08 Aug 2022

Kilkenny's top 25 hurlers of the past 50 years

In part one of a two-part series, the Kilkenny People lists the best hurlers to wear the black and amber over the last half-century

Michael Fennelly

Michael Fennelly - a key player in the current Kilkenny set-up.

In retrospect, the most pleasing and informative thing about our little undertaking was that it forced a serious look into the past, a careful examination of the bigger picture.

Sure, we all know about Kilkenny hurling in recent times - the dominance, the victories, the piling up of titles, Leinster, National League and, of course, the cradling of our dear friend Liam. But there was a past, you know: a long, serious and title- littered past. And that past had to be examined in minute detail when the Kilkenny People team decided to undertake the challenge of picking the county’s top hurlers of the past 50 years.

As we have suggested, the only luxury allowed was that we didn’t have to pick a team. There didn’t have to be a goalkeeper, six defenders, two midfielders and six forwards.

The challenge was to go for the best, the top 25 from the last half century. We referred to a ‘little undertaking’ above but, of course, it was anything but — and the decent body of men who agreed to take on the challenge knew that from the off.

Fans have a fair idea about the heights attained during what is casually referred to as the ‘Cody Era’. Since Brian Cody took over as manager in 1999 he has helped shape another golden era for the county.

How else could you class 11 All-Ireland wins, six National League/Championship doubles, 16 Leinster championship victories and seven successes in the Walsh Cup?

Young followers, those in the mid to late twenties, joined the Kilkenny army at a time when appearing in an All-Ireland final happened more often than not. To them, the three-in-a-row in 2006, 2007 and 2008 was, most likely, terrifically exciting.

Adding the fourth successive title in 2009 must have been absolutely wonderful for them. Yet, these followers can’t begin to imagine what hitting both those milestones meant to the rest of us, those from the mid-thirties age group and beyond.

One had worked nearly a quarter of a century and witnessed strong chases of the three-in-a-row. It never happened. There were back-to-back wins. There were shots at the treble, but it didn’t happen.

Jackie Tyrrell's work ethic earned him the respect of his hurling peers.

Then, the hat-trick was completed. And 12 months later we had four-in-a-row. Kilkenny got a shot at five All-Irelands in a row, losing the final of 2010 against Tipperary. Sure the whole thing has been out of this world.

Our greatest players went beyond the golden mark of winning eight All-Ireland medals, the number that elevated Christy Ring (Cork) and John Doyle (Tipperary). Less was made of Noel Skehan winning nine because he earned a few as a sub, and Frank Cummins winning eight, because he was on the bench for one.

Henry, Tommy, J.J., Noel, Jackie, Michael (x2), Eoin and Richie put that to right when hitting the magical No. 8, however. And Shefflin is now the new leader with 10 All-Ireland winner’s medals.

There was a rich and varied history before all of that, an army of mighty wearers of the colour. Our journey in chase of the best took us back to 1966.

That starting point instantly threw up massive names from the game — Ollie Walsh, Eddie Keher and so on.

For the record, the 1966 All-Ireland panel was Ollie Walsh, Pat Henderson, Jim Lynch (captain), Jim Treacy, Seamus Cleere, Ted Carroll,Martin Coogan, Paddy Moran, John Teehan, Eddie Keher, Claus Dunne, Sean Buckley, Joe Dunphy, Pa Dillon, Tom Walsh. Subs: Tommy Murphy for Pa Dillon, Pat Carroll for Tommy Murphy,Dick Dunphy, Pat Delahunty, Ned Connolly, Wattie McDonald, Jim Bennett, Tommy O’Connell.

Look at the names. Reflect on the talent. Sure the county was blessed with mighty men.

Then the journey took us through the Seventies. Younger followers might not realise it, but Kilkenny could have won the five- in-a-row in that era.

