We were without big players. Lorcan (McLoughlin) was injured, Pa (Cronin) was sick. Seamie (Harnedy) mightn’t have got his chance but for that. He did though and proved to be a fantastic player all year.”

Brendan Bugler: “First and foremost, Cork were by far the better team. Conditions were bad for hurling though, there was a massive gale blowing down the field. We lost John Conlon, a pivotal player for us, when he got concussed.

“We created six goalscoring chances and took none. We went in at half-time, a few points up and that just was not enough with that wind. Cork dominated in the second half and fully deserved it.”

For Dublin and Kilkenny, the summer hinged on a Saturday night replay in Portlaoise. Would the Dubs get a second chance after letting their lead slip a week earlier?

They did and Anthony Daly’s men went on to face Galway in the Leinster final; Kilkenny would have to plot an unusual route through the qualifiers.

Johnny McCaffrey: “It was exciting to play them on a Saturday night. There was an added buzz. Portlaoise was full, there was good weather and it was a great atmosphere. Dotsy was on fire early on and our half-back line was excellent.

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INPHO/James Crombie

“The subs were outstanding as well, Mark Schutte and Shane Durkin. Danny Sutcliffe’s goal was key, he’d to put it through so many bodies but he went for it.

It was strange when the final whistle went. We knew the crowd would be ecstatic and there was a 10 minute period in the dressing-room when we were delighted.

But then it was a case of, we want to go on to win a Leinster championship now. We had to be mature. We met up the Sunday morning for recovery and looked towards Galway.

July

After losing to Cork, Clare regrouped over some Mi-Wadi and biscuits in Davy’s house and then thumped Laois in Phase 2 of the qualifiers.

Brendan Bugler: “Laois had put on a great performance against Galway and are one of the most improved teams in the country. When we played them, we’d a gameplan after how they’d done against Galway.

“We didn’t change anything as such. Lads just got a little more freedom. It was a win and the start of it.”

But all eyes were on a packed Nowlan Park that evening as Kilkenny and Tipp met in a heavyweight eliminator. The memory of their All-Ireland trilogy was still fresh but now for both counties, it was win or go home.

Tipp lost Lar Corbett to injury early on and when Henry Shefflin came off the bench to make his first appearance of the season, it set the stage for a dramatic Kilkenny win.

Brendan Maher: “It was quite a short build-up. We were training for a number of weeks not knowing who we were playing and when the draw was made, we still didn’t know because of their drawn game.

“You were building yourself up for a do-or-die game so it didn’t really matter who you were playing but the fact then that it was Kilkenny did add to it.”

Paraic Duffy (GAA Director-General): “I got to Kilkenny that evening, my wife and son were with me, and I couldn’t believe the atmosphere. The place was packed. We walked around the town, up to Kilkenny Castle and the mood was special.

“I met people from Monaghan, Sambo McNaughton from Antrim. Everyone understood the significance of the game. It could have been Kilkenny’s last stand and that lead to the anticipation.”

“It did strike me that you’d love to see more games played in provincial venues that are full to capacity. It was perfection.”

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INPHO/Donall Farmer

Brendan Maher: “The atmosphere down there in Nowlan Park that day, it was a special occasion. I suppose it was a great spectacle for a supporter. I won’t say that it was a good game to be involved in because we lost

I still haven’t watched the full game. I always find it hard to watch games that you lose. But I will watch it because I want to learn from it.

“Lar was buzzing that day. He was causing all sorts of havoc up in the forwards so that was a massive loss for us. We just fell short.”

Paraic Duffy: “I’ve never seen supporters have a relationship with their team like Kilkenny had that night. They were one. It was an act of faith. When Henry came on, I’ve never heard a roar in a GAA ground like it. It was a statement of how they felt about Henry.”

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INPHO/Donall Farmer

While Kilkenny lived to fight another day, their Leinster rivals Dublin and Galway still had to fight for the provincial title.

The Dubs had played four games in five weeks just to get this far but they showed no signs of fatigue as they blew Galway away by 12 points, lifting the Bob O’Keeffe Cup for the first time in 52 years.

Johnny McCaffrey: “We’d played four games but still hadn’t won anything. We’d got better in each game we’d played so we were hoping that upward curve would continue. I was feeling good before it.”

Joe Canning (Galway forward): “Dublin just got a bit of a run on us early on in the game, in the first half, and I suppose it was a bit too much for us. They got a goal I think at the start of the second half and again the bridge was too far for us to get back.”

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INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Johnny McCaffrey: “I came off with about 15 minutes to go so I was able to look on. The one thing that stands out is Danny (Sutcliffe) getting the score with a few minutes left and I remember saying to Martin Quilty alongside me, ‘Jesus, we have this now’. It was hard to believe you could say that in a Leinster final.”

Joe Canning: “Look at Dublin over the last couple of years. Winning Leinster was a huge year for them considering the couple of years they had before that. It’s good for hurling to have a little change as well I suppose. It just didn’t happen for us. Dublin were the better team on the day.”

Johnny McCaffrey: “When you’re in the moment, you don’t realise the enormity of the occasion.

