They call it the five-minute final, a game none of the 54,458 in Croke Park will forget. One of the most audacious smash-and-grabs in the history of Irish sport, they don’t like to talk about it in Limerick. Nearly 26 years later some of them down there still refuse to talk about it. For months afterward in the pubs of my hometown of Birr in County Offaly, we talked of little else.
Five points clear in the 1994 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final with as many minutes to go, the players of Limerick looked certainties to end a 21-year drought and return home with the Liam McCarthy Cup. By the final whistle, they were broken men, unable even to collapse in despair on the turf for fear of being trampled underfoot by thousands of ecstatic Offaly fans swarming the pitch to celebrate an extraordinary turnaround.
It was like somebody flicked a switch. For 65 minutes of the 70, Offaly had been uncharacteristically uninspired, with even an animated half-time bollocking from their manager Eamonn Cregan – himself a Limerick man – doing little to rouse them from their torpor. “He really ripped into me,” said the Offaly midfielder Johnny Pilkington, one of several players in a squad of prodigiously talented hurlers whose drinking habits had long been the subject of intense and unwelcome local scrutiny.
Amateur players asked to train and perform to a professional standard, it was no secret a few weren’t averse to occasionally cutting loose. Often – but not always – embellished in the telling, stories of their nocturnal high jinks prompted much eye-rolling and tut-tutting in our small provincial town. The view of the players themselves, that what they did in their spare time was nobody’s business but their own, was commendable if a little naive.
Happy to revel in the nationwide maverick status enjoyed by their team as long as they were winning, supporters were quick to hold their reputation as hell-raisers against them when things went wrong. They could scarcely have gone more wrong in the opening hour or so on that Sunday afternoon in September, but Offaly had done just enough to stay in touch as the game entered its final minutes. It was another Johnny, one of three Dooley brothers on the pitch, who sparked the comeback.
Socks around his ankles and his face a sheen of sweat as he stood over a 21-yard free with a wall of Limerick players across the goal-line, he glanced to the sideline where a coach instructed him to send the ball over the bar for a point that would reduce the deficit to four. Studiously ignoring the order in a courageous act of insubordination, Johnny sent the ball fizzing low towards the corner and with a ripple of the net – a goal – Offaly were just two points behind.
Joe Quaid still takes criticism for his role in what happened next, although he insists to this day he did not rush the subsequent puck-out. As the TV audience watched replays of Dooley’s goal, those of us in the stadium saw the Limerick goalkeeper’s long clearance arcing back towards him from inside the Offaly half, violently dispatched by Pilkington. The ball dropped from the heavens, with Pat O’Connor catching it on the bounce with a swing of his hurley. Another goal, another three points and what had seemed a chasm bridged in less than a minute.
A point up, Offaly’s reinvigorated players set about dismantling visibly rattled opponents rendered incapable of doing anything right for doing everything wrong. Standing behind Quaid’s goal on Hill 16, I watched in disbelief as a flurry of five unanswered Offaly points were sent sailing over the crossbar. Each one a nail in Limerick’s coffin, three came from Billy Dooley, standing unmarked and exhausted in the same spot on the right wing.
Back home in Birr, we drank long into the night and the following week, those final five minutes on a constant loop on every pub TV. The records will forever show a comfortable six-point margin of victory for Offaly, but will never come close to telling the full story of perhaps the strangest, most incredible final of them all.