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Kilkenny hurling legend, Eoin Larkin revisits the 2004 AIB Leinster Club Championship Final where he lead James Stephens to victory over Babs Keating’s star-studded UCD outfit.

Watch The Club Chronicles Episode 7: The Village Man

We hadn’t won Leinster since 1981, I wasn’t even born then.

It was a massive day for the club, and I was one of the James Stephens young lads, 20 years of age at the time.

I was the last man left in the dressing room afterwards, everyone had left to get on the bus, and I was fixing myself up, getting gear into the bag, delighted with the win. In walks Brian Cody.

That wasn’t unusual. Brian’s a Village man himself and would have been in and around the dressing room after matches because his son Donnacha played on the team. He walked up to me said “Well done, you played great today, how would you feel about coming in and hurling with Kilkenny next year?”. “Jaysis” I said, “I’d be delighted!”

I was over the moon. We had just won Leinster, then this opportunity landed in my lap. I texted my mam and dad to say I’d be playing with Kilkenny the following year. Dreamland stuff.

James Stephen's Eoin Larkin celebrates on the shoulders of fans at the end of the match Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

James Stephen’s Eoin Larkin celebrates on the shoulders of fans at the end of the 2004 AIB Club Hurling Championship Final ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

When I was eight years old there were Sunday hurling leagues every weekend in James Stephens, or ‘The Village’ as we’re better known. Two great Village men, Michael Slattery and Sean Brennan ran these competitions.

They created a great sense of occasion for us by bringing a CD player playing out the songs the Artane Boys Band would be playing in Croke Park on a big stereo. The matches were played on small pitches behind the James Stephens clubhouse, but they were our All-Irelands at the time.

I got so excited for these leagues that I wouldn’t be able to sleep the night before them. My dad would be chasing me up the stairs to get to bed screaming at me “you won’t be able to hurl tomorrow if you don’t get to sleep”. I’d give it everything in these games and be devastated if I lost, but if I won, I’d feel on top of the world.

The senior hurlers in the club were my heroes growing up. Even though we hadn’t won a county championship in years, I used to look up to them.

I was at a match one evening down in the club. After the match one of the senior players caught my attention. “Here, they’re for you”. He threw me a pair of James Stephens socks. Not the usual hoop socks which I had plenty of at home, these were red ones with green trim only worn by The Village seniors. They were worn to death by the time I got them and were covered in holes but to get a pair off a senior player felt like Christmas to me, I wore them everywhere I went.

I knew from then that I was going to play for The Village seniors someday.

Myself and my dad walked out of Nowlan Park so many times disappointed after championship games. I would say to my dad “We’re not going to win a county title until I’m playing.” I never really believed that but it turned out to be true.

James Stephens' Eoin Larkin and UCD's Brian Hogan Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

James Stephens’ Eoin Larkin and UCD’s Brian Hogan during the 2004 AIB Leinster Club Hurling Championship Final ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

My father gave me my love of the game; We used to go to Dingle for summer holidays. Dad would drive us down in a borrowed orange Ford Focus with a tent bundled into the back. Not too far into the journey I’d turn to my dad. “Sing it again there, dad” I always said to him.

He would sing Amhrán na bhFiann, followed by his own commentary of the All-Ireland hurling final where I was leading Kilkenny out as the youngest ever captain.

By the end of the commentary I would have scored the winning goal and would be lifting the Liam MacCarthy cup. A few minutes later I would turn to him and say, “Sing it again there, dad”.

The night before I captained Kilkenny to the All-Ireland Final in 2012, I got a text from him. “Sing it again there, dad”. It brought it home to me how special a moment this would be; leading the team out, walking behind the band on the biggest hurling day of all.

There are three generations of Larkins who have won All-Irelands with the Village, I’m proud to say. I tried to put my own mark on the history of the club, adding to the success that teams have brought in the past.

I was privileged to line out alongside Philly Larkin. He is a third cousin of mine. He soldiered with Kilkenny but always produced for the club when he came back into the senior panel. He knew the importance of the club and never once let the team down. He also didn’t ease up when it came to club training, I remember marking him in practice matches over the years and he would cut lumps out of me.

Philly played with the club for 15 years before winning a county championship. The win meant so much to the older players in the panel. The likes of Philly, Brian McEvoy and Peter Barry.

To see them win a senior club medal at the end of 2004 was brilliant, but it didn’t come easy.

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AIB Leinster Club Hurling Semi-Final James Stephens 14/11/2004 The James Stephens team ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

AIB Leinster Club Hurling Semi-Final James Stephens 14/11/2004
The James Stephens team ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

We won the county final that year by the skin of our teeth.

DJ Carey put on a masterclass, again, for Gowran. When you were a kid at home playing in the back yard pretending to be Kilkenny players, everyone wanted to be DJ Carey. As a forward, that’s who I wanted to be.

And there we were, nine points up with 10 minutes to go, a winning position.

Gowran won three frees at the edge of the square towards the end of the game. DJ buried the first two in the back of the net. They were like bullets.  We were thinking, “Here we go again.”

