ROLLING DOWN MEMORY LANE – EP. 11

HURLING’S GOLDEN AGE – PART II

We finished up the previous few furlongs of our journey through times past with a segment headed ‘The New Life Of Brian’. On that occasion, focus was on the incredible impact the moving of Brian Whelehan to full forward had on the 1998 All Ireland SHC Final. This time round, though, it could easily have the offering along the lines of ‘Life Under King Brian’. For, from the moment Brian Cody was appointed Kilkenny manager, the hurling world has never and will never been or will never be the same again.

How ironic, then, that the baseball-capped great one actually began hiss tenure with defeat in an All Ireland Final defeat to Cork. In the worst hurling final seen for a long time. Indeed, the Rebel County havr a penchant for winning poor finals. As we in Meath found out to our cost in 1990. With reference to today’s offering, though, it was the last time a Cody combination would be caught in such a way.

THE MAKING OF AN EMPIRE

It is said that a week is a long time in politics, well, at that time a year proved to be a very long period on the landscape of the game of hurling. Gone were the meak, pale shadow of a Kilkenny team that capitulated so uncharacteristically the previous year. To be replaced by the greatest, most ruthless winning machine the G. A. A. or many other sports have ever witnessed.

Spells of dominance arre common in most if not all sports. Think A. P. McCoy, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Lewis Hamilton or whatever other serially successful sportsperson one wishes to highlight. Within sport close to home, the Dublin footballers and Leinster rugby team are worthy of similar accreditation. Yet, for this observer at least what the James Stephens clubman orchestrated – and continues to – via those blessed to be under his guidence is even more staggering.

Consider that, in 1998, Offaly had scored a resounding victory of a black and amber outfit then managed by Kevin Fennelly. Two Septembers later, with the former full back directing operations, largely the same group of players dished out an mercilous thrashing to Pat Fluery’s charges. Not only was it the first time I can recall D. J. Carey and Henry Shefflin combine with the devastating effect that would see Kilkenny become an almost unstoppable force for the best part of a decade.

Brian Cody transformed the hurling landscape

RIVALRIES REKINDLED

In football,the Dublin-Kerry rivalry dominated much of the 1970s and early ’80s while at the same time, Kilkenny, Cork and to a lesser extent Wexford were similarly prominent in the small ball game. The highlight of which was probably the middle of the afforementioned trio colating a hat-trick of titles towards the end of 70s. The two giants of the of the ash saw their rivalry rekindled in the early to mid 2000s when each stopped the other from doing three-in-row.

Kilkenny’s halting of Cork’s triple try in 2006 was more than that. It was the beginning of an era of sustained brilliance which set that Kilkenny bunch apart as arguably the greatest collective ever to adorn the old game. Admittedly, opponents Clare were something of surprise packets. A mixture of the great blue and gold bunch of the previous era and some additions to the armoury like John Reddan and Tony Griffin.

Valiantly as the warriors bad battled in what was Ger Loughnane’s last stand, when Henry Shefflin put a goal on a plate for DJ after three minutes it set the tone for the rest of that particular day. In all, the master and his rapidly graduating apprentice accounted for 2-13 out of the victorious tally of 2-20. Clare were far from the last team to take a scratching from those ferocious cats. Perhaps it was telling, mind you, that even though they defeated Cork to retain their title, Donal O’Grady saw his side get within three points of the kingpins.

REBEL UPRISING

Feelings about the vanquished presenting the biggest impediment to feline domination were emphaticaly vindicated when, in 2005, the red and white put the internal strife which dogged Cork hurling for quite a while behind them. And, with the returned Brian Corcoran leading as he always had, scored a somewhat surprisingly easy victory to give new life to a very old joust.

As if deliberately to give lie to the conclusion of the last stanza, while the champions of 2005 did mirror the feat of their great adversaries in retaining their crown in 2005, it was in fact Galway who succumbed to the title holders. If there was one surprising thing about those few years, it might have been that Cork didn’t, in fact, kick on and bag a few more titles for themselves.

Particularly given the composition of their lineup at that time. In John Gardiner, Ronan Curran and Sean Og OhAilpin, they had a half back combination of similar class and effectiveness to the Dublin football tri-axle machine of the 1990s compromising Paul Curran and Keith Barr and Eamon Heery. Add to the mix the ice-cream twins, Ben and Jerry O’Connor, Tom Kenny and Niall McCarthy and the latent ability to garner more success was plain for all to see.

