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The day of the short whistle

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Referee Jimmy Cooney leaves the pitch having blown the final whistle several minutes early in the 1998 All-Ireland SHC semi-final replay. Photo: Sportsfile

Referee Jimmy Cooney leaves the pitch having blown the final whistle several minutes early in the 1998 All-Ireland SHC semi-final replay. Photo: Sportsfile

Proud Offaly supporters make their feelings known with a sit-down protest in the minutes that followed. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Proud Offaly supporters make their feelings known with a sit-down protest in the minutes that followed. Photo: Steve Humphreys

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Referee Jimmy Cooney leaves the pitch having blown the final whistle several minutes early in the 1998 All-Ireland SHC semi-final replay. Photo: Sportsfile

Michael Bond proposed a training session the following evening, only to encounter a contrarily indignant chorus. Offaly were still in the championship, but minds now needed recalibrating to the fact.

Gathered in a room in Lucan's Spa Hotel, they seemed only of a mind to argue. Johnny Pilkington declared it too soon after the flaring madness of the day. Michael Duignan pulled low across assorted shins, even reigniting an argument about playing gear they had been promised.

Maybe four hours earlier, a great lake of their supporters had come spilling onto the Croke Park field, chanting, "Replay, replay, replay!"

And that had been the early soundtrack in the dressing-room too. "There'll have to be," said Johnny Dooley. "I can't see any other way around it."

But they were soaked, too, in the levity of the damned. In an assumption that this was over. "Well, maybe a fully paid-up holiday to Hawaii," grinned Martin Hanamy.

From the Premium Level bar, they'd then watched the mounting commotion, pints in their hands and feeling detached up there, bemused almost. The protest bore their colours, but not quite their indignation. Not yet, at least.

Now, though, back in the Spa Hotel, talk was filtering through of a rematch because of Jimmy Cooney's early whistle.

After maybe 20 minutes of discord flickering towards anarchy, Billy Dooley got to his feet. "Michael, I'll be there tomorrow evening anyway," he declared, walking out of the room. With him, Billy seemed to take any surviving energy for a row.

Offaly, the "sheep in a heap" of 'Babs' Keating's midsummer anger, still had a candle of hope here.

And it was time to start cupping hands around it.

They were the subversives of that summer, two teams plumbed to routinely strident shows of independence.

Clare had come rolling out of Munster like convicts spilling through a prison wall. Angry with the game, resentful, bullishly defensive. Their world was congested with enemies: the Munster Council, the media, even some members of the clergy who had reputedly called them 'tramps'.

Ger Loughnane's men were wound to a heat certain to burn someone.

Maybe you had to live through those days to understand the hold Clare's manager had on our attention. They had become hurling's best team and, in Loughnane's reflection, its most wilful too. Clare thrived in an environment of loose tempers.

As Anthony Daly once put it, they "had to have a bit of a cause".

In this instance, they had found it in a Waterford team with whom they had no history, but one - when they would finished level in that year's Munster final - Loughnane depicted as having pushed them around. What followed was synopsised best by Denis Walsh in his seminal 'Hurling - The Revolution Years'.

Suggesting that the permissiveness of referee Willie Barrett had carried some degree of culpability, Walsh wrote: "In the belly of the match, an ulcer was growing. A week later the ulcer burst."

When it did, hurling hit the front-pages.

There's an almost hallucinatory quality to our recall now of the fallout to the 1998 Munster hurling final replay. Clare won, but the game was broadly lawless, resulting in a small multiple of suspensions, the most celebrated being a three-month ban for their midfielder Colin Lynch.

They identified technical holes in the prosecution, none deep enough to vindicate Lynch, but more than sufficient to nurture Loughnane's depiction of the authorities as 'Gestapo' forces and the national media as 'a mob'.

The night Lynch was due before a Munster Council hearing in the Limerick Inn has, accordingly, found its place in GAA folklore.

Two days before the hearing, Loughnane delivered a 70-minute state-of-the-nation address on Clare FM, national newspapers alerted to its imminence to ensure it caught the strongest breeze of attention. There seemed no other story in Ireland that week.