There was a lovely touch from the Leinster Council that Jimmy Grey (the last Dublin winning captain) passed over the cup to me. It was a very special moment. There was great emotion for Dublin people afterwards.

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INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The qualifiers came to a head in a dramatic Phase 3 double-header in Semple Stadium. Clare blew a five-point lead in the final minutes before eventually regrouping to beat Wexford in extra-time while Kilkenny also needed an additional period to beat Waterford.

Brendan Bugler: “We started well but in the second half things started to unravel. Next thing our lead was down to four points and within two minutes they were back to draw. I couldn’t see us scoring and we were lucky enough the referee blew full-time. If the ball went down the field again, I reckon they’d have won it.

“There was a sense of relief before half-time. We didn’t panic and just regrouped. We knew there was another gear in us. There was a massive impact by Cathal McInerney for those goals but the work done by Conor McGrath for them was just huge.”

Almost 43,000 packed into the Gaelic Grounds for the Munster final between Limerick and Cork, and for those in green and white, it was a party for the ages.

The game was finely poised when Cork’s Pa Horgan was sent off shortly before half-time. Chasing their first provincial crown in 17 seasons, Limerick were determined not to waste their numerical advantage and went on to win 0-24 to 0-15.

Seamus Hickey: “The Tipperary game gave us an awful lot of confidence as we knew what performance we were capable of and how we could bring on players. With Cork having played so well against Clare, we didn’t get ahead of ourselves.

“The first-half was a strange one as the wind was strong enough. Our aim was to get in at half-time within a score. Declan Hannon was very sharp for us, Seamus Harnedy was doing well for them. Cork started coming in strongly to it.”

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INPHO/James Crombie

Anthony Nash: “Our shooting let us down in the first-half but it’s easy to blame the forwards in that situation. They were under a lot of pressure as Limerick had a good gameplan.

“Hoggy’s sending-off was detrimental because we lost a player and one of our best players at that. We believed it was the wrong decision and we were proved right afterwards. Maybe the game would have been different if we had him all through.”

Seamus Hickey: “The sending off of Patrick Horgan was huge. It was a crucial decision. There was no intent and malice to it. Losing a key man was a big blow to them.

“We used the wind to our advantage in the second-half. Our backs were going to be under less pressure and as it went on, we took over. We were five points up and in a very strong position when I left the field.”

Anthony Nash: “Limerick were very hungry. They got a run on us with ten minutes to go. It was a great achievement by them.”

Seamus Hickey: “I was very lucky that I got the last ten minutes to sit back and soak it all in. The final whistle sounded and it was amazing. The outpouring of the emotion from the players and the fans was the highlight of my career. I’ll never forget it.”

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INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

So with Dublin and Limerick safely into the All-Ireland semi-finals, the remaining counties met on the last Sunday in July to fight for the two remaining places.

Henry Shefflin’s red card was a major talking point as Cork dethroned Kilkenny while later that afternoon, Clare’s sweeper system flummoxed Galway.

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INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Anthony Nash: “When you heard we were playing Kilkenny, you just knew it was a huge task. The training after that game was ferocious. Lads got the grit between their teeth. It wasn’t a case that we felt we owed Kilkenny one. We just wanted to stay in the championship.

“The sending-off was obviously a big turning point as they lost their best player in Henry Shefflin. We also felt it we didn’t concede a goal in the second-half, we’d be on the road to victory.

“The penalty was their main chance. The first strike I didn’t realise until afterwards how close Tommy Walsh was. With the second from Richie Power, I did try to second guess and went to my right.

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“Lorcan always slags me that he had it covered, but given the goal he conceded from a free against in the county intermediate final in October, I’m not sure! With the rebound, it was just instinct.”

Paraic Duffy: “I think that was the day the championship was blown open.

Until Kilkenny went out, people always felt there was a kick in them. But when they were gone the complexion was suddenly so different.

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INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Brendan Bugler: “The previous two games were not on TV so we came in under the radar against Galway. We’d been going quietly and slowly going through the games. A lot of us had played in 2011 above in Salthill, when we got absolutely hockeyed by Galway. That was one of the worst days ever in a Clare jersey.”

Joe Canning: “I think everybody knew how good Clare were – apart from the bookies I suppose. Most of our lads would know them from colleges and from underage. Losing Johnny Coen early on was massive for us because he was central to our plan on the day.”

Brendan Bugler: “It was a big win for us. It was also a day when we played to a certain way. The movement of the forwards and the work rate was something we’d been working on all year. It was really starting to come through. The open spaces suited us.”

Joe Canning: “I don’t think they played as well against us as they did in the All-Ireland. You couldn’t tell back then, nobody could tell even going into the semi-final against Limerick whether they were going to win an All-Ireland or not.

“We didn’t lie down. In that second half, we tried to get back as much as we could but they tacked on a score here and there. They were the better team on the day, simple as that.”

– Brendan Bugler, Anthony Nash, Seamus Hickey, Johnny McCaffrey and Paraic Duffy were in conversation with Fintan O’Toole; Brendan Maher and Joe Canning were in conversation with Niall Kelly.

Ready for more? Read Part 2 of the oral history here >

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