DJ stepped up for the third free and hit it as cleanly as he would have liked. The sliotar skimmed off the top of the crossbar and over. We escaped to win by a point.

If the free was half an inch lower, it was in the back of the net and that was our season over. People talk about small margins in sport. They don’t come much smaller.

We marched on to the provincial final where the star-studded intercounty outfit of UCD stood between us and our first Leinster Senior Club Championship since 1981.

The season objective was the county championship so once we won that we thought we could win anything. When it came to UCD, in our eyes, they were just another team.

As a team were aware of the controversy around whether they should be allowed in the championship, of course we were, but talk of that didn’t come into our dressing room.

We had already faced some of these players in the Kilkenny Championship. My opinion of it is if a player loses with one team, they shouldn’t have been allowed a second crack at winning a Club Championship with another.

Our manager Adrian Finan never let us think about the controversy, he put the focus on our own performances.

However, controversy found its way into this game in more ways than one.

During the first half our full forward Richie Hayes took a shot over his shoulder from a tight angle at the edge of the square which flew over the umpire’s head. I don’t think Richie even saw where it went.

The umpire waved the white flag.

Whether I say it’s a point or not isn’t important, the umpire said it was a point and the referee said it was a point, so it stands.

UCD's Eddie Campion argues with the umpire over Richie Hayes point ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

UCD’s Eddie Campion argues with the umpire over Richie Hayes’ point during the 2004 AIB Leinster Club Hurling Championship Final
©INPHO/ Tom Honan

Babs Keating had a thing or two to say about the point after the match. He saw it as grounds for a replay of the game.

I remember it ended up as a report on the Six One news the following evening due to the attention the protests got.

In all honesty, that point isn’t where the game was won and lost.

Reading the breaking ball is something I have worked on since the age of 15. If you want the ball and hunt like a dog to win it, you’ll find you’re in the right place at the right time to get it.

I scored a goal in the first half of the game which broke for me. A long ball came in and hit of the half backs helmet and fell in front of me. Nine times out of 10 when a ball like that comes in it goes straight into the half back’s hand but this time it broke into my hand.

I saw clear space in front of me and had nothing on my mind other than hit it low, into the back of the net. The goal opened a wide margin for us going into half time 10 points clear of the Dublin Champions.

UCD thundered into the game in the second half and pinned us back. Their big names like Stephen Lucey and Brendan Murphy stood up and dragged them back into the game.

We knew they would come back at us, but I don’t think we expected that level of ferocity from them. It was just wave, after wave, after wave. This wasn’t the first battle we had gotten ourselves into this season and knew we needed to make all the right decisions to make sure we got over the line.

It was about staying composed and making the right decisions. David McCormack’s winning point came from composure.

He had a chance to stick it from a tight angle but decided to take it out to a better angle into some space and ensure it went over. Six months previous he would have struck it first time and maybe hit it wide, David’s patience proved how far we had come that season.

The support was incredible that day. The noise in O’Moore park during and after the game, the celebrations and singing in the club after. That’s what club hurling is all about.

Those moments are what you want to taste every year, but we don’t get to taste it enough. Some of the supporters lifted me up on their shoulders and were belting out songs about The Village. These supporters were with us during the years when we fought our way out of relegation battles and were with us for the songs and celebrations that came with winning the Leinster Senior Club Championship. Only hurling can bring that joy.

James Stephens' David McCormack celebrates at the final whistle as a dejected Dara Walton of UCD drops to his knees Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

James Stephens’ David McCormack celebrates at the final whistle as a dejected Dara Walton of UCD drops to his knees ©INPHO/ Tom Honan

After every All-Ireland with Kilkenny there would always be a picture of myself and Jackie Tyrrell going around. That was very special because our families are very close. I would be very close to the lads on the Kilkenny panel, but nothing compares to winning titles with your club mates.

That’s what makes the Club Championship so special. You’re playing with these lads your whole life; you have known them off the field your whole life so to get to win a club All-Ireland with them is just incredible.

The Club Championship propelled me into the Kilkenny set up. I was in and around the minor and u21 Kilkenny teams, but I didn’t get a lot of game time. Adrian Finan gave me the opportunity to prove myself putting me on frees for the season and put me centre forward in every game. There was no expectation on me to perform I was told to go out and play which worked strongly in my favour. With every game I seemed to get more confident.

Winning eight All-Irelands with Kilkenny was amazing but I would hold winning a club championship All-Ireland in the highest regard.

From a very young age the club was everything to me, and when I was with Kilkenny the club was everything to me. Brian Cody used to say to the team “You are in here because you are leaders with your club, but you need to be leaders all the time.”

Some days there might be things not going right. I try to do the very best I can every day for the club because it’s in my blood, it’s in my heart and it will always be in my heart. I’m a James Stephens man, I’m a Village man and I’ll be a Village man until I die.

 

Eoin,

November 2019.

If you enjoyed Eoin’s piece you might like to read John Mullane’s – “I’ll Take That Game To  My Grave“.

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