When the Kilkenny senior selectors handed the number three jersey to Nicky Orr of the Fenians (Johnstown) club prior to the 1972 National League/Championship season they were eminently aware that the job was in one of the safest pair of hands that ever laced on a sports boot, writes Barrie Henriques.
Built like the proverbial brick wall, Nicky Orr was well “sot”, as the Ballingarry man would say. He was a natural, immensely strong athlete who was aware of what was needed. He never took a step backward in a challenge and knew in his heart of hearts that to do so was never going to be an acceptable option.
Of Donegal stock, Nicky Orr was a born son of Johnstown. He loves and loved the game, the man-to-man challenges it presented in his day and how the ancient game challenged him as person and athlete.
Nicky has a relaxed, engaging sense of humour.
“I went to the national school in Johnstown where my first teacher was a Miss Molloy,” he opened when we got to chatting about times past. “Then I had a Mr McCann from Armagh, and then I had a Mr Rhatigan from Cullohill. The next teacher I had was a Garvey from Kerry. I was terribly interested in hurling from as early as I can remember, but how we could have learned any hurling from a line-up of teachers like that is still a mystery.
An early Leaving?
“I did my Leaving at thirteen and a half,” he smirked.
Before you think I will believe anything, I did suggest that it was a rather young age to be doing the Leaving Certificate.
Nicky enlightened: “ I was leaving school.” He laughed.
Hurling for youngsters at the time was pretty self-made, self organised.
“I often remember out in our back garden down in the Spa setting up goalposts, and with buts of ash plants playing backs and forwards with some of the lads around the place. It even happened on a Christmas morning,” he told us.
At schools levels the competition was rare, very rare.
“We had a training session one week in preparation for the championship the next week,” Nicky recalled. “We were invariably beaten, and we might get another match in a losers group, but that was it then until the next year. There was a split in the Johnstown club, where we had the St Finbarr’s and Johnstown.
“We were in the St Finbarr’s down here in Beggar, with the likes of Delaney (Pat) and Billy Watson. Pat Henderson, Pat Murphy and Seamus Grace were with Johnstown. Thankfully we all came together again in 1968 and we beat Glenmore in the junior hurling final which was played in 1969 (5-8 to 3-4).”
So started one of the greatest club sides this county has ever seen.
In the same year the new club, Fenians, careered through the senior championship of 1969. They played James Stephens in the county final and were over run by 16 points. That final again was played in 1970. The date of that game was indelibly stamped in the memory of Nicky Orr.
“That was a shocking beating, but in the county final later in October of the same year, we took care of them in a marvellously memorable county final when we won our first by three points,” he said with much more satisfaction in his voice.
It was an astonishing turn around of 19 points inside a six month time frame.
“We made the county final again in 1971 where we faced Bennettsbridge,” Nicky continued. “In fairness we didn’t think that the ’Bridge were as good as they turned out to be. Maybe we were a little cocky, or maybe we weren’t as good as we thought we were. They took care of us, winning well and I can tell you that the lesson learned that day was never forgotten.”
Victories over Bennettsbridge (1972 and 21974) and James Stephens in 1973 put the name of Fenians from Johnstown in lights. In hurling parlance they were setting the template for others to replicate. They were Kilkenny champions, and as such, even the graphics of Kilkenny champions was immensely daunting for many.
Mind you, there were plenty of great club teams around the hurling world, particularly in Munster, and the establishment of the All-Ireland club championship had begun to grab the imagination of all in the GAA. Blackrock, St Finbarr’s and Glen Rovers from Cork were awesome sides. James Stephens picked up their first title in the competition in 1976.
Roscrea of Tipperary won the first one in 1971. Rathnure from Wexford, St Rynagh’s from Offaly and Camross from Laois were no push-over either in Leinster.
The Fenians had a rattle against St Finbars in the final of 1975. They came up short against a star-studded Barrs. They were never to get another shot at the title.
Considering the quality of the Fenians team of the era, it was a terrific feather in the cap of the Cork side to turn over a Kilkenny team populated by such terrific players as Shem Delaney, Nicky Orr, Martin Fitzpatrick, Pat and Ger Henderson, Billy Watson, Mick Garrett, Johnny Moriarty, Billy, and Martin Fitzpatrick, Pat Delaney, Paddy Broderick and others.
Where did all the good hurling come from Nicky, if the under-age structures were so lax, we wondered?
Hurling was tough then
“We had a marvellous under-21 team in 1967, which was beaten by Bennettsbridge in the Northern final,” Nicky explained. “What was very important was that nine of that team went on the following year to play in the winning of the junior title in 1969.”
