For those who never saw him play perhaps the easiest way to understand the greatness of Norman Allen is to understand the regrets which still linger about those occasions when Norman couldn’t play.
A bout of appendicitis cost him an appearance for Dublin in the 1955 All Ireland football final against Kerry. Most observers still believe that had Norman’s appendix behaved Dublin would have been champions that year. Six years later Norman had emigrated to New York and was not available to fill the number eleven jersey on that most tragic of days for Dublin hurling when we lost the All Ireland final to Tipperary by a single point.
If you have any doubt about the difference he would have made that day you have only to look back at the length and depth of his career. Norman played in Croke Park for the first time as a minor in 1946 and graced the stadium for the last time in 1967. He graduated from underage ranks quickly to captain Dublin in the 1952 All Ireland hurling final against Cork. That year Norman was one of just five Dublin natives on the team which lost the All Ireland final but he had graduated from a St Vincents club which was concluding a run of nine county minor hurling titles in a row and the policy of Dublin players for Dublin teams was beginning to take effect. Norman would be one of the first greats produced by that policy.
That 1952 loss to Cork was, sadly, to establish a pattern of wistful regret which would become familiar to Dublin hurling followers. Norman’s midfield partnership with Con Murphy of Civil Service was described in 1952 as one of the greatest ever to grace Croke Park. In that final Norman and Murphy dominated midfield but the Dublin forwards mustered just a single point from play over the hour. Despite the heroic efforts of Dessie Snitchy Ferguson marking one Christy Ring that meagre scoring return was never going to be enough.
A year later in 1953 as well as being one of fourteen St VIncents men to play in their own club jerseys while representing Dublin to win the National Football league in a final against Cavan, Norman brought the battle single handedly to Kilkenny in a pair of epic Leinster games. Having drawn a match for the ages in Croke Park, Dublin travelled to Nowlan Park a couple of weeks later. It was a bad day in blue but one man stood in the gap. A newspaper report the next morning noted that “Allen, an inspiring captain stood out above the others both physically and in ability…After half time it was Allen and Allen alone who fought the issue with any decisive endeavour.
1953 would be the year when Norman captained St Vincents to the clubs first ever County Senior Hurling title (incidentally his son Damien captained the club to its last title forty years later.) His pre-eminence as a hurler drove the reputation of his county and his club. On December 6th that year almost 30,000 people came to Croke Park to watch St Vincent’s play Glen Rovers of Cork in a fundraising game which served as an unofficial club all Ireland. Ring got 2-7 that foggy afternoon but Norman Allen was peerless and St Vincents won by 3-11 to 2-11.
Norman was voted the Gaelic Sportsman player of the year in 1953 with one Christy Ring coming in second in a national poll and the Diamond Hayden of Kilkenny finishing a distant sixth.
Dublin’s difficultly in those times was that despite the emergence of a new wave of talent including that other gifted dual star Des Foley , the county couldn’t produce enough players of quality to sustain an existence at the very top level. Early in 1957 having sampled America with various touring teams Norman moved to New York city where he would remain until 1964. Even so far away he continued to provide glimpses of what might have been.
1958 was an extraordinary year for hurling in New York. Kilkenny, the All Ireland champions played two games in New York that summer, one in the Polo grounds , one in Gaelic Park and lost both times. In September New York travelled to Croke Park to play the National League champions Wexford in the St Brendan’s Cup. Again the emigrants won. Norman Allen was a key influence in those historic wins and would remain a regular visitor to Croke Park with the New York sides of that golden era for hurling in the big apple. Indeed when St Vincents won the county hurling final of 1962 (beating St Columbas in a final which saw Des Foley score 3-6 before half time) Dublin fans could only wonder again what might have been the previous September as they watched Norman play centre forward with New York as they defeated the Dublin senior side in the curtain raiser.
By 1964 Norman had returned to Ireland and St Vincents rejoining the clubs senior hurling side where he now played alongside young lads like Jimmy Keaveney and Tony Hanahoe. He bowed out from action with another county final win in July 1967.
Thereafter Norman remained an integral part of the St Vincents serving as a mentor , administrator and even pitting blood, sweat, tears, bricks and mortar into the clubs old premises in Raheny. He was the St Vincent’s club president for the 75th anniversary in 2006 and the family name remains synonymous with St Vincent’s and with Dublin hurling.