Back in May 2005, RTE broadcasted the twenty most memorable moments from the last forty years of GAA action (still available on Youtube by the way). The moments were selected by a panel of sport personalities and the public were then asked to vote for their favourites. A simple concept that made for entertaining viewing. Among the selections was a point scored by D.J. Carey in the 2002 All-Ireland Final against Clare. It came seventh in the poll. An exquisite score no doubt, executed by one of the finest practitioners of the game in the biggest game of the year. But the seventh most memorable moment in forty years of Gaelic Games?
The match in question was the dampest of squibs, a one-sided affair which left hurling supporters wondering “how such a massively hyped final could collapse so badly”. After three minutes, Carey had goaled and by six minutes, Clare were five points in arrears. When Carey collected the ball in the centre of the field on fifty-two minutes, there was still five points between the teams. Kilkenny were coasting. Once liberated from shackles of Brian Quinn, D.J. sells Ollie Baker a pup, leaving the Clare midfielder face down on Croke Park’s pristine turf. Carey proceeds to solo the ball into an ocean of space, before steadying himself and calmly striking the ball over the bar with aplomb. On the RTE panel show three years later, Brian Carthy described it as “a moment in time that will live in the memory forever”.
Niall McCarthy was no D.J. Carey. We never wanted him to be. A cult hero who personified the tribalism of hurling, his attributes captured the soul of the game, if not necessarily the art. With no time for hurling’s nuances, McCarthy supplanted subtlety with savagery, a trade-off which conjured an emotional smorgasbord from the terraces, marrying exhilaration with exasperation. The pulsing heart of Cork’s attack, every score was more than a score. Every wide was a more than a wide. In the 2003 All-Ireland final against Kilkenny, McCarthy put Cork ahead for the first time in the game after fifty-three minutes, breathing life into the Cork supporters. Five minutes later, he had squandered two gilt-edged opportunities to increase the lead. Then Comerford equalised. The life was sucked back out.
Fast-forward twelve months and Cork are looking to avenge the previous year’s agonising defeat. Ten minutes into the second half, they’re a point behind and not playing well. Somehow, the game is still in the melting pot. Michael Duignan, on co-commentary, forecasts that “ten minutes of good hurling from either team is going to take them out of sight here”. Moments later, Niall McCarthy fields a puckout on the 65m line and accelerates away from Derek Lyng towards the touchline. Running at full pelt, he now has Peter Barry for company. Unable to catch the ball again, he strikes from the hurley, at pace and off-balance. As McCarthy falls to the ground, the ball sails over the bar. Ten minutes later, Cork are four points up and Duignan’s prophecy has come to pass. Cork win by eight. Niall Mac’s point was the catalyst, the ultimate clutch score. Now Brian Carthy, there’s a moment that will live in the memory forever.
Yet, it is unlikely that the point has remained embedded in the consciousness of hurling connoisseurs outside of Cork, while it’s improbable that it will ever be selected by sporting personalities or chosen by the public as a stand-out moment in the annals of GAA history. Ultimately, McCarthy’s moment of virtuosity will never be eulogised to the same extent as Carey’s. That’s just the way it is. There’s a cliched trope that is trotted out in football whenever a relatively unheralded player scores a goal of sublime beauty; “If Messi or Ronaldo had done that, we’d be talking about it for months/years”, a vapid utterance that frequently overlooks whatever recognition is actually bestowed on the nameless protagonist. However, like all cliches, it does contain a semblance of truth. The exploits of marquee players are often disproportionately glorified while the athletic feats of sport’s unsung participants must strive for comparable exaltation.
In Carey’s case, the point against Clare also encapsulated the exhilarating traits that had adorned his game for over a decade. Carey was ‘The Dodger’, the crafty escapologist that ventured on daring solo runs with devil-may-care braggadocio. In that moment, he was the beguiling Road-Runner, too fast and too clever for Ollie Baker, the unwilling embodiment of the ill-fated Coyote. The point provided the perfect microcosm of his poise and skill, its aesthetic appeal embellished by Baker’s cartoonish haplessness. It is Carey’s signature score. That it isn’t remotely close to being the best of his career is almost immaterial.
In contrast, Niall McCarthy’s point doesn’t fit the narrative. His shooting was erratic, that wasn’t his game. “The Rebel Wildman” (as he was affectionately cleped by one scribe), who for all his fervent endeavour, “scarcely exuded jaw-dropping class”. All of which isn’t to be construed as a denigration of McCarthy’s talents, he was much more than a rabid dog, unleashed for seventy minutes to assail dainty centre-backs. The man could certainly hurl. That being said, his sporting epitaph is more likely to incorporate the elements of manic intensity that endeared him to Cork supporters, as an ardent purveyor of hooks, blocks and frenzied fist-pumps, a combatant who embraced the punishment meted out in the trenches. It is probable that his point, that point is likely to be remembered in the same way as Arsenal fans of a certain vintage remember Tony Adam’s half-volley against Everton in ’98. A moment of technical brilliance executed by a darling of the terraces, the ecstacy enriched by its rarity. An rud is annamh is iontach.
I was at the game in 2004, perched somewhere high in the corner of the Cusack Stand. Regrettably, a combination of myopia and negligence meant I experienced my first All-Ireland Final through a blurry prism, my glasses having not made the trip to Dublin. I’ve made up for it since of course (the match is also available in its entirety on Youtube). Furthermore, a propensity to delve down a Reeling in the Years rabbit-hole wherever possible has allowed me to relive McCarthy’s finest hour ad nauseum, while inflicting a monologue admonishing its underratedness on whoever is unfortunate enough to be in my company.
I’m well aware of the optics of all this. Even in times so devoid of sporting commentary and parochial discord, comparing Niall McCarthy to D.J. Carey is probably as futile an exercise as can possibly be conceived. Yet here we are. Unashamed Cork-bias perhaps, but it’s a drum I’ve been banging for far too long now, a conviction that I’ve been screaming into the void for over a decade. McCarthy’s point dwarfs Carey’s, all day long, no matter the metric on which you choose to compare them. As trivial and petty an argument as it may be, it’s the hill I’m willing to die on.