For a time in the early to mid ‘90s, Noel C Duggan ensured Millstreet, and the arena therein, was the epicentre of the world. Think of the Eurovision Song Contest (remember when that was relevant?), the bouts of pugilism between Steve Collins and Chris Eubank Snr and show jumping.
The same period heralded a glorious tumult for hurling. Offaly engineered what was more a resurrection than a breakthrough – more of that anon – while for Clare and Wexford the 1995-97 period was indeed a conquering of the mountain top after sustained periods trying to hack out of the undergrowth.
1994, however, produced what remains the best exhibition of the ancient game the one seeing eye in this seat (actually, at that stage the pair of them were functioning!) has witnessed. Now, whatever about the unforgettable finish to affairs, when great goals from Johnny Dooley and sub Pat O’Connor set the train to the seemingly impossible in motion before an all but static Billy Dooley essayed numerous points over Joe Quaid’s crossbar, the whole occasion had a feel to it which was different to the norm.
What with two sides who hardly topped many prospect lists at the throw in of the season. Add to that Eamonn Cregan being in Offaly’s corner, trying to – and ultimately succeeding in – plotting the downfall of his own. That, of course, only tells a fraction of the story. Long before the crazy ending, a brilliant brace of ‘majors’ from Damien Quigley appeared to have Liam McCarthy parcelled for a trip Shannon side.
Looking back on it now, perhaps the greatest thing about it was the fact that, as it was a novel pairing, nobody was too sure how it was likely to pan out. Especially when placed against the frequency with which Cork and Tipperary and – most pointedly – Kilkenny have pitched up in the September showpiece.
Similar sentiments abound now. The clash of Galway and Waterford is, after all, a novel pairing. It’s also, though, something of a no-win situation. For neutral observers, anyway. Simply as, who without a vested interest within would begrudge either Joe Canning or Austin Gleeson a harvest of autumnal gold.
No matter what way one might seek to dress it up, the outcome most likely revolves around currently the two greatest gladiators in the game. Yet, there are innumerably more subplots. For the biggest one, however, we go back to Gleeson. Should he be playing? As I often do, temptation here is to side with the individual ‘in the dock’.
By the letter of the rule, the best hurler in the country could, maybe should, have been sent off in the semi final. However, sources indicate that there may also have been a contravention of the rules surrounding helmets by one of the Cork players during the same incident. Then again, turn it in yet another direction – was there much of a difference in the Austin Gleeson incident and the one involving Conor?
There can be little doubt that the midfield Gleeson will be a considerable loss. Something magnified by the extreme efficiency of Johnny Coen et al in that sector for Galway. Then again, as certain as that is a realisation that Derek McGrath will assuredly have a contingency plan for that in place. Just consider how his re-deployment of Darragh Fives to offset the loss of Tadhg De Burca last time out.
In the end, however, gut feeling is that, whoever is the more dominant between Gleeson and Canning will ultimately sway the verdict in their side’s favour. And here’s the crux of the matter – if the Waterford player was to actually take up station where his jersey number suggests, there’s the possibility, however slim, that the two central protagonists in the game would – or at least could – cancel each other out.
So, with the likelihood of that occurring slim at best, what will separate them? Instinct is to think that (a) Galway have the wherewithal to curb the influence of Gleeson – even Our Lord couldn’t totally nullify him – and (b) even if McGrath’s men do somehow manage to negate the contribution of the pride of Portumna, Galway are a better balanced and equipped outfit now than at any stage for the majority of my lifetime.
You know you’re getting old when the offspring of players you admired (to put it mildly in some cases!) start carving their own niche. That realisation dawned a decade or so ago when I sat with Colm O’Rourke and his wife Patricia watching Shane make his debut for Meath. Similar feelings hovered watching Dan Brennan begin his rugby odyssey in France having been blessed by befriending Trevor many years ago.
What has that got to do with Galway-Waterford I hear you ask. Answer: Gearoid McInerney. Meath hurling has made highly commendable progress in recent years – you can read more about that here shortly – but, at a time when football in the county was at its zenith, the small ball code was in a darker place.
Thus, it was easier to latch on to heroes from elsewhere. Depending on how far back you want to go, Pat Fox of Tipperary was always to the fore in any such ensemble. So too the great Brian Whelehan from Offaly and Clare’s Seanie McMahon. Standing out from them all, though, literally, was Gerry McInerney of Galway.
To me, Gerry was the first cult figure (of my lifetime before anyone gets excited) in the GAA. Between the long hair and the white boots, but boy could he hurl as well. As part of as good a triumvirate as ever took to a pitch with Pete Finnerty and the late, great Tony Keady.
There can be little doubt that Galway are at their most complete now since that period. Backup for Canning has obviously been pivotal to that, but, equally, McInerney II has emerged as the standout centre back that every era needs. If he manages to even slightly quieten Gleeson, the silverware will head way out west.