1959 defeat left the greatest impression on Tipperary All-Ireland winner Tony Wall

Thurles Sarsfields player discusses his greatest shock in hurling

Tony Wall

Tipp captain Tony Wall receives the MacCarthy Cup after the All-Ireland final win over Galway in 1958. Tony Wall is one of the Tipperary hurling greats featured in the book Tipperary: Game of my Life

Tony Wall is one of 35 Tipperary hurling greats who recount the one game that defined their hurling careers in the book Tipperary: Game of my Life. Here, Wall recalls Tipperary conceding nine goals to a rampant Waterford in the Munster semi-final in 1959.

He traced and talked of matches lost and won,

the greats he met,

the friendship and the fun.

That line is from a poem by the late Br Perkins about Tommy Treacy, a Tipperary hurler of olden times. The poem often comes to mind when talking hurling. 

It always stayed with me. 

It could be about anyone who ever played the game. Like all hurling careers, mine had both victories and defeats. 

Of all the All-Irelands or other games we played, it’s a defeat in 1959 that made the greatest impression on me. 

The most extraordinary game was against Waterford in the semi-final of the Munster championship. We were the reigning Munster, All-Ireland and league champions at the time. 

Being captain, I chose to play against the strong gale in the first-half but a driven Waterford, with fluent hurling, fired in eight goals by the end of the half!  

After beating us they went on to win the All-Ireland final that year. 

They haven’t won it since. In my time playing, there were all sorts of wins and losses, and there were never any great surprises. But 1959… well, that was the great surprise. 

All the other games were tight, and I was good or mediocre or bad, and sure you win some and you lose some. But that particular game stands out as the most exceptional, the most memorable… and the most stupid even! 

I had the bug for hurling since I started at Thurles CBS.

The game was everywhere. The hurlers from the early years of the GAA were still alive when I was young. There is still the remembrance of Paddy Brolan, and also of Jim Stapleton, who was the winning captain in the first All-Ireland in 1887. 

They were old men then, like I am now! 

Tom Semple, whom Semple Stadium is called after, lived four doors down from me, but I rarely saw him. He died in the early 1940s, when I was a child. 

As a young fella I would have just known about them, I wouldn’t meet them but I’d see them or hear about them a little bit. 

My father came from county Meath and my mother from Clonmel, so my family wasn’t a hurling one, but you pick it up… it rubs off on you. 

When I started playing the game I was just getting my place as a corner back, barely. And I was never sure of my place until I was about 16 and played in the Harty cup, and then subsequently on the 1950 Tipp minor team.

From there, until I made the senior team, it took time to become established but I was always training on my own and getting strong.

I had the drive to get on the Tipp team and win an All-Ireland eventually. 

That came in 1958 and you couldn’t have a better year than ’58. But then we had this incredible match in 1959 against Waterford, which shattered all our All-Ireland dreams that summer. When I talk about matches, that match stands out. 

Believe it or not, the others fade into a blur. 

The background to it all was that Tipperary had won three in-a-row at senior in 1949, ’50 and ’51, and I came on at the end of that era. 

I was a Tipp minor in 1950, ’51 and ’52, winning the All-Ireland in 1952 and subsequently getting onto the senior team in ’53 at centre forward. I didn’t make a great success of it. 

However, I survived evidently at corner back in ’54 and then I was centre forward in ’55 against Clare, but we got beaten again. 

My recollection is that after that win in 1951, until ’58, Tipperary never won a championship game. We won the league alright, but every year we were beaten by Clare or Cork by a point or two, and there were always disputed goals or extraordinary happenings. But we just couldn’t win.

At the beginning of 1958 no one expected much from us in the championship. Nearly all the players from the three in-a-row team were gone, bar Mickey Burns, John Doyle and Jimmy Finn. But Jimmy had been in America and got injured so he hadn’t played in the league, which we were beaten in. 

We were starting ’58 with a new-look team and I was captain. 

Things were bleak. 

A lot of the old stalwarts were gone and there was controversy over the selection committee as well.  My own club Thurles Sarsfields, led by John Lanigan, decided seven was too many selectors and after much controversy, decided to withdraw the two Sarsfields’ representatives.       

Paddy Leahy was our boss and took control. 

“We’ll be fine,” he told me. “We will get Jimmy Finn back and I will talk to John Doyle about playing in the half-back line.” 

That solved a lot of issues. 

Then Kieran Carey from Roscrea, a newcomer, had played well in the league and slotted into the full back line. 

We played Limerick, known as Mackey’s greyhounds at that time as they were trained by Mick Mackey, in the first round of the championship. They were expected to run rings around us, but we beat them and went on to play Cork.  

I started centre back against Cork, with John Doyle on one wing and Jimmy Finn on the other, and winning that game put us into the Munster final against Waterford. 

They had won Munster in 1957 and were beaten in the All-Ireland final, and they were a hard team to beat. But we did win, finally bridging the gap in Munster.

Jimmy Doyle shone in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kilkenny, scoring 1-8, and then we played Galway in the final. We won it and the title was secured for the first time in seven years. 

I was delighted to collect the Hurler of the Year award, the Caltax trophy, which was awarded for the first time. Everyone was on a high. 

Everything was going well at the start of 1959. 

I was captain again. We beat Waterford in the league final in Kilkenny in May. People were highly confident of more success, as the attention turned to the championship. We played Waterford again in the semi-final of the championship.

Thousands travelled that day to Cork expecting us to win. 

It was a long journey then, but a big championship game like that always drew the crowds. That day there was a gale blowing in from the sea, a wind as strong as I ever remember. 