His father from Fermanagh, his mother from Fiji, neither a hurling stronghold

HURLING FROM ANOTHER GALAXY

Perhaps though, despite the fact that Cork had a very gifted team at the time, anybody should be cut a bit of slack when it’s remembered that, over a four year period, Kilkenny produced hurling of such entrancing excellence that it may as well have come from a different galaxy.

With the exception of Galway, Wexford and Dublin nabbing a handful of provincial titles for themselves, for a period Kilkenny seemed to take that Bob O’Keeffe was one of their own quite literally in terms of the regularity with which they ended up guardians of the magnificent trophy which honours his name!

WIZARD WALSH: On a Kilkenny team full of magicians, more often than not, Tommy held the magic wand

In most situations over the years, with due respect to all concerned, it was the case that Kilkenny would face the stiffest challenge to their supremacy after they safely tucked Bob away for another season. In 2007,however, they dispatched Wexford with such ease at the second last hurdle that, given the regularity with which the victories at a canter were occurring it would make one think that it was on foot of such happenings that Galway and Antrim were added to the O’Keeffe Cup competition.

It should be pointed out that Wexford did, in fact take Leinster in 2008 thanks to a very, very late Rory Jacob goal. That said, it didn’t stop Cody’s charges recording outright successes with consumate ease in 2007 and 2008. In the first of the two victories at hand, the game was as good as over before it had properly begun. The aristocrats of the game having 2-3 ojn the board before Limerick seemed to know the game was on.

The following year was something of an unusual one for a few reasons. As stated above, Wexford had snatched the provincial crown from its usual keepers and, as well as that, Justin McCarthy had been ousted from his position as Waterford manager. To be replaced by Davy Fitzgerald. Giving the great man his first inter county management outing.

Wouldn’t you know, he had quite the impact. And quickly too. Extricating Na Deise from self-inflicted turmoil before guiding them all the way to a September showdown with the men from the banks of the Nore. I greatly admired so many of that Waterford team – Noel Connors, Tadhg De Burca, Austin Gleeson Kevin Moran, Tony Browne, ‘Brick’ Walsh and ‘Dan The Man’ Shanahan.

“I’m just sorry for the people of Waterford. I didn’t mean to leave them down. I love hurlin’, I love me county”.

JOHN MULLANE

Yes, there is somebody missing. How could you leave him out I hear you ask. Fear not. He simply could never or would never be omitted. You know this corner loves his cult heroes. Plus, he wouldn’t allow himself go unnoticed with his flaming hair and scoring hurling lighting up many an occasion like the sun reflecting off a mirror.

Cult Hero: John Mullane was to hurling what Graham Geraghty was to football and Eric Cantona was to soccer.

Too often nowadays, terms like ‘Legend’ and ‘Unique’ and many other superlatives get bandied about almost to the point of abuse. Like losing dockets on a bookies shop. Yours truly is as guilty as anybody in that department as anybody else. More so in some cases. Mind you, it’s doubtful are there enough adjectives of admiration in any dictionary to properly describe the esteem in which the De La Salle man is held.

Being honest, the first time the mercurial corner forward was seen cannot be recalled. There is a faint idea that he may in fact have come on as a sub. No doubt surrounds, however, when it was that I, and most other Gaels, evelated him to a level of fondness that only the very special get to. All of those mentioned earlier plus Ken McGrath and Seamus Prendergast and, in particular, Paul Flynn were well ensconsed onto the favourites list.

Mullane’s darkest moment on a hurling field – when he was sent off as the county won the Munster Championship in 2004 – or more to the point his reaction to same earned him the status, not only in the annals of the G. A. A. but the Irish people en masse. On what should have been one of the happiest days of the No. 13’s career, he took it upon himself to apologise to the people of Waterford.

Having been, harshly in my view, sent off, thus ruling himself out of their forthcoming All Ireland Semi Final, Mullane gave one of the most extraordinary post-match interviews ever witnessed. Up there with Kevin Keegan’s (in)famous proclamation that he “Love it” if his Newcastle United beat Manchester United to the Premiership title – they didn’t! Or, Brendan Venter’s hillariously bizarre press dealings after his Saracen’s team had lost to Racing 92 in the Heineken Cup.

