This Saturday at 2.30pm, Galway hurling legend Conor Hayes will revisit the scene of some of his most glorious days in the maroon jersey when he takes part in the All-Ireland Legends Tour at Croke Park.
Taking place on the eve of Galway's All-Ireland hurling final replay clash with Kilkenny, Conor will look back on his many All-Ireland final day experiences, including the glorious victories of 1980, 1987 and 1988 as well as some of the All-Ireland final day defeats he went through as both a player and a manager for the Tribesmen.
One of only a handful of Galway players with three All-Ireland medals, Conor was a corner back on the team in 1980, and then captained the side from full-back in 1987 and 1988. He also won three GAA All Stars playing for the Galway hurlers, in 1986, 1987 and 1988.
Click here for information on how to book for Conor's Legends Tour.
Here's an exclusive interview GAA.ie conducted with Conor ahead of the weekend.
It is an honour. To be noted as a legend at that level is great. It's an acknowledgement of the achievements of the team I was on, particularly back in the 1980s, the 1987 and 1988 teams that I was captain of. We had the 25 year walkabout there recently which was great as well. I suppose it's an honour of the team and being captain of a team that won two All-Irelands, it puts me up there with the legends I suppose, really.
At the time it was a big breakthrough for Galway in 1980. We hadn't won one for 57 years, we didn't think we were ever going to win one. And then when it came to 1987, we didn't think we were ever going to win one again so we made another breakthrough there.
It isn't really until later on, when you see the amount of brilliant teams and brilliant players that never achieved it or never won an All-Ireland final, that you realise it. The regrets of having missed out on that must be very big. We class ourselves as very lucky in that sense and I suppose, it's a great honour to look back and be able to say that you achieved that. To be on a team that won an All-Ireland final is an exceptional thing. When you see so many people that haven't achieved it since especially. Even in Galway, we haven't won one in 24 years, it's hard to believe that. That puts you in an exceptional category really.
WINNER OF THREE ALL-IRELAND MEDALS
That in itself is an exception, to be one of the very few Galway hurlers to have won three. It's great to be in an exceptional category. At the time, we weren't making that much of it, we were saying it was going to become, not so much commonplace, but that Galway were going to win an All-Ireland every four or five years or whatever. But that hasn't happened and the less we have won, the more exceptions there are.
I didn't come into my club senior team until 1977. We won the Galway Intermediate Championship in 1975, we won the senior in 1976 and I was a sub that year. I played in 1977 when we won again. We came straight up from intermediate and won two in a row at senior level, which was most unusual.
I missed out again in 1982 when we won another senior title because I played with Glen Rovers that year down in Cork. I was working down in Cork at the time. I returned to Kiltormer and we came back and we won in 1990 and 1991, and we won the All-Ireland Club Championship in 1992 then. So I had a great run with the club altogether. It was fantastic and we had some great players.
A NEW DAWN IN THE LATE 1970S
We won the All-Ireland U21 in 1978 and that was a great step-up for us. It gave us great confidence, that we were able to go out and beat teams. We beat Offaly in the semi-final and Tipperary in the final. So when we were playing these guys again at senior level, the sense of awe when you would come up against Cork, Kilkenny or Tipperary players had gone from us. We were beginning to match ourselves up on a 50:50 basis with them.
Whereas up to that we were looking at these guys in a situation where we felt we could never beat them because they were from one of these counties that were always going to be better than us. The fact that we were able to improve at U21 level and then at senior level, it gave us great confidence.
I remember going in to the Galway team in 1979 and playing against the likes of Ray Cummins and Mick Crotty. These were heroes of mine when I was younger so it was a big step up to go in and play with Galway but there was a sense of confidence in Galway at the time that we had a good team.
We had got to the All-Ireland final in 1975, we had won the U21 in 1978 so a lot of things were beginning to gel together and come together at that stage. And there was a sense of confidence there that we just might make the breakthrough. We were obviously very disappointed in 1979 to lose an All-Ireland final to Kilkenny but then we came to 1980 and made the final breakthrough. From then on, Galway hurling had the confidence to do it.
I know we haven't won too much at senior level since that era but at U21 and minor we have been very successful, and it really goes back to that time. All of these things help and builds up the confidence for players coming afterwards. It gives them the tip that says, if they can do it, we can do it.
