Flashback: Tipperary v Kilkenny, 1991 All Ireland Final
By Cian O'Connell
“I suppose I will never be let forget it, sure I won't,” the great and decorated Kilkenny goalkeeper Michael Walsh chuckles. Michael Cleary, one of the artists in a polished and potent Tipperary attack, grabbed a fortuitous goal that ultimately decided the 1991 All Ireland Hurling Final.
A quarter of a century later Cleary remember the incident which counted most on a tense afternoon at the Jones Road venue. “It was a tough match, it was a warm, clammy day,” Cleary recalls. “The game never freely flowed for either team. Okay the goal I can clearly recollect. It was scarcely a free to be honest.
“Nicky (English) got the ball and tried to go around Bill Hennessy, Bill stood his ground, the free was given to Nicky. I suppose the rest is history.
“I had missed a free just before half-time at the other end of the field from a very similar position. Babs (Keating) had let me know at half-time that it wasn't good enough to be missing those frees so five or 10 minutes into the second half here was a free coming almost an identical spot. I was a bit nervous, I didn't hit it clean to be honest. It wound up in the sweet spot.”
Level at 0-9 each at the interval underdogs Kilkenny were causing Tipperary problems. Walsh felt that the Cats should have been ahead at the break, but valuable lessons were learned in defeat according to the Kilkenny custodian. “We hadn't been particularly impressive all year. We very much struggled to get over Antrim in the semi-final, we won it with two late points. In fairness our best performance of the year was in that match.
“I suppose there were a number of issues in the match that changed it, the biggest one would have been the goal. There were also some missed chances. At half-time we were level, but we should have easily been 13 or 14 to nine in front. That was another thing.
“We had a goal chance not so long after they got the goal, but Ken Hogan made a very good save. All of those things added up. That is the way it went, you learn from it and you move on. We certainly did for the next two years.”
Liam McCarthy subsequently returned for a two year stint in Kilkenny. “People often say to me now that we could have won three in a row, but I'm absolutely convinced that if we had won in 1991, we wouldn't have won the following two,” is Walsh’s honest assessment.
“It steeled us and it made us better as a group. Twelve of us, which was a very unusual thing in Kilkenny now, and people wouldn't believe it, were playing in our first All Ireland Final that day.
“It was a whole new ball game for us. Tipp had won against Antrim two years before that so they were well used to the occasion. It was a huge thing for all of us. We absolutely learned from it, and it made us better players. We gained experience from it and it spurred us on for the next two years.”
Tradition matters deeply in this rivalry. It differed considerably back then, though, because Tipp were the team that had the comfort of winning previous September battles. “Actually it was never said, but we all knew it,” Cleary remarked about Tipperary’s record against Kilkenny. “At that point Kilkenny had only beaten Tipp once from 1923 to 1991.
“We all knew this, Tipp beat Kilkenny in All Irelands, that is what happened. The tradition was there at the time. That is what happened, it was never said, Babs never said it, nobody ever said it, but we all knew it. Definitely it was a big factor to be honest, and would you believe I feel Kilkenny knew it aswell. We knew it and I've no doubt they knew it so it was a contributory factor.”
Twenty five years later Kilkenny, following final victories in 2009, 2011, and 2014 carry importance according to Walsh, a highly regarded coach and such a key figure in Westmeath’s recent success story, under Michael Ryan’s shrewd guidance. “I remember Liam Fennelly saying to me after when we had a discussion that the rivalry didn't really apply to us. We wouldn't have met that often. I think that was the only time he played them and he had a big career.
“At that stage we were starting and he was coming to the end. He had a long career with Kilkenny and hadn't played Tipp in a Championship match up until that time which is hard to believe. It is incredible.
“You will say it doesn't weigh on you, but at the back of your mind Tipp definitely, no doubt about it, had the upper hand - as regards the same way now the shoe is absolutely on the other foot. While I wouldn't say it is a massive factor, there is a bit of a factor there in that.”
Tipp beating Kilkenny on the grandest stage of all was significant for Cleary. “It is unusual to say now because there was a 20 year gap from a Tipp versus Kilkenny All Ireland, from 1971 to 1991 so the excitement was huge around the place.
“Tipp had broken through in 89, but I suppose the fact that we had beaten Antrim in many people's eyes we hadn't beaten a traditional power in a final. That was lurking in the background. There was a bit of pressure on Tipp. I felt we had played a few good games.
“We had lost a great League Final against Galway. We had hurled well against Limerick, both games against Cork, and even against Galway in the Semi-Final.”
While Feile rocked to a glorious beat in 1991 the Tipperary hurlers dealt with the consequences. “People tend to forget that Feile was on in Tipp at the time and we didn't train in Thurles for a while,” Cleary states.
“We were going from Nenagh to Templemore to all the local fields training in the run in to the All Ireland. Actually it didn't help to be honest and I felt our form was gone a bit by the time we came to the final.
“We had four really good performances, one against Limerick, two against Cork, and one against Galway. I felt our form was going a small little bit. We didn't play particularly well in the final, whether our form was gone or Kilkenny didn't let us or a bit of both probably, more likely.”
Kilkenny were rugged, but Tipperary were sufficiently resourceful to eke out a win that is still gleefully recalled in the Premier County. Can Tipperary return to the summit of the hurling world? “I find it very hard to call - the Tipperary public are quite confident, I think they may shade it, but I don't share that overall confidence,” is Cleary’s verdict. “People in Tipp are very confident, but I see two very evenly matched teams.
“I was listening to Bomber Liston on Monday evening talking about Kerry and Dublin. He said last week he sat down and picked the best team from the two, there was nine Dublin and six Kerry. Now I'd argue to sit down to pick the best 15 out of the 30 from Tipp Kilkenny you'd wind up with eight-seven either way. If you assess it that way it is very even.
“I think it will be a very close game, a really hard one to call. If Tipp are to win I feel they'd need to win by five or six points because Kilkenny seem to be able to dog out these close battles.
“I'd be hoping Tipp might get a run on them or something like that because we have lost too many close battles to Kilkenny coming down the stretch, both League and Championship games.
I'd love if Tipp did win a close game against Kilkenny, but they haven't done so. We didn't score in the last nine minutes of the Galway match either, people are forgetting that. We don't finish games as strongly as we should so hopefully they might do it.”