Mullane, though, stunned Tony O’Donoghue, who was the sideline reporter, and indeed the entire nation when declaring “I’m sorry for the people of Waterford, I didn’t mean to leave them down, I love hurlin’, I love me county”.

He need apologies to nobody. In fact, awe is the only thing which could be felt for the player after he, apparently, turned down the chance of an appeal. An option which, according to one source in the upper echelons of the Association, “He would absolutely have won”. It was hardly surprising, minus their fulcrum and tallisman, the home county of leading horse breeder and owner Micheal Ryan, though putting up a very commendable effort against a Kilkenny team beginning to simmer towards the explosion of greatness which would set them apart as the greatest collection of craftsmen the ancient game has ever seen.

For their part, those who, continuing the racing crossover, were sponsored by Gain Feeds, rallied as any outfit containing the warriors they had would be expected to, to annex another provincial title in 2007 before the strife referred to earlier engulfed the Waterford camp. The upshot of which was the former Clare custodian coming in on a rescue mission. Which, in fairness, probably went better than anybody would or could have envisaged.

However, unfortunately for Fitzgerald and his players, they happened to be in the wrong corner on the occasion during which the manifestation of Kilkenny at their zenith was unleashed for all the world to see.

Then again, you never really should judge a book by its cover. Yes, the four-in-a-row champions, as they ended that day being, wracked up a staggering 3-30. On the day in question, mind you, I don’t think a combined team including Ring, the three Rackards, Jack Lynch, Babs Keating and Mick Mackey would have stood a chance.

Mick Mackey and Christy Ring – possibly the most iconic G.A.A. photo of all time

HELLO, IS IT ME YOU’RE LOOKING FOR…

Rivalries are a big part of what makes sport great. Pick any code you like. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have cornered off men’s tennis for best part of two decades. Phil Taylor and Raymond Van Bernaveld probably knew how many teeth each other have, such was the number of times they met on the oche. Within hurling, there are a few. Kilkenny-Wexford, Kilkenny-Cork and Cork-Tipperary.

If you’re looking for the real cauldron full of spice, however, it has to be Kilkenny-Tipperary. Going back as far as the day’s of the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ full back line which underpinned many of the latter’s successes of yesteryear, right up to the present day.

Little surprise, then, that one camp would like nothing more than the opportunity to derail the other’s best laid plans. In view of the fact that even after those powered by Glanbia had got the third consecutive notch on the belt there had be talk of a handful of titles in a row, it was no wonder Tipperary had all guns blazing in 2009. They may well have pulled the wheels off the wagon were it not for a rather dubious penalty which Henry Shefflin gave the same treatment as a thousand beforehand.

Then, as the most lethal hunter-gatherers always do, when they had the scent of their prey’s blood in their nostrils, they went in for the kill. Substitute Martin Comerford acting as executioner-in-chief, knifing his way through an already beleaguered Tipp rearguard like a Kitchen Devil dealing with a flash-fried steak.

Martin Comerford offered Kilkenny a different outlet

There’s actually a bit of a personal angle to that season on the small ball scene which it would be remiss to leave out. At one time, day, date and minute details of every League, Championship, O’Byrne Cup game Meath played could be reeled off at the click of a finger. The storage station up top is probably not what it used to be given all it has had to compute over the course of the last decade or so. But, strangely enough, very easily is it recalled, the trepidation which permeated the air prior to tackling Limerick in the Qualifiers at Portlaoise. Remember, a season previously, those then under the control of Liam Kerins had ravaged Meath in one of the most ignominious performances produced by a Meath team since the All Ireland Final of 2001.

Luckily, there were no strange developments second time around as our troops advanced to a meeting with Mayo over the August Bank Holiday weekend. The nice people at Paddy Power had Meath chalked up as 10/3 outsiders, with our odds-on opponents on offer at 1/2. I know one Meath supporter who certainly had more faith in their chances than the turf accountant had!

Now, you probably wondering how those few acres blagged their way into a piece dominated by comings and goings on the hurling fields. Merely because the event in the big ball code referred to happened to be the curtain raiser for the All Ireland SHC semi final between Kilkenny and Waterford.

