By Brendan Boylan,
There is, or at least was, a belief in certain places, that this corner was either disinterested in Hurling or anti the sport altogether. The truth is that the state of the one seeing eye is such that once the sliotar becomes airborne, I might as well be looking for white blackbirds as trying to following proceedings.
It might come as a surprise to many, then, to know that a Leinster SHC Final was attended some years back. Two of them as it happened, because that year, 1993, it took two meetings between Kilkenny and Wexford – the former then managed by the late, great Ollie Walsh – before the Bob O’Keefe Cup was back whence it came. It will forever be a source of pride to be able to say DJ Carey, John Power, Eamonn Morrissey, Damien Fitzhenry, Liam Dunne, Martin Storey and Tom Dempsey were seen in action.
Sixteen years after that, yours truly also happened to be in situ in Croke Park on the occasion of the All Ireland semi final involving Kilkenny and Waterford. So modern greats like Tommy Walsh, Henry Shefflin, Richie Power and Eddie Brennan from Kilkenny and Tony Browne, Ken McGrath, Dan Shanahan and John Mullane were also seen in the flesh. Hopefully someday the long held ambition to take in a Munster SHC Final will happen too.
Sometimes all one can do whilst watching Kilkenny is look on in awe. There are lessons to be learned from how they go about their business for the rest of us. Yes, hurling is very much in the blood down there, but, there are plenty of counties with strong tradition. Yet, few, if any, have ever exerted such dominance.
Having the interest is one thing, but Kilkenny’s strength has to be based on more than that. If it weren’t, it would surely be a very level playing field. That, it most certainly isn’t. Others might have the same levels of commitment and dedication but, for me at least, what sets The Cats apart is the continuity of structure and of team management and player throughput. As was often said before, Tyrone and, more belatedly, Dublin have taken things to a similar level in football. In all cases, the results speak for themselves.
For all that, however, in the space of a three period there was ample proof, as if it were needed, that there are forever two sides to every story. Anyone who happened to watch even a segment of the Leinster U-21 HC Final between Kilkenny and Laois couldn’t but feel that the aura of invincibility that often surrounds Kilkenny teams remains well justified and would do so for the foreseeable future. For not only had the likes of Willie Phelan, Richie Doyle and Cillian Buckley already broken into Brian Cody’s senior setup, others like Ollie and Walter Walsh, Geoff Brennan, John Power and Ger Aylward seem certain to follow suit.
That’s the great thing about sport, however, as with every other walk of life, there are two sides to every story. Nobody is unbeatable. The thing is, many have tried and, with the exception of Tipperary in 2010, mostly failed, to break down Cody’s meticulous system. On the day in question, Liam Sheedy’s charges did so by out-goaling the normally ravenous Cats. Last season, then – presumably having triggered that was their downfall in ’10 – the perennial kingpins were back to their tight, mean, dominant best and duly took home the silverware for the fifth time in six years.
Something else required then. Well, on a recent Sunday, when few, if any saw it coming or suspected a thing, Galway may have come up with the definitive method – and made history in the process. Now, go back to what was said about structure, continuity and player throughput. For as long as can be recalled, Galway have had floods of talented underage teams, yet, somewhat inexplicably, Liam McCarthy hasn’t spent a winter by Galway Bay since 1988.
Top coaches – such as Cyril Farrell (who was in charge when last they did triumph) and Mattie Murphy and Ger Loughnane – have all tried to end the drought and come up short. Sometimes, it just takes someone with the Midas touch. And a look at Anthony Cunningham’s coaching CV reveals that he is exactly that.
Up to a while ago, I would openly admit to not knowing who he was. More senior observers will of course recall that he was corner forward on the last Galway team to rule supreme. It has, though, been as a coach that he really made his name. Dual players are one thing – and sadly something of a dying species – but dual coaches are far more rare. Ironically, Farrell is one of the few others I can recall. He was involved with the Skryne football team in Meath and his own hurlers around the same time.
Cunningham’s story is perhaps even more special. Having tasted success with Garrycastle (Westmeath) and St Brigid’s (Roscommon), he managed to achieve what many didn’t and guided Galway to some hurling silverware. Now, this wordsmith would be as big a Kilkenny fan as anyone, but, Galway’s win has to be a good thing.
Perhaps the manner of it even more so. It was a win for patience, belief, deliverance and hope. All the promising underage talent finally hit full bloom. The manner – and simplicity – in which they did so being most striking. Not simply running, but, akin to rugby, getting their running lines in a way that allowed attacks like David Burke, Cyril Donnellan, Damien Hayes and, particularly, Joe Canning to sparkle.
There are two lessons Meath can take from Galway ahead of Sunday’s clashes with Dublin – anything can happen and running at their defence just might be the key to making it do so.
By Brendan Boylan,