There was a win in 1972. There was an unlucky defeat to Limerick in 1973 when injuries robbed the All-Ireland final team of Kieran Purcell, Jim Treacy and Eddie Keher, while Eamon Morrissey emigrated to Australia after the Leinster championship.
What happened next? Kilkenny bounced back to defeat Limerick in the All-Ireland final of 1974 and roared on to win 1975 as well.

When 1976 opened with a commanding National League final win over Clare, the prospects for the summer looked great. Alas, a wheel came off the wagon in the Leinster final against Wexford.

These were some of the things we had to reflect on and measure when chasing the best. Likewise, the double/double wins of 1982 and 1983 when Pat Henderson was manager.

We have to say, it was a challenging task to pick the Top 25. In the end it simply heightened our appreciation of what we here in Kilkenny are all about.

We don’t offer our finished work as the absolute word. People will agree and disagree with some selections. When readers see next week’s top 10, we invite you to get in touch and let us know what you think. But know that we gave it our very best shot after a thorough examination of all the facts and talent. Now, read on!

Joe Hennessy

Joe was a real stylist. He could play anywhere, defence, midfield or attack. And he did with club, county and province.

While others were ultra exact about the camán they used, you could throw the James Stephens man the handle of a brush and he could do the job. He had a unique way of shortening his grip on the camán, which made it almost impossible to hook him.

He was a great reader of the game. His play reflected a personality that was bright and breezy.

Joe’s expression of the game reflected his passion for it and zest for life.

He was a stand out player from the time he started with Kilkenny CBS. He blossomed as a minor and under-21 county player.

Perhaps his years as a midfielder with Frank Cummins were among the very best of his entire career.

Ger Henderson

The Fenians (Johnstown) man was a warrior hurler. The tougher the challenge, the higher the level he took his game.

Be it with club or county, it was 100% all the way with Henderson.

He completed the second half of an All-Ireland final one year with an horrific hand injury. The skin on the palm of his hand was split open after an opponent’s hurley accidentally came down between his two middle fingers as he attempted his trademark play, a daring catch from the sky.

That was pure Henderson, hurler and warrior. He would never surrender.

In the early days he was a wing-back with Kilkenny, and his apprenticeship wasn’t easy. He learned the trade well. By the time he progressed to the more onerous centre-back role he was a man mountain, a colossus.

Liam O’Brien

The ‘Chunky’ was an extraordinary talent, who could possibly have made it at a high level at a couple of different sports, including soccer. But hurling stole his heart from an early age, and he in turn stole the heart of hurling fans.

He wouldn’t have intended it to be be so, but the ordinary looked flamboyant with the ‘Chunky’ touch. He could win the hard ball with style. He could shoot points from distance and at full pace, with style.

The vision most fans would have of Liam O’Brien is the ‘Chunky’ racing up and down the field with the sliotar glued to the hurley. The weaving solo run was his distinguishing play, the one that brought the crowd to its feet.

With his beloved James Stephens he won Kilkenny, Leinster and All-Ireland club honours. He was never an ordinary contributor when he pulled on that ‘stripey jersey’.

Billy Fitzpatrick

A columnist once enthused after the Fenians (Johnstown) man had produced another star showing that ‘Fitzpatrick could turn on a sixpence’.

The comment just about captured the player’s wonderfully tight yet fluent style of play. He was as sweet a stick man as you could image, and he could decorate a game with dazzling touches and scores. Fitzpatrick in full flow was majestic.

He brought something unique to Croke Park too. It was the ‘dummy hand-pass’, a skill he brought from the training field in his native Johnstown to the biggest GAA arena of them all.

The season 1975 was a special one. He won under-21 and senior All-Irelands that season, and captained the latter team to MacCarthy Cup success.

Perhaps his best day arrived in the senior All-Ireland final of 1983 against Cork. He gave free expression to his pure talent, shooting 10 points, and introducing us all to the ‘dummy hand-pass’.

Ger Fennelly

The Ballyhale Shamrocks man was of a quiet disposition, and his game reflected his personality.