Admittedly, my eyesight was by then considerably inferior to when last wheels transporting this wordsmith were parked up in Drumcondra watch a clash of the ash some 16 years earlier. Factor in, also, that back then, the disabled viewing spot was down adjacent to Hill 16 (where it still should be instead of the out-wintering cow cubical in the Cusack Stand that’s now supposed to pass for facilities)

However, even if they were only like bees swarming around a field of oilseed rape, there was no way the opportunity to see some of the modern luminaries of the game in action was about to be passed up. It was one of those specials occasions, too. When what can only be described as an artist at work puts on a virtuoso performance. On that particular hot August evening it was Mr Shefflin, who registered a tally which would be enough for a lot of teams to win a game with, 1-14. Ensuring he guided his troops to a 2-23 to 3-15 success. Guaranteeing a shot at a fourth season of supremacy on the trot.

FOREWARNED ISN’T ALWAYS FOREARMED

You would have thought with their great rivals having ran them so close the previous season, Kilkenny would have been primed for a frontal assault as the ‘Drive For Five’ headed for its conclusion. Instead, on the day, the normally precision shooters more resembled the dud grenades Sgt. Wilson used to ready in order to assuage Mainwaring’s obfuscation in Dad’s Army.

Often in these situations, too much of the focus seems to be on the favourites who were the butt of the turnover rather than those who effected it. In 2010 there was no danger of such being the case. Thanks to Lar Corbett putting on the best individual display I’ve ever seen in a hurling match. The mercurial Thurles Sarsfields man raised three green flags during what was more procession than contest.

Lar Corbett illuminated the 2010 All Ireland SHC Final

Or at least that’s the way it ended up. At the short whistle, Lar’s first ‘major’ gave his side the slenderest advantage possible. In that way, it was like the 2001 football final when Meath were at parity with Galway. Nine years later, it was almost a carbon copy thereof. This time, even though TJ Reid squared affairs within a minute of the restart, the Premier County’s reply was to rifle off 2-1 in a four minute spell, to leave the favourite’s aspirations of a handful of titles and no interruption in a dustbin somewhere near wheuuujre Kerry’s have reposed since 1982.

BEWARE ANY WOUNDED MEMBER OF THE FELINE FAMILY

Brian Cody cannot have become the awe-inspiring Bainisteoir he is by taking the gently, gently approach. After all, Nowlan Park training matches would seemingly be well worth a movie in their own right. Apparently making the occasion during which The Band Played Waltzing Matilda look like a tug-of-war in a muck sodden field in a parish pattern day!

One is not asserting that the retired School Principal doesn’t have a less revved up side. All the best on sideline patrol can mix the rousing with the reassuring. Knowing when to do either is an art in itself also. Bookies would, I’d say, have offered you fairly cramped odds on the big December dinner going down a bit askew that year in the green and red sector of the Marble City at the end of that particular decade.

How did they respond? As any wounded member of the feline family would – ferociously. Well, actually, the statement requires a modicum of clarification. They did indeed hoover up another provincial title and, ultimately, the big one. Only after, mind you, takzing a right pasting from Dublin in the NHL Final. A first hurling trophy, at senior level anyway, for five decades or more.

There is a need to be very careful here as numerous people known to the occupant of this seat have featured on various Dublin hurling team with varying levels of success over a big span of years. In actual fact, something that was forgotten earier, if the auld memory foam in the higher echelons of my being is still functioning efficiently, I recall the 1991 Leinster SHC Final between Kilkenny and Dublin was the curtain raiser to one of Meath’s matches that marathon season.

It was a good Dublin team at that time too, with players like MJ Kearns and Brian McMahon and Ciaran Barr among others. The middle of that trio ended up being a very well deserved All Star at the end of the year. Barr, meanwhile, was, at the very least in the running for a similar gong, at the very least two seasons beforehand when his native Antrim caused a sensation by qualifying for the MacCarthy Cup conclusion.

MJ Kearns in hot pursuit of DJ Carey

Anyway, after promising much under various different managers in the ensuing years, the appointment of Anthony Daly delivered the first material reward. At that juncture, qualifying for the National League Final was a noteworthy happening in itself.

If the previous year’s September ambush had meant loss of appetite at Christmas in the Cody residence, Easter and at least one of the summer Bank Holidays can’t have been much craic after the dismantling by Dublin.

Many times over the years in this space, comment has been passed on how a big part of being successful is knowing how to win. All the best ones have it. Witness Manchester United’s pilfering of the European Cup in 1999, AP McCoy lifting Wichita Lineman home at Cheltenham, Ronan O’Gara’s essaying over the Grand Slam winner or Martin O’Connell not giving up on a ball that was seemingly drifting to nothingness on July 6th, 1991.