A glimpse into the Banner heart?

The week between draw and replay was one in which Loughnane took a bellows to a fire.

Walloped

Daly described him as "like a nutcase" in his autobiography, 'Dalo'. He wrote of Clare's training that week: "As a form of punishment beating on that Monday night, Mike Mac walloped us with hard running. On Wednesday, we played a 40-minute match that was absolutely filthy. There were fights breaking out all over the field. 'Now we're ready for these bastards,' Loughnane roared.

"On the Friday night, he brought us in to the goal at the bottom of Cusack Park and had us in the palm of his hand," says Daly. "We were mesmerised, almost hypnotised by the craze in Loughnane's eyes. We were never going to be bullied again. We were never going to dishonour Clare again."

Daly admits now that some of what Clare did back then makes him "cringe", but - at the time - it felt reasonable, logical, necessary even.

Offaly were rebels of an entirely different hue. A team encouraging the outside world to think of them as scoundrels. Happy in their infamy. They'd shown Babs the door after a flat Leinster final performance and now found themselves following the faith of a stranger.

Bond was a mystery. But, for now, he was their mystery.

Joe Dooley recalled the first night he stepped among them. "I knew absolutely nothing about him," Joe says now. "I always arrived early to training because I was getting on a bit at that stage and always wanted a bit of a run before we started. And, living in Tullamore, I was nearly first in most evenings.

"That first evening he came into the dressing-room, I forget who was sitting there with me, but I do remember us looking at one another. 'Who's this fella?' I remember him taking off his jacket and putting it on the hook and he started to strip off.

"So I said to him, 'Any harm asking you, who you are?'

"And in his high-pitched voice, he replied: 'I'm your new trainer!'

"'Well, if you are, you'd better introduce yourself!'

"That's exactly what I said. His reply was: 'I'm Michael Bond from Loughrea'.

"I don't think a single player on the panel knew he was coming that evening. But, from the moment he came in, he was a breath of fresh air. Now Babs was brilliant in his own way. But Michael was different. He was on the Offaly wavelength of hurling. First-time hurling, ground hurling, move the ball quickly.

"Babs was more into rolling it, getting it up into the hand and running with it.

"I'd be hurling corner-forward in training and the ball wasn't coming in to me under Babs. The lads at midfield and half-forward would be just going for points from out the field. No ball was coming in to me.

"But the minute Bond came in, the ball was coming every two minutes. My tongue was hanging out, trying to be first out to every one."

Ostensibly, Offaly had no business now trying to go toe to toe with Loughnane's Clare. The Faithful County had won a smash-and-grab All-Ireland in '94, lost another - in their eyes through carelessness to Clare in '95 - and stayed broadly competitive since, without ever looking like a team with much appetite for war.

In the media, we were drawn more to them in caricature than flesh and bone. It made better copy. The dilettantes going about things to a different frequency; Johnny Pilkington and John Troy the billboard faces of that prejudice, with their habit of dipping out into the toilets for a half-time cigarette.

Yet they would come at '98 with a seriousness that, to the outside world, was unseen.

"I suppose '98 felt like a s**t-or-get-off-the-pot time for us," remembers Joe Dooley. "We put in a huge spring of training under Johnny Murray (an army man introduced to their world by Babs). We'd be training in Banagher and would start with a 3km run, then do a serious session before finishing with another 3km run.

"It was the hardest physical training that we ever did.

"When we beat Wexford (Johnny Dooley's clinching goal virtually the last puck of the game), it was a huge result because they were beginning to have an Indian sign on us. But then the Sunday before the Leinster final, Johnny (Murray) had us racing up and down the hill in O'Connor Park. We must have done it about 20 times.

"We'd never done that before. Normally the Sunday before a big game, we'd play a 70-minute match that would be very competitive for 55 minutes and then you'd be kind of keeping yourself fresh for the following weekend.

"But this day we had hurled for maybe an hour and a half and then we started running up and down this hill!"

Offaly looked communally flat in that final, yet the detail of their defeat by Kilkenny has been blurred by the infamy of what followed. They scored 12 times to Kilkenny's 13, but just one goal to their opponents' three.

