There’s been a lot of mention of seminal moments in this space lately. Which is interesting as it’s only a year or so ago your columnist first encountered the word. Whilst ingesting the enjoyable, educational and much missed work of Hugh McIlvanney. His abdication – along with Con Houlihan’s gracing of the press room above with his genius a scarcely believable four years ago – left quite the void. One which appeared more acute during the most recent #Olympics.
Anyway, it’s probable that the first sporting seminal happening – in a negative sense – I can recall was Laois’s defeat of Meath in 1992. There was no doubting it was a fork in the road. For many of the stalwarts who populated the glory laden days between 1986 and 1991 took their leave. Even though Donal Smyth, Bob O’Malley, Martin O’Connell, Colm Coyle, David Beggy, Colm O’Rourke, Brian Stafford and Bernard Flynn were still about when the National League was won in 1994.
Apparently, Kilkenny are now at a similar crossroads. Or perhaps not. Change may seem certain in hurling’s top order but it may be wise to hold the drastic headlines awhile yet. Almost immediately after the long whilst confirming Tipperary’s harvesting of the autumn gold, a skit was encountered dubbed ‘RIP Kilkenny hurling’. I wouldn’t be so sure.
For one thing, all too easily is it recalled when a similar prophecy was publicised regarding Meath football – thankfully it turned out to be as wide of the mark as Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s brainwave taking off Paul Geaney – and secondly, Brian Cody’s observation in the days after the final that there are “Players who haven’t been seen yet who will be top players” sounds pretty ominous to me. It also indicates the Godfather of the sideline has no intention of going anywhere.
However, that there’s been a re-arranging of the deck chairs – even if temporary – seems indisputable. Kilkenny’s stay in the realms of the untouchable has been attributed to many factors over the years, not least Cody’s indelible influence, but, equally obvious was the regularity with which a conveyor belt of talent kept running down by the Nore.
That machine now appears to need greasing. As best evidenced by the fact that in recent times Dublin and Wexford and – to a lesser extent – Offaly have had progressive underage teams. Close to home, Meath too have come on. Remember, all betterment is relative. You suspect, though, that, with the greatest of respect, Westmeath’s ousting of those from the Marble City from the U-21 HC may prove a watershed.
Prior to that, moves were already afoot to avert the slide, with former players drafted in to take development panels and the like. But, with the vast majority of Tipperary’s champions of an age that they could be about for some time – allied to a precocious victorious minor outfit – and they must considered to be in the ascendancy in the medium term at least.
Now mix in that Austin Gleeson and many of his Deise brethren may not yet have reached their optimum and that somewhere within the enigma which Clare have become there remains a group of superbly talented hurlers and, for the first time since God was a schoolboy Kilkenny may have some catching up to do. Many a turf accountant would be wary of offering long odds on that happening. Consider Cody’s comment. Or witness how, in their own right, Padraig and Walter Walsh may have further flourishing to do. Even how, a la Walter Walsh four years beforehand, Kevin Kelly’s self proclamation arrived on the biggest day of all. One for the future there too surely.
The 1994 All Ireland hurling final has always ranked as the greatest I’ve seen. Damien Quigley’s two goals catapulting Limerick into a seemingly unassailable position before the abiding memory of the day ended up being a seemingly motionless Billy Dooley slinging over a plethora of points to generate an unlikely Offaly win.
That classic may now have competition. Except in this case it wouldn’t be as much for a classic, knife-edge encounter – even though Kilkenny’s tally of 2-20 would comfortably win most game. No, this was more about the unleashing of a new force. Maybe, even, in the case of Mick Ryan’s team, a form of cleansing. Few teams have shipped such sustained flak. Often from their own.
To witness Seamus Callanan’s unblemished exhibition (the Kilkenny defender was too close to the one free he did botch) was to see a team finally displaying their undoubted collective brilliance. The conductor of the orchestra may have claimed the individual gong, but it was the lead musicians – a collection of Mahers and John O’Dwyer and John McGrath – that gave the ensemble the crescendo it deserved.
Has there ever been a better hurling story than that of Noel McGrath? There are some words nobody wants to hear in life, surely cancer supersedes all others. Yet, it’s a heartbreaking reality that each of our lives are touched by the vile thing in some way, shape or form at some time.
So, for the talented forward to conquer his battle with the cursed disease and get back playing at all wasn’t so much commendable is utterly inspirational. But, to again display his undoubted gifts at the highest level and thereby play such a crucial role in Tipp’s undoubted ability eventually germinating paints an even more glorious scene.
Maybe the entire hurling landscape is changing. Maybe not. Finding out will be the fun part!