On each of the last two Laois hurling county final Sundays, a Camross captain has stood in the stand in O’Moore Park – surrounded by joyous team-mates and looking down on the happy scenes below – and referenced the team of 1996.
Last year it was Zane Keenan, this year it was Niall Holmes. Both paid tribute to the club’s Leinster championship-winning team from 1996 and recalled that cup coming to the schools.
It’s one of the high points in the club’s history and it’s understandably a standout memory for the current players, many of whom can recall it vividly. The club are well used to winning in Laois, but winning Leinster is a different story.
Only twice in the history of the Leinster club championship have a Laois side claimed provincial glory – on both occasions it was Camross, in 1976 and then again in ’96.
Castletown and Portlaoise have made it to finals and have come agonisingly close but Camross’s two successes set them apart.
Tomorrow, they represent the county again in Leinster – and emulating that team of 22 years ago is no doubt a motivating factor as they seek to put a hugely controversial Laois final behind them.
Similar to now, their Laois final win in 1996 wasn’t without incident. The win over Castletown ended with ugly scenes and one of the flare-ups that pock-marked the rivalry with their neighbours during that era.
But after the controversy of that died down, they went and beat Westmeath champions Lough Lene Gaels in the Leinster quarter-final.
Next up was an even bigger test – Wexford champions Rathnure in Nowlan Park. It was a game the Irish Times said ended in a thrilling finish.
Camross won by two points, goalkeeper Tim Lowry “the man who saved the day”, saving an injury time Paul Codd effort on goal when three points separated the sides.
A goal from midfielder George Danne helped Camross to a 1-4 to 0-5 lead at half time and a second-half goal from captain Mattie Collier in the 38th minute put Camross in a seemingly strong position.
But the Wexford champions came storming back to reduce the gap to one before late points from Joe Dollard put them three clear again. Lowry’s late save ensured they’d have a Leinster final to look forward to.
On the first Sunday in December it was back to Nowlan Park again, this time to face Dublin kingpins O’Tooles in front of a crowd of over 5,000. Here Joe Dollard inspired Camross. The full-forward – who along with goalscorer PJ Cuddy was the only link to 1976 team – hit eight points with Sean Kilfeather in the Irish Times saying that, “Camross were inspired by a man of considerable experience in Joe Dollard”.
“From the start to finish he tortured the O’Toole’s defence. He either raced through the middle in possession or spread the ball intelligently. He shipped some fierce physical challenges in the process, but his tally of eight points spoke volumnes of his commitment to the club’s cause.”
The final score was 1-12 to 2-5 in Camross’s favour, with the Leinster Express headline the following week reading “Camross cruise to second Leinster title”. “PJ and Joe combine to topple O’Toole’s,” was Brian Keyes’ sub heading.
The win led to huge celebrations and while Athenry – inspired by brilliant minor Eugene Cloonan and the legendary Joe Rabbitte – were far too strong in the All Ireland semi-final the following February, the Leinster success remains one of the club’s proudest days.
There are numerous links to the current team. Current club chairman Jack Cuddy was corner-back while selectors Ollie Dowling and Mattie Collier, who captained the team, were midfield and full forward respectively. Mattie, of course, is father of current players Andrew and Matthew.
Fran Dowling at wing-back is the father of current corner-forward Mark and Tommy Delaney at centre-back is Dean’s father. Manager of that team was club legend Frank Keenan, another member of the ’76 team and whose son Zane is one of the main men now. Another of Frank’s sons, Barry, was brought on as a sub.
The Camross team of 1996 was: Tim Lowry; Jim Scully, Joe Doran, Jack Cuddy; Fran Dowling, Tommy Delaney, Seamus Moore; Oliver Dowling, George Danne; Ray Cuddy, Joe Dollard, PJ Cuddy; Damie Culleton, Mattie Collier, Padraig Hogan. Sub: Barry Keenan for Hogan