Hurling was tough at that time Nicky, we suggested. Was it taking a big chance by playing so many young lads in an adult championship?
“In Johnstown, if a lad was good enough, he was old enough, and we were never afraid to stick in younger lads when needed,” he replied. “Fitz (Billy) and Ger (Henderson) were only kids when they started with us, but they knew that there were lads around them that were well capable of minding them, if necessary.
“Not that they needed a lot of minding. They were fast learners. But that’s where it all started for us.”
With due respect, there were a lot of fallow years before the good times started to roll, Nicky?
“For sure,” he admitted. “But the likes of Henderson (Pat) getting on the Kilkenny senior team was shocking important to us in Johnstown. In fact, when he made the minor team in 1961, it gave us a great sense of identity, because we had a lad on a county team. Over the years, he was truly a great leader. We all responded to that leadership.
“Later on then we had Delaney (Pat), who started on the county junior team as a wing back. But Henderson was our man-to-go-to when we were in trouble. And then, sure the county lads came thick and fast. As Bill (Fitzpatrick) said to a lad one day, in Johnstown you wouldn’t want to be talking about your All-Ireland medals because you would have the likes of J.J. (Delaney) slapping seven or eight on the counter, putting you back in your box fairly lively.”
He laughed. He understood the implications and liked that one.
Nicky Orr was brought on to the Kilkenny senior stage after the 1969 All-Ireland championship. He held his place and stayed until 1976. He played in Croke Park in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1972 against Galway at corner-back in place of the suspended Phil ‘Fan’ Larkin.
“We won handy that day,” Nicky recalled. “Galway were very poor. There wasn’t 200 people at the match.”
Tough Kilkenny team
His first All-Ireland final in 1971 (he was on the bench) was against Tipperary. The score read: Tipperary 5-17, Kilkenny 5-14. The score would suggest that there was something radically missing in the ranks of both sets of defenders?
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“The first thing you have to remember is that it was an 80-minute game,” Nicky informed. “The year before (the first 80-minute game) Cork beat Wexford by 6-21 to 5-10. There were a lot of goals going in. The year after, there were eight goals scored between ourselves and Cork.”
Still Nicky, Tipp seemed to have the come-hither sign on Kilkenny?
“You have to be mindful of the fact that we didn’t meet that often,” he suggested. “It appeared that we couldn’t manage them, but in 1967 we took care of them. That was a great Kilkenny team, which won the League (1965/66 versus Tipp) and championship, against a great Tipp team again in 1967.
“That was a tough Kilkenny team too, with the likes of Henderson, Jim Treacy and Pa Dillon presenting more than some of the Tipp lads were prepared to take on. Those men would come off the field cut asunder after some of those games. I often wondered what state the lads who played on them were in when they got home,” he smiled a knowing roguish smile.
As an aside, I asked if it would be right to use the word frighteners in the same sentence as the aforementioned Messrs Henderson, Treacy and Dillon, and others.
“You could use what you like, because they did,” he roared laughing.
And so the debate about what might have been, or could have been if certain elements of misfortune had not visited the Kilkenny camp prior to the All-Ireland final in 1973 inevitably followed.
Keher the best
“I still say that if we had Keher (Eddie) that day we would have won,” Nicky insisted.
Those who question wonder to this day. Kilkenny won the All-Ireland in 1972, beating Cork by 3-24 to 5-11. Ravaged by injuries, they were beaten in 1973, but then they bounced back to take home MacCarthy again in 1974 and 1975. That could have been a four in-a-row time, or maybe five, many still believe.
Only Keher I asked of Nicky in reference to ’73?
“With due regard to the rest of the lads like Purcell and that, I’m saying Keher, because he was without doubt the best hurler I ever played with or against,” Nicky offered. “He would have got us over the line in front, just like Henry Shefflin got Kilkenny over the line in the drawn All-Ireland last year.
“Now, if we had all the rest in top condition - Pat Delaney was sick; Liam ‘Chunky’ O’Brien suffered an early knock; Keher was out; Jim Treacy was gone; Kieran Purcell was just over an appendix operation and Paddy Broderick had to go off because he was wearing glasses on the wettest day that ever hit Croke Park - we would definitely have won. But then, we might not have won in 1974.
“You never know these things. Like in 1971 if Kilkenny were beaten, we might not have won the 1972 final. And then again we could have done the five-in-a-row from 1971. You never know in hurling. It has made liars out of the best of us.”