"We never looked like winning it, but we weren't hammered either," recalls Dooley.

And that's when Bond, a school principal - or "funny geezer" as Hanamy called him - came striding into Offaly lives. Their third manager in 12 months.

Clare, meanwhile, had become a distracted team.

Lynch and Brian Lohan were suspended; Loughnane banished to a seat in the stand. Theoretically, the manager wasn't allowed pitch-side, but the authorities might as well have been trying to rope down an eel. He marched out with his players for that first game against Offaly, nobody in a bib having the gumption to quarrel.

Clare would lead the game by four points with ten minutes remaining, yet needed a last-minute Jamesie O'Connor free to draw. It felt an aberration.

Thirteen days later, the teams came together again and a quiet man from Kilreekil in Galway was about to have his world pitched upside down.

For two hours after, Jimmy Cooney sat on the floor of the referees' room, oblivious to the voices fussing around him.

It had taken him just seconds to recognise his mistake, but unfamiliar men with walkie-talkies hurried him from the field, like Presidents' men suddenly fearful of sniper fire. Jimmy wanted to restart the game and said as much. But the Under-21 hurlers of Kerry and Kildare were already on the field. Soon to be joined by half of Offaly.

One month later, in an exclusive interview with this writer, he explained the chaos untapped by that mistimed whistle.

"Michael Bodkin, the nearest linesman to me at the time, came walking in, shaking his head," he remembered. "Then Aodán Mac Suibhne and one of my umpires arrived. All three of them were shaking their heads.

"I took a second look at the watch and I knew exactly what was after happening me. I had played a 30-minute half, instead of 35. At that stage, I wished to God the whole world could open up and take me away altogether.

"What could anyone say? We were all in bits over it. I didn't realise I was sitting on the floor. 'Twas only when the lads told me. I suppose I didn't know what I was doing. I must have been hours sitting there, just brooding over what had happened. The possible consequences were starting to sink in.

"We were getting reports of people sitting on the pitch. Then we heard some people were trying to dig it up. All kinds of things were going through my head. Was the whole championship going to be held up over my mistake on time?"

In his recall of the day, Cooney could only identify a single voice inclined to toss salt on his wound. One big, sour-spirited official who had initially bellowed that he was "f***ing short", before advising him to "run".

The scoreboard read: CLARE 1-16, OFFALY 2-10.

A ten-point lead had been trimmed to three but, as Dooley puts it now: "If you were a betting man, you'd still have backed Clare to have held out."

Anarchy

With the pitch a scene of anarchy now, it was announced on the tannoy that a Games' Administration Committee meeting the following Monday would consider the case for a replay. It sounded a simple exercise in crowd dispersal. Bond, certainly, thought so.

"I bet you £100,000 to a penny, we'll get an apology and no replay," he declared. "Listen, Jimmy has made a genuine mistake, I'm not saying anything against him. We're all human beings. I just want to see us get fair play. We were coming at Clare when he blew. Coming at them in waves."

Already, Clare were moving on. Daly - who later admitted hustling Cooney with shouts of 'Time is up, Jimmy. Blow it up!' maybe two minutes before he actually did - would stand drinking with Johnny Pilkington in the players' lounge, both believing the story over.

But by 10pm that night, the inevitability of a replay was becoming clear.

In the Burlington, Loughnane was tipped off that RTÉ had been put on standby for a rematch the following Saturday in Thurles. The following morning, he travelled with county secretary Pat Fitzgerald to a GAC meeting at Croke Park, after which the rematch was ordered. In the meantime, Mike McNamara took the players to Belfield for a training session.

The anecdotal detail of that session is contradictory (par for the course with Clare at the time).

Michael O'Halloran recalls McNamara running "the s**te out of us" in 'Hurling - The Revolution Years'. But Davy Fitzgerald has a different reflection of that morning: "'Twas just a loosener," he says now. "Nothing. Some people said we trained hard. We didn't."

For the Sixmilebridge man, who guarded the Banner goal for almost two decades, recalibrating mentally for a rematch was always going to be Clare's biggest challenge now.

