Sporting Controversies: Early whistle sounds before chaos descends on Croke Park

Keith Duggan looks back on the 1998 All-Ireland hurling semi-final replay between Offaly and Clare

Offaly supporters stage a sit-down protest after the 1998 All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park  against Clare was blown up early. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

Offaly supporters stage a sit-down protest after the 1998 All-Ireland SHC semi-final at Croke Park against Clare was blown up early. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

 

Had it only been the referee’s time-keeping error – a terrible, forgivable human mistake that visited Jimmy Cooney, the man charged with keeping order on a molten August hurling semi-final – it would still have made for an unforgettable day. But it is important to remember just how incendiary and strained the hurling summer had become for both Offaly and Clare before they ever met.

It took three August games to separate the teams and, as Johnny Pilkington would note many years later, when you add the scores from each day out, there is still nothing between them on aggregate. It is often overlooked that Offaly almost scraped through a dogged game on a broiling day in Croke Park in the original semi-final without any of the attendant controversy. Only a late free from Jamesie O’Connor earned a subdued Clare, playing without Brian Lohan and Colin Lynch, a second day out.

For the replay, again in Croke Park, Ger Loughnane had recalibrated Clare to play with their customary zeal and healthy sense of defiance of the world. They were 10 points up at half-time and passage through to the All-Ireland final seemed all but stamped. The nature of Offaly’s second-half revival seemed to reflect the inconsistent genius running through that squad.

The side had already lost their manager, Babs Keating, who, dismayed by his team’s lacklustre showing in the Leinster final, had famously described them as playing “like sheep in a heap”. It wasn’t the most stinging criticism and nobody could accuse the Offaly crowd of being overly sensitive. But it was the separation that rankled and Pilkington had his reply in an interview with Liam Horan during the week. Keating was gone by midweek.

In the semi-final, Offaly’s reputation had been restored in that thrilling drawn game. Now, it appeared as though they were going down with honour against the phenomenally spirited Clare champions. There was no disgrace in that. In that moment, Clare were dauntless and to all intents looked like a team that could not be killed.

By 1998, Clare – both hurling squad and county – had a residual sense that as far as the establishment was concerned, they had overstayed their welcome. The fairytale winners of 1995 had evolved into a weathered, charismatic and unapologetically ambitious force whose greatness was minted when they beat Tipp, their nemesis, in the All-Ireland final of 1997.

That victory sated nothing. The infamous Munster final and replay against Waterford in 1998 pitted two sides obsessed with yielding nothing and so produced games with a mean and unpleasant tang. Clare won convincingly and bore the brunt of the fall-out, with Colin Lynch, their totemic and silent midfielder, receiving a three-month ban.

As far as Loughnane was concerned, there was chicanery at play in the disciplinary process. You only have to listen to the radio interview he gave RTÉ that summer to get a taste of the strange atmosphere of mistrust that had gripped Clare’s All-Ireland defence. Here he is explaining the afternoon that Clare county chairman Robert Frost took his place unnoticed at the All-Ireland quarter final only to have his ears turn crimson at the conversation taking place behind him. Two roads diverged indeed.

Offaly fans on the pitch after the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare was ended early by the referee. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho
Offaly fans on the pitch after the All-Ireland semi-final against Clare was ended early by the referee. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

“Seated directly behind him were three priests. They weren’t watching the match, of course. Their main discussion was on the Clare team. Which went along the lines that the Clare team were tinkers, Loughnane was a tramp and the Clare team must be on drugs. This was the general tenor. And one of the priests then piped up and said: ‘Don’t worry. The Munster council were going to get Loughnane up in the stand the next day and that Colin Lynch would be suspended for three months.’ Now remember. This event took place three days before the Munster council met to discuss this incident.

“Now. What it would seem is that a small group within the Munster council must have met to discuss this. They tried Colin Lynch. They found him guilty. They delivered a sentence. And announced their decision to a select few. Before the meeting took place.”

“They would naturally say: Ger Loughane . . . living in the realm of fantasy,” the RTÉ reporter suggested. “He has been watching too much of The X Files.”

“I don’t even know what The X Files is about.” Loughnane shot back.

On the evening of that Munster council meeting, Marty Morrissey reported from outside the Limerick Inn that Clare had gone to the High Court to seek a postponement of the meeting. It failed. In an unfortunate miscommunication it was also reported that Lynch’s grandmother, who had been seriously ill, had died that evening. The mood was tense and inside at the meeting, Lynch was duly handed three months. So even before Clare and Offaly met, both squads had gone through surreal provincial campaigns.

The build-up to the replay was downbeat. The island of Ireland had spent the week reeling from the Omagh bombing on August 15th. The replay was scheduled a week later on Saturday, August 22nd. There was considerable unease about the idea of a big sporting event in the shadow of such an overwhelming human tragedy. The Offaly team bus got caught up in traffic with the result that the team only landed in the dressing room at three o’clock.

A three minute silence was held for the Omagh victims. And then Clare tapped into that uncompromising energy of theirs. They were the superior team all afternoon. Only Offaly’s customary inability to panic or quit kept them hanging around. That Offaly generation of hurlers are rightly feted for their flicks and silvery touches and easy-going attitude. But they were big boned and tough and collectively had the dogged soul of a 10,000 metres grafter. They didn’t quit on much.

As Pilkington said, they were “chippin’ and chippin’ and chippin’.” And they were kings of the late haunting goal.

There were three points in it when Jimmy Cooney whistled full time.