In the black and amber corner, the Dublin defeat was one to put in the slow cooker and let bubble away until just about to spill over the lid of the pot. Which in this case was All Ireland Final day 2012. Tipperary being the ones who ended up scalded.

As statements of intent go, hitting the first handful of points unanswered in the biggest game of the season takes a bit of topping. Of course the title holders eventually get their rears in gear but their salvation attempt was cut down quicker than a bull trying to evade a cheetah. Thanks to a salvo of 2-1 in a four minute blitzkreig. Richie Hogan and Michael Fennelly giving the green flag its seasons in the sun.

Good Bloodline: Richie Hogan has the look of his cousin DJ Carey about him. And the hurling class to match

FAIRYTALE OF FITZGERALD

It’s often been said that great players don’t necessarily make good managers. Look no further than Peter Canavan, Denis ‘Ogie’ Moran, Kieran McGeeney and Kevin Fennelly as pertinent examples. There’s a far a greater percentage don’t make it to success at the top than what do.

You’d have thought, too, that bookies would’ve had no objection to taking your hard earned on the prospects of Davy Fitzgerald being one of the group for whom there would be a positive outcome. However, to those of us who admire the retired custodian – to put it ridiculously mildly in the case of this corner – such dismissals of his prospects were both unwarranted and grossly unfair.

The prevailing mindset behind such pigeon-holing being that his enigmatic, perhaps volatile nature could work against him before or whilst operating at the top table along the sideline. Basing judgement on such assumption is not only flimsy but very much a case of unfairly judging an entire tome by its cover.

When in fact the retired custodian had already proven his managerial acumen with a number of teams at club level, including Eire Og Nenagh, as well as Limerick I. T. at Fitzgibbon Cup level and, most significantly, Waterford. Having said that, it’s hard to know what expectations were like in the Banner County heading into the 2013 season.

A few very gifted underage teams had yielded a bountiful crop of future prospects heading for the top table. For whatever reason, though, they hadn’t up to that point clicked in the highest grade. Not even for ‘Dalo’. Surely, the Clarecastle publican’s leadership and/or inspirational qualities are beyond scrutiny by now. Yet, still, the potentially delicious stew needed something extra to drive it over the line to brilliance. Just like Homer Simpson’s secret ingrediant to give the ‘Flaming Homer’ its zing – kids cough syrup!

To make the Clare hurlers a scorching success, Davy Fitz was the cough syrup. After his side made a fairly tame exit from the Munster SHC, doubtless the detractors and begrudgers – we can’t forget the latter – were in full blown ‘I told you so’ mode.

Even after making progress through a few rounds of the Qualifiers the pocket rocket and his charges would’ve been on a hiding to nothing as it would be no more than they were expected to do.

Most likely, it is probable that it wasn’t until they were still hurling in August. In other words, at the All Ireland Quarter Final stage. Therein, they soundly accounted for a Galway team that had taken Kilkenny to a replay less than 12 months earlier. Albeit thereafter paying the price – as so many had before and most likely will again – for not making the perennial kingpins wish they had a tenth life at their disposal when the opportunity was there.

Clare’s Shane O’Donnell gave one of the great All Ireland Final displays in the 2013 replay against Cork

LONG LONG BEFORE THEIR TIME

Thereafter, they faced into the local derby to end all derbies – against neighbours Limerick. In many ways, the two counties traveled very similar paths. By way of having precociously talented underage teams but taking a while to reap the fruits thereof. That said, perhaps both of them arrived towards the summit of the mountain in a manner like the title of the song quoted above.

Certainly in the case of Clare. Who, after their remarkable triumph of 2013, would’ve hoped themselves and been expected by the rest of us, to be far more impactful at the business end of things than has turned out to be the case. The sub-heading used above was more designed with Limerick in mind in this case.

The green and white have great nous in producing good underage combinations. That doesn’t always translate to success at the top table, mind you. Not by a long shot. Former Meath player and manager Mattie Kerrigan once imparted in this direction that, even from an All Ireland winning underage combination, a county would do very well to get a handful of players to make it to the top level. Having said that, those under T. J. Ryan’s guidance at the time were very impressive conquerors of their province that season.