He wasn’t a tearaway, a player who blitzed the opposition.

His touch was that of the silent assassin. He inflicted damage on opponents slowly, surely, having an absolute belief in the end value of point on point.

He was the ultimate team player, however, one of the kind you give a job to and know it will be done...very well. Asked to play as attacker or midfielder he simply put down the head and got on with the job.

It was often only on reflection that his huge contribution to games was seen and fully appreciated.

Fennelly could steal possession from an opponent almost as a pickpocket lifts a wallet, with a feather light touch. Then his eye for the killer pass was deadly.

Fennelly had an unbreakable spirit. He was at his best when things were going against him or the team. The ‘Quiet Man’ was often a rallying force through the sheer force of his will.

Noel Skehan

The Bennettsbridge goalie with the big bas on his camán was the first Kilkenny player to reach the nine All-Ireland medal winning mark.

He spent nearly a decade as a sub, during which he won three of those medals. However, when asked to step up to the mark he was an instant and ultimately long serving star.

His inter-county career spanned over two decades. If All-Star awards reflect anything, then they screamed Skehan was special, very special. He was honoured seven times, and he was once picked as Hurler of the Year.

Skehan was a perfectionist. He examined every performance in minute detail, looking for a blemish that could be sorted so he could become better.

He re-designed the camán to tilt the advantage in the goalie’s favour. His eye to stick co-ordination was unreal the way he could take the pace out of an arriving sliotar. His puck-outs were masterful in the way they gave the advantage to the receiver.

Pat Henderson

Henderson was a giant of a man, and a player too, and he cast a shadow wherever he stood. If given the choice, he was the sort you would want beside you going into battle.

The Fenians (Johnstown) defender was a ferocious competitor, unrelenting in the battle for possession never mind in the effort to win matches. He was tactically astute too, and he could alter his game in mid-stream to suit the special demands of the occasion.

They say that if you got a shunt from a Henderson hip, you knew all about. He was a massive presence as a centre-back....fearless, uncompromising, hard but fair.

He won five senior All-Irelands and he was Hurler of the Year in 1974. It was always reckoned he would have a career beyond his direct involvement in the game. He had. He managed Kilkenny for over a decade, guiding them to League/Championship doubles in 1982 and 1983.

Seamus Cleere

With the name Cleere and being from famed Bennettsbridge, it was no surprise that Seamus Cleere’s game was hurling.

He was a wonderfully skilful player, a wing-back with elegance and style. He would have stood the test in any age, shrewd observers reckoned. Alas, a knee injury cut short a career that coincided with some of Kilkenny’s landmark wins.

He was there for the All-Ireland victory of 1967, when Kilkenny lay the 45-year bogey by defeating Tipperary in the final. In 1963 he captained the county to All-Ireland victory.

The beauty of Cleere’s hurling that season led to the honours rolling in. He was chosen as a Cú Chulainn award winner (a sort of All-Star scheme) and he was picked as Hurler of the Year.

Cleere was always showered with praise for the elegance of his touches, but such beauty masked a toughness that was necessary to survive in an era of big men and big hits.

T.J. Reid

One of the few present day players to make the Top 25, Reid, a citeog, is simply a special talent.

Both his peers and past players recognise the incredible control and deft touch of the Ballyhale forward.

He is one of those players who carried through his exceptional under-age promise through to its full potential. He joined the senior panel in 2007 and won three All-Irelands in-a-row before

Kilkenny were denied the five in-a-row in 2010 by Tipperary - and T.J. was captain.

As a captain for his club, he led the Shamrocks to their sixth All-Ireland club title.

His physical presence is often overlooked and ball in hand T.J. Reid simply can not be stopped by fair means. One of the biggest compliments for T.J. is the length that opposing teams will go to deny him possession - often to no avail.

His vision, ability to kill the ball, read breaks and incredible composure in front of goal sets Reid apart.