"When they first started talking of a rematch, I remember thinking it would be cruel to have to go back and play another 70 minutes because of a mistake involving just two or three minutes," he recalled last week. "That was my initial reaction. We had been ahead all through the game, so to have to go back and start again didn't seem right.

"I felt it was going to be a huge hurdle for us. We'd already played five games at a massively high tempo. It was going to be very hard to go again.

"But that night in the hotel, the attitude was, 'We'll play it again to f**k!'. Personally, I felt we should have pushed it out a bit, looked for a little more time to recover. I know the final was only two weeks after the Thurles game, but this was a unique situation. I think we could maybe have put pressure on the GAA to move the final back.

"To me, the cards were in our hands."

The venue was a concession made to Clare.

That Wednesday night, Offaly had a session in Thurles that amounted to little more than shooting practice, their touch razor-sharp. Joe Dooley remembers taking shots from just about every angle and missing nothing. "No matter where I hit it from, whether my back was to the goals or I was facing it, everything went over.

"Sometimes, there's a moment in your career where everything just feels right. That was one of them. I was hitting the ball so sweet."

On the Saturday, Dooley would hit five points in one of his greatest performances. And Clare? Their fire was finally out. Loughnane marched down the dressing-room tunnel afterwards to summon one of his most dignified speeches.

"If you hear anyone from Clare complaining about anything," he told the Offaly players. "They do not represent the Clare hurling team or real hurling followers in Clare. The better team won today."

It was a lyric signature to put at the end of their most tumultuous summer. Clare, after all, would never win another trophy under Loughnane, their energy tapering away the following year after an extraordinary destruction of Tipperary in a first-round Munster replay.

And Cooney, having asked not to be considered for the third Offaly-Clare game, slipped away quietly from the commotion.

The day I visited Kilreekil, Cooney showed me the uneven bundles of letters that had come his way after what Loughnane had called 'The day of the short whistle'. Maybe 200 of them, almost all supportive.

"Initially, I thought I'd get an horrendous reaction," he told me. "You see the stage was so big. Two teams that had sacrificed everything. More than a million people watching it. And here you are after destroying everything, by making a mistake on time.

"Straight away, you just think that everybody is going to be down on you. Both counties, their supporters. You'd be expecting the GAA to have a right go. At that stage, you wouldn't know who your friends are.

"But people couldn't have been nicer. A few members of the GAC came over to the (referees') room and showed their support. Joe McDonagh (GAA president at the time) was fantastic. He rang me the following morning and talked about the week he had just spent in Omagh.

"Told me if I had seen the people he'd seen, a hurling game would seem a pretty small thing."

Twenty-nine lives had been lost to a dissident republican bomb in Omagh the week before. McDonagh's was no idle comment.

Two weeks after Thurles, Offaly won just their fourth All-Ireland senior crown, avenging that Leinster final loss to Kilkenny.

"We were in a groove," says Joe Dooley today. "Getting better all the time, because the games were actually bringing us on. Johnny Pilkington and my own brother, Johnny, had been coming right again after injuries. There was so much more movement to what we were doing now compared to earlier in the season.

"We were like two different teams."

For Clare, their hurling never again caught the kind of certainty that Loughnane liked to espouse. The aura began to pale. The anger slowly dissipated.

As Davy Fitz puts it: "It's a hard one when you look back and think about it, because we were very, very unlucky in '98. In fairness, on the third day, Offaly definitely deserved it. But, on the second day, I think we definitely deserved it. So it was tough.

"There'd been a lot of stuff after the Munster final replay that made things difficult too. A lot of the general public we would have had behind us, weren't behind us anymore. It certainly felt like that.

"And there was serious tiredness when it ended. Like a lot of them bodies had been there since '93. They had gone through a lot in them few years. The following year, we were on fire in that replay against Tipperary, but it was probably the last great performance of that Clare team.

"I think from '98 onwards, we never had the same consistency again. In our prime, we were as good as any team you'd ever see. But our prime was over now."

Offaly were the new champions. But a man called Brian Cody was about to get a call.