However, inclinations that they may have been slightly ahead of their time proved very accurate whe Fitzgerald’s forces ran out comfortable winners. Setting up a re-match with what had been a very impressive Cork team that summer. A Rebel army who had easily accounted for the men from the banks of the Shannon much earlier in the summer.

DEJA VU

For much of the early September encounter, there were times it looked as if it were going to be a case of deja vu. When a player has a new stipulation in the rulebook named in their honour, to me it says two things. One, the person in question has become highly influential in the game on a broader scale. And two, somebody, somewhere is not overly enamored by the level of sway they wield. Around then, it was Cork goalie Anthony Nash feeling the heat. They more or less broke the mould with the Kanturk clubman. Indeed, you could say that was the case with three generations of red netminders from Ger Cunningham to Donal Og Cusack to Nash.

Anthony Nash is hurling’s version of Stephen Cluxton

Cusack’s media stardom scarcely requires any further inflation but thankfully Cunningham and, currently, Nash, have tended to let their hurling do the talking. In Cunningham’s case, that meant a puck out that could travel from the Railway End of Croke Park into the Canal for a wash. The current holder of the jersey, on the other hand, has become known as hurling’s answer to Stephen Cluxton.

That may seem a curious comparison but, besides the fact that the shot stopper can also become shot taker at a moments notice, the last red line is not averse to venturing upfield in a sweeper ‘keeper role either should the need or opportunity arise. It was, though, more for the rudiments of his duties he attracted perhaps unwanted for two reasons.

Firstly, the big man proved a dab hand at coming off his line before penalties were struck at him. It would disingenuous to lumber him with sole blame for that transgression as goalkeepers in all sports where one is a necessity have been doing it since God was a gosan. One rule alteration which was brought in owing to Nash’s deeds was the moving of the sliotar further away from the goal and having only the goalkeeper on the line for the taking of penalties.

One can only assume it was after seeing the length the Corkonian ran in after throwing the sliotar up and before striking the missile the Brains Trust decided adjust the dictum pertaining to spot shots. Anyway, after all that, it was Clare who made the brighter start on the big day, leading by 0-12 to 0-10 with only 35 minutes of the hurling season remaining. Or so it seemed. Now read on…

GOALS DON’T WIN ALL GAMES!

When I was younger, the school of thought which proclaimed that which would be considered an insurmountable deficit in football – say six or seven points – was deemed very retrievable in hurling wasn’t really understood. Until, that is, the fabled All Ireland final between Offaly and Limerick of 1994 when goals from Johnny Dooley and Pat O’Connor set the Faithful County on their way to one of the greatest rescue successes ever witnessed in any sport.

Try selling the logic of goals winning games to the people down by ‘The Banks’. You might get a bit of an unpleasant response. Reason being that on three occasions, Jimmy Barry-Murphy’s representatives had Clare’s Pa Kelly picking the leather out of his net three times but at no stage did it look like they had their Munster rivals held at bay.

However, in no way was it a case of those in red taking their foot off the gas collectively. Rather, the game was as good a shootout as was ever seen on a G. A. A. pitch. With the hectic nature affairs had taken on it was hardly surprising that not only did it facilitate both sides moving forward in constant waves, but it also created a scenario which allowed corner back Domhnaill O’Donovan pop up in a position to drill over the score which earned salvation for his side.

THIS LIGHTENING HADN’T READ THE SCRIPT

Given the utter majesty of what had ensued in the drawn encounter, surely it would be fanciful bordering on unfair to expect entertainment of comparable quality to what played out in the stalemate.

Except it wasn’t. Because at that time, the 2013 season was considered to be the best our national sports had ever offered up. Each game better than the last. And, though it might seem barely plausible, the two wonderful teams produced a contest of even greater gladiatorial brilliance than in Act I.

On any other day, in any other season, a goalkeeper scoring a goal in both a drawn and replayed All Ireland Final would have been national front page news. Never mind holding the back pages. For once though, the Cork No. 1 was deprived of being the headline act.

Nash’s commendable achievement simply got lost in the din of arguably the greatest sporting occasion Croke Park has ever staged. Considering what yours truly has often and recently written about the fourth game between Meath and Dublin in 1991 and the hurling final between Offaly and Limerick three years later, that’s a fair endorsement.

Whoever patented the adage about lightening doesn’t strike twice obviously hadn’t the All Ireland SHC Final replay in mind. It recalled the old saying which none other than the great Con Houlihan often worked into his writings “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad”. It was the only thing the people of Leeside could possibly have been feeling after going out on their swords following a gargantuan gladiatorial joust.