Phil 'Fan' Larkin

The epitome of pure, determined grit. If you were to bottle a never say die spirit, it would have Fan Larkin's picture on the label.

Monsignor Tommy Maher once said that at 5’4.5” Larkin wasn’t physically equipped to be a defender, but through the power of his will he made it. He broke on to the scene in the early 'Sixties, the second generation of the Larkin’s to win an All-Ireland medal and he went on to claim five All-Ireland medals - and four All-Stars.

There was no better player in the 'Seventies to read a break, and no quicker player over the first 10 yards. Holder of All-Ireland medals for his club James Stephens and county, Fan's persona permeated throughout any team he played on as a no-nonsense performer who certainly lead from the front.

Jackie Tyrrell

Captained Kilkenny to the first of the four in-a-row in 2006, Jackie Tyrrell was the stylish enforcer from the left corner back position.

Never shirked from a challenge, Tyrrell's thunderous runs often ended not just with deliveries right to the full forward line, but sometimes an inspirational score. He was Kilkenny's 'go-to' hurler to both inspire team mates and deny the opposition.

Tyrrell worked incredibly hard on his game from an early age and earned the respect of his present and past team mates, and of course an extensive fan club throughout the country. His focus and grit were just as telling in his game as his hurling ability - as a golden generation of corner forwards from Mullane to Corbett would testify.

Pat Delaney

Tougher than teak, Delaney in full flight was simply unstoppable. He arrived late on the inter-county scene but what an impact he made. He was direct, and only saw goal almost every time he got possession.

Credited with being the first man in Croke Park to gain an extra two catches on the solo by hopping the ball on the ground (known as the Delaney Bounce), Pat blended craft and courage with considerable steel and he was feared by all defenders.

He was a leading presence in the Fenians outstanding success in the 'seventies. The golden helmet he wore made him stand out from the crowd as he was seen driving headlong through tackles.

Black and amber fans simply could not get enough of what Pat Delaney offered. He didn't care about the team or individual he faced. He simply ripped into the challenge.

Willie O'Connor

Captain of Kilkenny's 2000 All-Ireland winning team, he lifted the MacCarthy Cup with one hand - and the other was in a sling.

Such was Willie O'Connor, the greater the adversity, the bigger the response. He was a tidy, heads up defender who broke from the back and always looked to find his forwards.

Tigerish in the tackle, his ability to sweep up breaking ball was simply breathtaking. He was one of the sharpest readers of the game around. Along with his brother Eddie, the dynamic duo from Glenmore shored up whatever defences they played on with a coolness and composure rarely seen before or since.

Willie’s quick deliveries, shortening of the grip and his ability to win puck-outs no matter what the opposition tried saw him become a real favourite of the fans.

Liam Fennelly

The only man to lift the old and the new Liam MacCarthy Cups, that signifies in itself the longevity of Liam Fennelly's career.

A leader on the field, a supreme goal poacher and tactician, Fennelly had an exceptional eye for snapping over a point.

His work rate on the full-forward line was simply ahead of his time. He harried defenders and turned possession to his team's advantage in an instant.

A four time All-Star, he was selected on the XV chosen from the club championships on a full-forward line along with Tony Doran of Wexford and Charlie McCarthy of Cork. During the mid-Eighties, Liam was one of four Fennelly brothers on the starting 15 for Kilkenny.

Michael Fennelly

A powerful midfielder, incredible athlete, Michael Fennelly is one of Kilkenny’s key players of the present generation.

His stature in midfield is defiance personified, and his ability to win ball, deny opponents and break tackles makes him literally worth his weight in gold in the modern game. Fennelly’s reach and bravery makes him stand out from all opponents, and he covers ground both in defence and attack like no other midfielder in the game today. His goal against Tipperary in the 2011 All-Ireland final was simply priceless.

Holder of eight All-Ireland medals, he is presently on the comeback trail from a career threatening injury of his Achilles tendon. True to the man, he is making a strong and welcome recovery.

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