1980 ALL-IRELAND FINAL
It was a tight game. I remember we had Bernard Forde playing and I thought he was outstanding. We were under pressure in the first half and Éamonn Cregan got a goal. Second half they got a penalty and they scored that. It was tit for tat. It was a nervewracking game really because we felt we could beat Limerick, but Limerick gave us a tough test that day. I just always felt that we had the forwards to win it. Bernard Forde was going very well that day, PJ Molloy was going well, John Connolly at full-forward too and then you had Joe Connolly popping over the frees. Noel Lane too. I just thought we had the edge in the forward line. Any time they got a score or two, we came back and were able to counter them and keep ahead all the time.
Again, we had a lot of confidence coming in from 1979. We learned a lot from 1979. We went there in 1979 and were actually a little over confident that day and never really looked at what Kilkenny were going to throw at us. So we learned a lot from that.
Club Honours: 1 All-Ireland, 3 Galway titles
Intercounty Honours: 3 All-Irelands, 1 U21 All-Ireland
Winner of 3 GAA All Stars
VICTORY, AND THE SENSE OF RELIEF
The sense of relief afterwards was something else, that we had finally achieved it. That was reflected throughout the county and throughout the country, that Galway had actually done it.
It was a pretty hectic time. We played Wexford the following Sunday in Duggan Park, Ballinasloe in an Oireachtas Cup match. And they actually beat us, which wasn't a major surprise because I'd say a lot of lads weren't long up out of bed given had been going on the previous week! But it was a hectic time. It was great to go back to your own national school and your own secondary school. The sense of pride in the teachers and the sense of pride in the school itself, I think that was one of the things that gave us great satisfaction.
Finally, we didn't have to be getting the cup from some other county, or be getting some other captain from some other county. We finally had the cup ourselves and were able to go around to our own schools with it and show the kids, you know, this is the Liam MacCarthy Cup that we won, that Galway won. And I think that created its own sense of confidence within those young lads coming up. They saw this, the cup there with Galway people, a Galway captain and a Galway winner.
That was one of the most satisfying things out of it. There was all sorts of pulling and dragging out of you and those kinds of things, but this was one of the most satisfying things. To go back to your own school, indeed back to your own parish and back to your own people, with the cup that you had won. To be able to show that off was just great to do.
LOST FINALS IN 1981, 1985 AND 1986
Being beaten in 1981 was probably our own fault. I think we underestimated Offaly a bit. And then that team that had won in 1980 began to decline a small bit. But then we won the All-Ireland minor and the U21 titles in 1983 and it started to get things going again. Now it took us a while to get things going at senior level and it did look like it might be a while before we would win an All-Ireland again.
But the team that came through in 1984 and that was there in finals from 1985 on became an exceptional team. In came the likes of Joe Cooney, Anthony Cunningham, Michael McGrath, Tony Keady, Pete Finnerty, Gerry McInerney, Pat Malone, all these guys. They formed the backbone. It was the other way around from before, the youth formed the backbone of that team in 1987 and 1988. It was the older lads at this stage who were beginning to move on, the lads who had been on the U21 in 1978.
There was always a combination of youth and experience with those Galway teams. We were lucky in 1978 in that we had won an U21 but were able to go into what was already a ready made senior team. And I think there was still the bones of a good senior team there in Galway in 1986 and 1987, and the young lads who I named who were coming in, they were really adding to it all the time. They turned out to be exceptional players. The destiny for them was to win another All-Ireland. And they probably should have won more at the time. But we were an exceptional team.
1987 AND 1988
It was all a sense of relief. Having being beaten in 1985 and 1986, there were question marks over us. There were suggestions that we were bottlers at the time. While we didn't play that well in either final, we certainly set out to win them and that was it. We weren't going to be beaten, put it that way. Whatever else was going to happen, we weren't going to be beaten. There were pretty dogged games, both games, particularly the 1987 final. But we didn't mind because we knew once we kept our heads right we could win it. And it worked out for us. But it wasn't easy.
I remember in the 1987 final, a ball hit the post, bounced straight into my hand and I cleared it. It could have went the other way. Then I also remember Liam Fennelly going inside me, handpassing the ball towards goal, which could have gone into the net legitimately at the time. But it hit John Commins on the shoulder and went out for a 65. So small things like that kept us in it.
Galway got a soft goal that was vital. It was a free in that was blocked down and I think it was Éanna Ryan took off soloing and it went in and broke to Noel Lane and he stuck it in the net. Then 1988 was the same way. Tony Kilkenny came on as a sub, got a ball in the middle of the field, drove it in low into Noel Lane and Noel Lane slipped the full back and tapped it into the net. They were vital goals, last gasp goals that won both games, even though we probably were the better team all around. We just found it harder to win those finals than any other game.