“And the referee has blown up his whistle. But I think he has blown too early,” said Ger Canning on the television. The catch of concern in his voice presaged the bedlam that was to follow. “I think there are still two minutes left.”

Straight away, confusion spreads from the faces of Loughnane and Michael Bond, the replacement manager whose brisk authority suited Offaly, and onto the players on the field. It has hardly been remarked upon that while Cooney’s mistake was not immediately irreversible, the power and decision making was taken from his hands within seconds. He was crowded by both players and officials and hustled off the field by stewards as the crowd in the stands began to voice their unhappiness.

For him, a personal nightmare was just beginning. Time-keeping in most sports is simply a matter of tracking the allocated normal and added minutes. In Gaelic games, it is closer to a fetish. The questionable tradition of tasking the referee with operating a stop watch in addition to marking scores, disciplinary cards and regulating the play of the world’s fastest field sport has always been high risk. The apparently arbitrary allocation of added time has long been a source of controversy. But to whistle two minutes short of normal time was different.

It was often forgotten afterwards that the electrifying hurling summer was heavily influenced by officiating. No season reflected the intolerable burden placed on GAA referees. Willie Barrett, who refereed the torrid Munster final series, would say afterwards that he stopped answering the phone because of what was said to him. He wasn’t appointed to referee any further intercounty games that year.

Referee Jimmy Cooney (second from right) is led off the pitch at the end of the game. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho
Referee Jimmy Cooney (second from right) is led off the pitch at the end of the game. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

Jimmy Cooney’s experience was even more harrowing. In Who Fears To Speak of 98, Peter Woods’s gripping radio documentary, Cooney relived the grim few months after the replay. Hours would pass before he left Croke Park.

“I remember my wife coming down from the stands and was eventually let in after an hour. She was crying of course. I didn’t know what state I was in. So they put me into a room on my own and they gave me as much time as I wanted. So I did my report and they put it into a sealed envelope and took it away with them.”

He was asked what he needed and he replied: “If I got a pint of Guinness this minute I wouldn’t take it down from my head.”

But once they reached the bar in the corporate level, he was whisked out of there because of a fear that he would be spotted by lingering supporters.

“I just wanted to get home. I knew I had no business in Dublin. I was aware that there could be consequences regarding phone calls. It would have lasted up to Christmas. Tell him we are going to come and get him and we will kill him and you will have no daddy. And if you don’t tell him we will kill him as well. They were going to burn down the house. Burn the car.”

It was dark, unforgivable stuff that went on long after the hurling season ended. While Cooney stewed in the bowels of Croke Park on that Saturday, the Offaly supporters had staged their protest, taking to the field and sitting down in the sunshine. Only Offaly people could have the genius to execute a successful coup which involves sitting down and chilling out in the sunshine. But their upset and disappointment wasn’t staged. It was real.

The madness continued as the sun set. For a few hours, Offaly were out of the All-Ireland. In the Spa Hotel in Lucan, there was loose talk about a replay. But the players had already had a few pints and the thought of Sunday training for another game which almost certainly wouldn’t take place caused a bit of a row.

Clare manager Ger Loughnane with his Offaly counterpart Michael Bond at the end of the match. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho
Clare manager Ger Loughnane with his Offaly counterpart Michael Bond at the end of the match. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

Meanwhile, it felt as if half of Clare was in the Burlington hotel that night. The mood was excited and frantic and it was four deep at the bar. Some of the players were scattered around the big foyer, thrilled to be back in September. It was around 10pm when word began to spread that there would, in fact, be a third game because of the time-keeping error. If Clare people ever wanted substance to the troubling notion that they were facing unseen forces that summer, then here it was.

Maybe the Clare hurlers knew the fates had aligned against them then. As a group, they had felt vilified after the Munster championship. They had dodged a bullet against Offaly the first day. They had thumped them the second time of asking. To go out and beat such a mercurial group on a third day was a lot to ask.

The replay took place a week later in Thurles. Clare were back at the very location where their summer had turned into a bonfire of accusatory words and hearings and genuine bitterness. They were held to 0-13, their lowest total of the championship. And Offaly played as if liberated. The protest had an emotive impact throughout the county: the old hurling/football geographical divide was bridged. They arrived in carnival mood and rediscovered their mid-90s grandeur. They won by three: 0-16 to 0-13.

Nothing became Clare like their leaving.

“What a difference a week makes,” Loughnane said when he came into Offaly’s dressingroom, eyes ablaze. “I was in here last week commiserating with you. Here I am to congratulate you on behalf of every hurling person in Clare. For your tremendous display today and your deserved win today.”

So Offaly, the team which had started the summer as an afterthought, the players who believed themselves out for a few hours of a Saturday evening, had returned to an All-Ireland final. That game was fitful and felt pre-destined. In the Leinster final, Kilkenny had won by 3-10 to 1-11. In the September reprise, Offaly won by 2-16 to 1-13. The season led to a change in management in Kilkenny, with former full back Brian Cody appointed for the season ahead. Not much noticed was paid. Offaly celebrated what turned out to be the county’s last senior All-Ireland to date.

“We may have come in through the back door,” addressed Hubert Rigney, the captain, on the steps of the Hogan Stand. “But we are going out the front.”

That was the final irony. Offaly had stood firmly against the idea of the second-chance system. A second chance didn’t appeal to their sense of adventure or the basic belief that when you lose, you are out. They had voted against it. Now, they were the first team to benefit from it: All-Ireland champions. When another vote on the backdoor system was cast the following year, Offaly voted against it again.

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