AS LONG as I can remember, hurling has always been dominated by three counties, Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny.
Whether that was All-Irelands or provincial titles, it was usually one of these three who came out on top. They nearly always met in finals: Tipp and Kilkenny or Cork and Kilkenny.
Apart from Wexford in the 1950s, which I do not remember myself, these three counties had a monopoly on the titles. This can be seen on the Roll of Honour.
One time they took the back seat was in the mid-90s when Offaly, Clare, Wexford and Limerick were the top teams in the country and were meeting in All-Ireland finals.
What a change in the hurling landscape. These four counties produced some great games and brought great glamour to the Championship.
Being a mentor myself at that time with Clare, I got to see this up close.
All four counties could see that there was a chance to win an All-Ireland while the big three were going through a lean period.
Apart from Limerick, who should have won at least one All Ireland, the other three took full advantage.
Offaly were the typical example, when they beat Limerick in the ’94 All-Ireland final, coming back from the dead — Lazarus-like.
It was a sensational finish, scoring 2-5 in the last five minutes, after being six points down.
It all started with a 21-yard free from Johnny Dooley, when he surprised Limerick with a goal, after being told by his manager Eamon Creegan, to put it over the bar. He disobeyed the order, and it was the start of a wonderful five minutes for Offaly.
But of course, I always believe, the best team wins, and they proved that day, with the wonderful players they had, that they were the best team.
Offaly had some brilliant players: the Dooleys, Johnny, Joe and Billy, Martin Hanamy, great corner-back, the powerful Kevin Kinahan at full-back, Hubert Rigney at centre-back, Kevin Martin another outstanding defender, and of course that brilliant player of any era Brian Whelehan, what a stick man.
Johnny Pilkington at midfield with the great engine — up and down the field — and of course the skillful John Troy.
This was a young team and they were going to be around for a while.
And while Offaly were celebrating their victory for the winter of ‘94, which can be done when you win the All-Ireland and has to be done, we in Clare were doing hard physical training at that stage. We knew if the two top teams in Ireland were Offaly and Limerick, we had a great chance, as we did not fear either of them, so it was time to get down to business.
And the following year proved that. We beat Limerick in the Munster final and Offaly in the All-Ireland.
And then started the celebration of all celebrations well into the Winter and beyond.
But that had to be done.
That kind of celebrating can take a lot out of a team, as this was new to all of us, functions every weekend, the cup travelling the country. When we should have been training, we were celebrating.
And who did we draw in the first round of the Munster championship in ‘96 only our neighbours and great rivals Limerick, who were looking for revenge.
What a great day in the Gaelic Grounds, and like the All-Ireland, we won against Offaly this was not a great game either, but the excitement was unbelievable and Limerick got their revenge with an excellent Ciaran Carey point.
He was an outstanding player, one of many that Limerick had.
Stephen McDonagh, at corner-back, a great warrior, Gary Kirby one of the top forwards in the country, Mike Houlihan at midfield, powerful, Davy Clark at wing-back, Mark Foley another great back man and many more.
Limerick went on to the All-Ireland final, firm favourites to win it, and make up for the ‘94 loss.
Wexford emerged out of Leinster, after a brilliant final against Offaly, but they were complete outsiders in this final, and after 10 minutes had a man sent off. However, they showed heart and determination and went on to beat Limerick.
A big loss again for Limerick, but a great day for Wexford, who had some outstanding players.
Damian Fitzhenry, in goals, one of the best, great back men, Liam Dunne, Larry O’Gorman and Rod Guiney, a great foundation. Also two wonderful midfielders in Adrian Fenlon and the veteran George O’Connor.
Their forwards, the captain Martin Storey, Larry Murphy, Rory McCarthy and goal finisher Tom Dempsey and of course that great sub Billy Byrne.
They were dancing again at the crossroads in Wexford.
During this time Limerick were unlucky as they were a very good team, but they came up against teams just as hungry for success, and we all knew that it wouldn’t take too long for the big three to be back.
I remember words from Johnny Pilkington in 1995 after we beat them. He said it was great that Clare and Offaly met in the All-Ireland final, and he said if ye keep beating Tipp and Cork in Munster, we will keep beating Kilkenny in Leinster. We all knew deep down that wasn’t going to last long.
Nevertheless, Clare and Offaly cemented themselves when Clare beat Tipp in the All-Ireland final of 1997 and Offaly beat Kilkenny in the 1998 final - it proved that we were really at the top table.
While I believe Clare, Wexford and especially Limerick are at the top table now, it is sad to see Offaly gone from great heights and are now not even in the Liam MacCarthy Cup race, as they are down in the Christy Ring competition, and that only happened over a 20-year period.
They showed us the way one time, and it would be great to see them back in the MacCarthy again in the next few years.
Even Tipp, Cork and Kilkenny would welcome that. Great memories of the mid-90s.