Two years before, with serious wind as well, we had played Wexford in a league final in Croke Park. That time we played with the wind and hit 15 points in the first-half, but they came back and beat us.  

That memory was in my head when the time came to toss the coin with the other captain to decide which way to play. The captain makes the call. To this day I can remember deciding to play against the wind when I won the toss.

I was quite confident we’d hold them against the wind. But all of a sudden we were overcome by a storm, the likes of which I have never seen at any match ever. 

We had to face both Waterford and the wind. 

The timing of it was hard to believe.

The wind was so strong you had to turn away from it to catch your breath. In the first half Waterford scored 8 goals and 2 points, and we scored nothing. No one there could believe it when we went in 8-2 to 0-0 down at half-time. 

Waterford gave the greatest exhibition of fluent and unstoppable hurling I ever saw before or since. 

8-2 in one half against the reigning Munster, league and All-Ireland champions in the first round of the championship. 

The funny thing is, no one on our team was playing badly or seemed to be beaten by their man. Our goalie, Terry Moloney never made a mistake. He didn’t even get a chance to make a mistake.

The balls were flying past him like bullets.

We scored 3-4 in the second half but we were well beaten. It was the most resounding defeat possible. 

Some of the most decorated Tipperary hurlers of all time played that day and a lot of them went on to win four All-Irelands in five years in the early 60s. But 1959 was Waterford’s time. 

They beat Kilkenny after a replay to win that year’s All- Ireland.

Looking back, that first half of hurling by Waterford against us in 1959 was the greatest exhibition I have ever seen. 

That is the game, at 86 years of age, that has made the biggest impression on me in my life and it’s the one that stays with me.

It was the first big Tipp match my wife, Betty was at, and what an introduction to Munster hurling it was. 

She was a Dub and we met after the All-Ireland in 1958. We got married that summer of ’59; we couldn’t have got married at that time if Tipp were still hurling. 

I was one of the first of that team to get married and from then on Betty was welcomed into the hurling family and made feel at home. 

The same as now, hurling is a way of life and there was great socialising and camaraderie with both club and county. 

Above: Tony Wall (centre), who was presented with the 2013 Knocknagow Award as the sportsperson of the past in the Annerville awards, pictured with Gaelic football award winner Liam McGrath (left) and his cousin and fellow Loughmore/Castleiney player Noel McGrath, who won the hurling award that year. Picture: John D. Kelly  

With Thurles Sarsfields, we won 10 county finals in 11 years.

One of the first championships I won was in 1952 when I played in the All-Ireland minor final on the first Sunday in September and the county final the following Sunday. I was playing centrefield against Borris-Ileigh, marking Sean Kenny, who was the big man at the time, the driving force for the county team. 

He had captained Tipp to an All-Ireland in 1950. It was a big ordeal but we won it and then we kept on winning. 

The team changed slightly but we were a solid team and then we had Jimmy Doyle coming on in the late 1950s and he drove it on further still. 

Teamwork was down to a fine art. 

The ball was being passed so fast. One of the Holycross fellas told me one time they thought they’d horse us out of it, but they couldn’t catch us. They’d go for a bit of toughness but the ball would be gone. 

The Holycross fellas were big strong fellas, a lot of farmers, but the speed of play and skill of the Sarsfields team at that time was unmatched.

There was a lot going on those years. Back in 1964, after Tipp won the All-Ireland, I met Mickey Joe Costello who was a general from the Irish army that had taken over a sugar company. He came to me at the homecoming celebrations. 

“Tony… you should write a book,” he told me. 

“There’s no book on coaching and you’re the one to write it.” 

I was living in Cork at the time and went back after the All-Ireland to think about it. I was digging in the garden one day, and I thought… maybe I’ll start it now.  

After that I went into the house, got some paper and a pen and started writing.

After that I would give it to Betty who typed it up, and I kept writing. 

Lo and behold, after a few months, I had a book written. We got some support and then published (the book entitled) Hurling. It was ready for the All-Ireland of 1965 and sold like hotcakes. 

Those days were great. 

Those All-Ireland wins were fantastic, but the losses are often more intense, so the Waterford game in 1959 stands out.

That poem by Brother Perkins about the old Tipperary hurler is one I cut out from the newspaper and held onto. 

He had a column called Tales of the Gaels in the Tipperary Star. 

Sometime in the 1980s he visited Tommy Treacy, who was a famous Tipp player from the 1930s but by then he was living in Phibsboro in Dublin.  

When Brother Perkins went back home he composed a poem about the visit. 

But the poem could be about any old hurler.

He sits there resting on his chair,

the once strong, well-known, well-built player.

The kingly head, the shoulders just the same

as when we saw him play his last great game.

The hands that often held the stout camán

are still the same but the strength has gone.

He still retains the spirit and the soul

that urged him on to score the winning goal!

“How’s Tipp?” he said, “Are they still the same

as when we played that grand old hurling game?

“Have they got that same old spirit of old,

would they die to wear the county’s blue and gold?”

He traced and talked of matches lost and won,

the greats he met, the friendship and the fun,

I said, “Soon again we’ll see Tipperary play,

for the MacCarthy Cup, upon All-Ireland final day!”

I bade goodbye and left him sitting there,

the old Tipperary hurler in his upright chair.

He’s happy now for youthful days well spent,

a simple smile a symbol of content;

Though old and grey and full of years at last,

his thoughts are those of youthful days now past.

Tipperary: Game of my Life by Stephen Gleeson is published by Hero Books (€20) and is available online (print or ebook through Amazon) and in all good bookshops.

For more sport see Munster GAA awards for Tipperary trio