Shane Stapleton looks back on the All-Ireland hurling championship of 1998, a season to remember.
Truly, 1998 was a summer of twists and turns.
It was the second year of the back-door system in hurling, with the Munster finalists of 1997 having also squared off on the first Sunday of September – Clare beating Tipperary on both occasions.
So while that had been the year of Anthony Daly, Jamesie O’Connor, Seanie McMahon and Davy Fitzgerald, the following one was to be an all-Leinster affair.
However, the team to win it would have to pry it from the Banner’s cold dead fingers first.
The year started with Clare looking for their third Munster title in four years as they met Gerald McCarthy’s emerging Waterford side in Thurles.
“I was as intense and as close to hatred as you could get between any two counties,” said Fergal Hartley of the provincial final.
“We felt the way to beat Clare was meet fire with fire and… sparks were going to fly.”
They certainly did and, over the course of two games, three men were sent off – Clare’s PJ O’Connell, Brian Lohan and Waterford’s Michael White – while Colin Lynch received a three-month ban for “repeated striking with the hurley” at the start of the replay.
Clare had won the game but it was a rough and farcical affair, with fights breaking out and either side’s management teams marking each other on the sideline.
Ger Loughnane went on TV and radio to defend both Lynch and himself, and many believed the Munster Council were on a witch hunt against the county.
“Is there a Gestapo-type police force operating within the GAA keeping an eye on Ger Loughnane so that if he crosses the line he’s going to be banned the next day?,” asked Loughnane, who was banned from the sideline for the All Ireland semi-final.
A high court injunction was sought to allow the Clare midfielder play, but that failed.
Loughnane showed up for a meeting with the Munster Council – led by future GAA President Sean Kelly – at which time he announced the sad death of Mary Ann Clohessy, Lynch’s grandmother.
Marty Morrissey beamed the news out across the country. As it turned out, she was still alive.
Sean Kelly told a story of how his father, who had never aired his views on GAA suspensions before, said: “You have blackguarded Colin Lynch.”
On the other side of the country, matters were also bubbling over.
Offaly lost the Leinster final to Kilkenny and new manager Michael ‘Babs’ Keating was unhappy with his charges.
“The players just aren’t listening to me. We’re like sheep running around in a heap.”
This caused consternation in the county. Influential player Johnny Pilkington spoke out against Keating and a schism opened, into which Babs’ job would fall.
“As an Offaly man, I don’t like anybody giving out about our players. I have to say that the marriage was over. It could not be saved,” said Brendan Ward, Chairman of Offaly County Board.
A new man was brought in: Michael Bond from Galway. Pilkington said of him: “Most new managers coming in would like to have a formal presentation or meeting and talk about what way we’re going.
“He just came in and said ‘Listen, I’m Michael Bond. I like Offaly hurling, I love they way ye hurl, and let’s go and do some of it’.”
And three games of it they had against Clare. The first game was drawn but the second proved far more dramatic.
To the extent that referee Jimmy Cooney was not allowed leave Croke Park until nearly 10pm for fear of his safety.
He had blown up the game early with Clare three points clear. Offaly fans and players staged a sit-down protest.
“I blew the final whistle but I was five minutes short in that game,” said Cooney. “People say ‘two’, I actually only played a 30-minute second half.
“There was three minutes injury time which means there was actually five minutes still to be played in it.”
“When you realise you have made a mistake and especially in a very, very important game, an All Ireland semi-final, it’s not a nice feeling.
“And you’re going to the dressing room and the cameras are flashing in front of you and you’re nearly like a lad that was after murdering someone.
“They’re all flashing every side of you, and mad to get a picture and nearly knocking one another out of their way.
“And, you know, an odd fellow waving a fist of you and the odd hurley shoved in as well.”
Loughnane, given the summer he was having, felt there was more to it than a simple mistake.
“I think we will never know what happened, what really happened, or what Jimmy Cooney’s reason for blowing his whistle when he did was.
“I do not accept that it was an error, a complete error. I think that he did it for some other reason.
“Whether he knew it was a big mistake in not sending off Michael Duignan [for a wild pull] and there was a danger Offaly might draw the match – I don’t think there was any question of them winning – or else there was some other reason connected with the controversy going on that year.”
The Games Administration Committee of the GAA ordered a replay. “We were more than happy to get the replay and, from that moment on, we knew we’d win the replay.
“We knew from that day on we had the advantage over them,” said Johnny Dooley.
With Offaly securing their place in the All Ireland final, so the first ever all-Leinster championship fixture September was set up and Offaly’s chance to avenge their provincial final loss to Kilkenny.
Brian Whelahan – since honoured as one of the greatest hurlers in GAA history – had a terrible bout of flu that day.
He began the game rather poorly, as might be unexpected given his condition, and Brian McEvoy scored three points off him.
With Bond and his management team clearly concerned with their back line, Michael Duignan was switched back with Whelahan moving into the forward line.
For a man who should have been smothered in blankets at home in bed, Whelahan ripped the covers off Kilkenny’s defence – dovetailing nicely with John Troy – and scored 1-6 as his team turned a half-time deficit into a second All Ireland in five years.
It was Whelahan’s goal three minutes from time that sealed the win.
The win made it an unprecedented five years in a row since any of the big three – Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary – had their hands on the Liam McCarthy Cup, and brought down the curtain on a white-hot summer of hurling.
A final word to Johnny Pilkington: “Everyone gets their day in the sun.”
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