The sense of relief afterwards was great, and the sense of achievement. We knew we were getting what we deserved. We knew that we deserved to win an All-Ireland. The sense of relief, achievement and satisfaction in doing that was great. They were the main things.
We went out simply to win those games but they were tough games to win. We found it very hard to win both of them finals. Finals are always that bit tougher. We would have great form throughout the year in both years but generally in the final, the team tenses up a bit and it gets tougher.
The sense of satisfaction and achievement is what its all about though. What follows on from that is all kinds of stuff like who gets Man of the Match and who gets All Stars and so on. But all of that, you don't be thinking of that during the game, you just think of trying to win the game.
We felt that we were a good enough team to win and that we deserved to win an All-Ireland. We deserved it. But the big thing was the sense of relief and achievement. Had we not won, it would have been an eternal regret for all of us that we didn't win an All-Ireland in those years.
We had a very good team, and even when we met up recently there after 25 years (before the All-Ireland final on September 9), it's amazing how relaxed the fellas were with one another. Everybody is very easy-going in one another's company and that reflected on the way we played. Very few lads ever stepped out of line, and if they did, the players themselves would deal with it, have a word with them. But it was a good bunch of fellas that deserved what they got.
Being captain was important at that stage. Maybe not as important as it is now. It was still important that the captain would have a good link between the team and the management and that he would be able to speak to them before the game, and at half-time. There was that responsibilty there as well.
It was a great feeling to go up there and be presented with the cup at an All-Ireland final. When you look back at it and you look at five or six finals put together, you see you're in the middle of a list of famous hurlers that won and were captains. So again, it's a sense of achievement. You represent your family, your county and your club. The club were very proud of me as captain, and they'll certainly never forget it.
I remember one guy from the club coming up slapping me on the back in 1988 and he was saying "You're making history, you're making history." That was all he could say: "This is history, this is history!" A captain winning two in a row.
So the sense of pride that they had was great to see. It's great to represent your club and that's where it ultimately goes back to. That's where you learned your trade and they are the people that you owe most to when it comes to going out there and playing for your county. Everybody comes from a club and everybody comes from a background where they were nurtured all the way up along. That's fierce important as well.
I think one of the reasons why Galway haven't won since 1988 is that they were going into the championship for years at a later stage than everybody else, particularly in the last 10 years when the Qualifier system came in. I think Galway were a step behind every other team, and unless you have an exceptional team, or a very good team, then you're coming in at a step behind everybody else all the time.
Since they came into Leinster, it has evened the thing up for them and I think it has helped them in the situation that they now start the championship at the same time as everybody else. And they can get a better run at it, and this year proves it particularly, that it has helped them.
Going back to the era of the 1990s and before the Qualifiers, Galway then used to go straight into an All-Ireland semi-final, straight into a very difficult game against a team that had already three or four games played. People say, well you were able to do it at minor level, but minor is different.
Minors are only pulled together at the start of the year like everybody else and they don't really find their feet either. But the thing with Galway was, they went into Leinster and they started at the same stage as everybody else and they are playing now three or four championship matches every year, even if they don't get to a final. They are playing a couple of games in Leinster, then maybe a Qualifier or two and a quarter-final as well, no matter what happens. So they are playing four championship games every year which they hadn't been doing prior to that.
Before that it was only one game, and the management were left there sitting until the following year, wondering was that our real team out there, was that our real performance? Teams are fitter than ever now, they are better prepared and every team is putting in an exceptional effort to have their team right for the championship so Galway were often times a step behind in that case. And I think that's one of the big reasons for the long gap without an All-Ireland.
A NEW ERA?
It could be. And when you win an All-Ireland final, it brings that confidence. That brings on the confidence of the U21 and minor players who come into the senior set-up. They are coming into a scene and looking at players that have won an All-Ireland final, they are looking at players that have excelled at minor, U21 and most importantly, senior.
Up to now, they have won U21 and minor only. Again, winning the U21 is fine but it still doesn't necessarily mean you will go on and win an All-Ireland senior. You need a good core of players there at senior level and we seemed to just have younger players there all the time. A bunch of U21 players would do fairly well. Then they go off and another bunch of U21s come along. But we haven't always had the core of solid senior players.
But I think that if Galway could win this All-Ireland, it would increase their chances hugely of winning another All-Ireland or two in the next four or five years. Because they have a lot of good talent coming behind them, and the good talent now will be coming into a winning team and a winning situation rather than coming into a team that had been beaten at quarter-final or semi-final stages or whatever.
The Conor Hayes All-Ireland Legends Tour is on this Saturday, September 29, at 2.30pm at Croke Park.
Booking is essential as places are limited. Click here for more information.