'Sheep in a heap' become kings of Ireland - The crazy hurling summer of 1998 4 weeks ago

'Sheep in a heap' become kings of Ireland - The crazy hurling summer of 1998

What in the name of God went on, in the hurling year of 1998?

Well to begin with, you'll need time. Being good with names will do no harm either. And a good attention span is a must. How are you fixed now?

Babs, Bond and Cooney are some of the main ones. Chalk 'em down, you'll hear more of them soon. No, this isn't a 007 rip-off, Irish countryside edition, this is the All-Ireland senior hurling championship. No normal renewal.

The All-Ireland senior hurling championship on steroids, with so many fall-outs, fall-guys and hard luck stories, that it could easily be confused with Albert Square on Christmas day.

The All-Ireland senior hurling championship, 1998.

Babs

Let's head to Offaly, spring time. 1997 had been a cruel one for the Faithful, All-Ireland champs Wexford only narrowly ending their season in Leinster. The new year brought with it the new arrival, 'Babs' Keating, the second coming from Tipperary, who's made headlines before - both on the field and off it.

A match made in heaven? Or hell. Things started well actually, Offaly hammering Meath and then beating Wexford courtesy of a Johnny Dooley special, a late goal made in Clareen.

In the Leinster final, Kilkenny turned it on and Offaly were beaten, if not shambolic. To reporters after, Babs lost the plot.

"Babs probably got a rush of blood to the head," says Joe Dooley now. "We weren't in a very bad situation - whatever happened, he got a rush of blood when he got surrounded by a couple of reporters.

The Offaly team were like 'sheep running around in a heap,' said Babs.

"The players just sail along. There's not a lot of disappointment in that dressing-room," he continued...

And that was the end of Babs.

Bond

The following Tuesday in the Offaly dressing room and Joe Dooley was getting ready for training. There was enough uncertainty in the air already, long before this out-of-place looking gentleman dropped his bag down and started togging out.

"So I just said 'is it any harm to ask you who you are?'

"And he said 'I'm your new manager,' he says like that. I'm Michael Bond from Loughrea!"

Bond was different to Babs.

"None of us would have known him, but he was so positive. His people management was amazing. He was a school principal who'd been dealing with people all his life and I suppose that's where he got it from, but he gave us confidence again, he gave us a licence to do what we thought was the right thing, and told us not to wait for him," said Dooley.

"We had a lot of very skilful players, but a lot of thick and determined sort of players too. We were seen as a team who enjoyed the off season and while we did, we did a bit more in the on-season too. A couple of fellas liked a pint, but they loved hurling and loved giving their best for Offaly and Michael Bond bought into us, he got the best out of us."

In the back-door Offaly steadied the ship. The big punch was coming.

Munster

Clare were the kingpins but Munster was a slog. The first day against Waterford took it out of them and the second even more so. After a replay, they were Munster champions but there were miles in the legs, many more than Ger Loughnane would have wanted. The last thing he needed was another day out.

In the midst of it all, their inspirational midfielder Colin Lynch received a three month ban for a clash during the Waterford game.

Cooney

As it turned out, Clare's summer was only getting going. First day out, nothing separated Offaly and Clare. The semi-final replay goes down in history, for all the wrong reasons.

Unlike '95 when Clare bolted from the blue to shock Offaly, the Banner were favourites this time around. Justifying it too, with an eight point lead at half-time. A ten point lead with 22 minutes to play. Bond shuffled his deck and Offaly motored. With just three minutes left, the gap was three and the final few in prospect were about as exciting as you could imagine.

But to imaginations the closing stages were left, as referee Jimmy Cooney blew it three minutes early prompting the bizarre scene of a sit-down protest led by the Offaly fans.

Jimmy Cooney would never referee an inter-county game of hurling again. Offaly got their replay and the third day was a step too far for an exhausted and Lynch-less Clare.

Fate

And then the sheep in a heap came back to beat none other than Kilkenny in the final.

"We came through the back-door," bellowed the victorious captain Hubert Rigney from the steps of the Hogan Stand, "but we're going out the front."