On goalkeeper Noel Skehan, the man who watched his back for a number of winning years, and was the first man to end up with nine All-Irealnd winners medals, he was absolute in his belief.
“I think that he was the greatest goalkeeper that I have ever seen,” Nicky said whout hesitation. “There have been a number of good ones, but Skehan had every attribute a great goalkeeper should have. For starters, he never let in a soft goal to my knowledge. Ollie was more spectacular as he danced out through forwards and backs, but he let an odd soft one in.
“Skehan was surer, and he placed the ball to the likes of Lalor every time he was in trouble. Fr Maher (the trainer/coach) always said to me, don’t let them get inside you to Skehan. That’s all I want you to do. Leave the rest to him.”
He was always talking?
Present team magnificent
“Sure you couldn’t shut himself or ‘Fan’ up, but they were great men to direct play and tell lads what was happening around them,” he continued. “With the two of them you knew exactly what was happening at your back, and what you should do. It was the same when it came to talking to the lads outside on the half-back line. Skehan in particular was excellent at directing lads. He was a super goalkeeper.”
Nicky Orr rated the men of his time as highly as any seen before or since.
“This present Kilkenny team is magnificent, the likes of which has not been seen, but I reckon that the likes of Skehan, Henderson, Pat Lalor, Cummins, ‘Chunky’, Keher and probably Delaney would have to be accommodated if the pitch was a level arena,” he felt. “There is such a difference in the training now. In our time we got steak, but now they are not allowed steak from January onwards. They are on special diets.
“Couldn’t see Jaffa cakes and fruit scones being well received in our dressing-room, as is the case now. Then some of the lads would be smokers as well. Paddy Grace would buy us a few pints when the humour would be on him, which was often. Couldn’t see Cody (Brian) bringing the lads in for a few. Could you? And we won All-Irelands too ya know.”
In those times it was not unusual for players to have a deoch of whatever, especially in cold weather, in the dressing-room before a game. We reminisced about those days, exchanged stories, and came to the realisation that it was a common practice in most dressing-rooms in many counties with which we were familiar.
“I remember in a situation like that, I had a special bottle made up, of a variety of alcoholic brews, and in the dressing-room before a game I remember offering a drop to a particular lad. He just said to me: “I’m all right, I had a few pints before I came.”
When I pressed Nicky on the lads with whom he had a great bond, he mentioned Ray Cummins of Cork as one of the best opponents he had ever marked.
“He was a gentleman, and every time we would meet, we would have the bit of craic,” he said of the giant Cork attacker.
He was particularly friendly with Ned Rea from Limerick and Eamon Grimes too.
“They were terrific lads, and great hurlers too,” Nicky said with enthusiasm. “Grimes could make a ball talk. He often reminded me of ‘Chunky’s’ style. Ned of course relied a lot on his size and his strength. He was at least two inches taller than me, and that was a lot in hurling, but he never pulled a dirty stroke on me, nor I on him.
Don’t pay players
“The last time I saw him was at the Leinster final, and I thought that he had got a little smaller, but he was a fair man on the edge of the square. John Kirwan from Waterford is another man I became very friendly with. He was another grand fellow who could hurl a bit.”
On the issue of payment to players he was not for moving.
“No way should players get paid,” he insisted. “Of course they should get looked after as well as possible, but payment? No, no, no, definitely no.”
On the issue of training?
“When you look at what they are doing in that regard now, sure we weren’t trained at all,” he smiled. “We’d go in a week before a National League final, a fortnight before a Leinster final and the same for an All-Ireland final. We would train for the first week and then wind down for the match. We hadn’t physios, or dieticians, or cryotheraphy treatment. But still we were as good as any, and better than the rest of them?”
Would he make any change in his approach if he could manage to wind back the clock?
“The only thing that I would do differently is that I would give up the fags,” he laughed. “They are killers. I gave them up eight years ago and I don’t know myself. Other than that, I wouldn’t change a single second of what I got out of playing for Johnstown and Kilkenny. The greatest payment I ever got out of the game was being handed the jersey.”
It was a joy to talk with Nicky Orr. There were no pretensions of grandeur, no waffle or garbage, no stereotypical answers or observations. What you saw is what you got; decency from a decent man.
Nicky shares a delightfully hospitable home with his wife Mary - a tough battler with a hand of cards - and daughter Patricia. Nice to know there are still a lot of lovely people in the world.
It was my please to met some in the leeward side of Spa Hill, Johnstown.