AS WAS often the case, the wise cracking Gus Carey, or the late much lamented Gus to be exact, was credited with the best line which went:”Jasus, Dev saw more of the ball than ya.”
The light-hearted comment has skipped across the 53-years since the big day, yet it has lost none of its lustre. Tommy still gets a good laugh; friends joke about it.
A visually impaired President sitting in the Hogan Stand had the advantage. Good one!
Tommy who, you might ask? Tommy O’Connell, who was a mere slip of a lad when he scored a hat trick of goals for Kilkenny in the drawn All-Ireland senior hurling final of 1959 against Waterford, the last time the county was involved in a draw in the decider.
The score was 5-5 (K) to 1-17. The Suirsiders won the replay handsomely a month later in October, by 3-17 to 1-10.
But the September day belonged to the zippy 19-year-old, who weighing-in at a mere 9st, and manned the full-forward line with the mighty Billy Dwyer and Dick Carroll.
All his goals came in the second half; all from close range after Kilkenny had been blasted earlier, and trailed by 1-1 to 0-9 at the break.
“The first one might have been disallowed. It was touch and go,” Tommy recalled when we relived the day the Gods were on his side in sport. The ball came back into play off an upright. O’Connell pounced.
Even at 73 years of age, the detail of the day remains crystal clear for Tommy.
Rackard the umpire
Nicky Rackard was the umpire on the near post on the Nally Stand side (Hill 16 end to the very young among us), and he went straight for the flag. Goal!
“I got another goal from a melee, a one handed flick into the net,” Tommy told us. “The third one was close range too. The goalie stopped a shot and I slipped the loose ball back under him.”
The scorer of three goals didn’t end up with gold. Unusual! Fate!
Waterford rescued the match with a late goal, the move having been launched from defence by Seamus Power.
Tommy might have contested that vital ball with Power, he recalled, but he adhered to his instructions for the day and stayed at his station in the corner. A chase of Power might have changed the course of history. Fate!
Then the delivery was turned into the net by a defender when goalie Ollie Walsh looked to have the ball covered.
“On such simple moments are All-Irelands won and lost,” Tommy mused.
The replay, ah yes, Waterford were ready for him. The crowd swelled by 3,578 to 77,825, the biggest until then to witness a Kilkenny team play.
“We got off to a good start,” Tommy remembered. “I was marked closely. I wasn’t going to score three goals, that’s for sure. We didn’t get much of the ball, so we couldn’t do much. Waterford beat us easily, but they were very good. They were a terrific team. In fact, they should have won more at that time.”
Hurling was a lot more physical then, so how did a 9st, 19-year-old survive?
“I used my speed, kept on the move,” he smiled mischieviously.
Born in Essex
Tommy O’Connell was born in Romford, Essex, and at the outbreak of World War II in 1939 his parents moved back to Ireland to live in the Johnstown area. He went to school in Crosspatrick, and later the ‘Tech’ in Johnstown before getting an apprenticeship as a mechanic in Statham’s garage on Patrick Street in the City.
He moved into Kilkenny when he was 16 and played with St John’s. Later he teamed up with the now defunct Eire Og (1958) club after playing with the Kilkenny minors the previous year.
In 1958 he played in the local senior championship. He was spotted. The door to the Kilkenny panel opened. And ’59 was his year.
Fate was unkind beyond that. His mother, Nora died in 1960, and that threw his life into disarray for a while. He was back for the Leinster final against Wexford. He nearly scored a goal, putting the ball away from ’keeper, Pat Nolan only to see it come back into play off the far upright.
Wexford escaped to victory (3-10 to 2-11). They went on to win the All-Ireland. Fate!
In those times, the Kilkenny championship was run on a knock-out basis. Teams either won games or they packed up their bags for the season. In 1961 and 1962 Eire Og were beaten in the first round.
Unseen on the club scene, O’Connell was lost in the crowd.
In 1963 he got back on the panel and went in as a sub in the Leinster final for Tom Walsh. Subsequently he was struck down by a ruptured appendix. The recovery at that time was months.
Kilkenny went on to win the All-Ireland. There was no room, no medal for Tommy O’Connell. Fate!
Out of favour
In 1964 and 1965 he was out of favour again, but he got himself noticed again in 1966 and played against Offaly in Birr. Tommy scored a goal.
He was back in contention, he felt. Others didn’t. Club politics was an accepted part of life at the time. He was informed he would be an unused sub in the next match.
“I said it was time to bail out then; it was time to finish,” he said without a hint of annoyance or rancour.
“There were three close calls, but I never won an All-Ireland medal,” he smiled.
When the Eire Og club was wound up, Tommy O’Connell went back to Johnstown. It was 1969. He was going to pack it all in. A re-think led to him playing in four county finals in-a-row with Fenians in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1972, winning the second and fourth.
“It was great to be playing with your own,” Tommy smiled. “When I went into the dressing-room the first day I didn’t know half the lads. I knew Pat Delaney and Pat Henderson from the Kilkenny team. They are great people about hurling.”
Tommy remains an ardent follower. He was in Croke Park three weeks ago. He will be there on Sunday too.
“The hurlers of today are terrific, unbelievable,” he insisted. “I don’t know how they keep going, Henry especially after all the injuries and surgeries he has had. He was as lively the last day as when he started playing.
Full of fire
“He was full of fire, and he took on the whole game when he moved to centre-forward.
“I was sorry for Colin Fennelly missing the goal chance. I know what it is like. You might only get one chance in a game when you are in the corner. If you don’t take it, it doesn’t look good. Credit for him being in position, but it was a great save too.”
And what of Kilkenny’s chances?
“Replays are hard to make out,” he suggested. “This Galway team is a lot better than people seem to realise. I think Kilkenny will win. Definitely some of the lads will step up on the last day.
“They will be so annoyed at not playing well that they will rise to the occasion. It will be tight and close for a long time, but the lads should slip through.”