Again Nash hit the nit. Once more, they amassed a total of 3-16. Which would surely be, on a normal day, enough to win all but a minuscule percentage of matches. This was no ordinary day though. More a perfect day. Not just for Clare either. For anyone lucky enough to be entranced by the almost mystic greatness which enveloped both incarnations. Particularly Act II.

The phrase ‘Sods Law’ has often been encountered over the years but never really understood. One incarnation thereof which took no decoding mind you was SO’D’S Law in the encore of the gripping drama on a late September Saturday evening. Elsewhere on this reflective journey, it was opined that Lar Corbett’s in 2010 was the finest performance ever seen in an All Ireland Final. Which it was until Shane O’Donnell’s deliverance in the dying embers of that seminal season.

Take into account that his replacing of Darach Honan before the throw-in was an operation in secrecy which a certain former Banner boss must have been highly impressed by. Very quickly, too it became obvious that it was a masterstroke on the part of diminutive director of operations patrolling the line.

The King led his people to the Promised Land

It’s doubtful even the boss expected the individual parachuted in to have such an immediate and immense impact as had O’Donnell who had planted three rockets in Nash’s netting before the lettuce would have been required for the half time sandwiches. In any normal contest, that would surely have been enough to at least have one set of blue and gold ribbons adorning Mr MacCarthy at the halfway point.

Normal, however, that game or entire season, were not. Thus, it was only when Honan – who replaced the hat-trick hero in a reversal of the switch before throw-in – guided home Clare’s fifth three-pointer that the issue was finally settled beyond reasonable doubt. It was undoubtedly in the top five sporting occasions witnessed from this seat.

By which I mean taking the draw and replay as one large, very epic feast for the sporting senses. At the end of which the lucky sports photographers got an image which, in this corner at least, stands comparison with the Ring/Mackey snap. The architect of one of the truly great sporting successes slumped to his knees, gazing towards the Heavens in exhausting and relief. Meeting Davy Fitz remains near the top of the ‘To Do’ list of ambitions. It will be done, somehow, someday. In the meantime, though, getting a copy of that photo will do.

THEY HADN’T GONE AWAY YOU KNOW

Whenever a team breaks through in the manner which Clare did in 2013, maybe foolhardily the expectation is that they will be around, if not for a period of domination, towards the business end of affairs for a sustained period. More often than not, though, the mammoth effort required to navigate the journey to the harvest of autumnal gold can take so much out of a group of players that it can take them several seasons to recover. If they ever do.

Unless, of course, your name is Kilkenny. Or you’re a footballer from Dublin. With the former at least, the hunger, determination and commitment appear insatiable no matter how many winters O’Keeffe and MacCarthy spend together down Noreside. That must surely be down to Cody. You can be sure baseball-capped Brian bristled as Clare celebrated. A trophy-less season down there would be considered an abject failure. By him anyway, whatever about anybody else.

Which meant that nobody should have been surprised, really, when the temporarily caged Cats devoured all before them in 2014. For this viewer there were two aspects to that particular triumph which stood out from some of their others. Against Limerick in the semi final, they were by no means at their best but they still managed to dig out a late enough win.

Then, in the final, Tipperary were the latest team to learn the cost of not extinguishing the ninth life when the opportunity presented itself. The difference that particular evening, though was that John O’Dwyer will go down in history as the first man to have an All Ireland ‘winner’ chalked off by HawkEye. Rightly so as it transpired.

JOHN ‘BUBBLES’ O’DWYER (TIPPERARY)

Second time round, it was no surprise that having been cornered into a replay, the black amber were in no mood to be as accommodating again. As they rapidly demonstrated when operating with clinical efficiency as two second half goals from Richie and John Power turned the tide afted a similar strike from Seamus Callanan had given Tipp a two point buffer at the turnaround.

Richie Power: One of three generations of his family to star in the black and amber

Indeed, if there was any inclination Kilkenny were on the wane, it surely dissipated in 2015 when they recorded back to back titles once again. For whatever reason, mind you, the sense was that they weren’t the all dominating force they had been for much of the period beforehand. It must also be acknowledged, though, that Tipperary – when on top – don’t do things by half measures. Hence, their steamrolling through their province should have been signpost enough that they were launching something big. Even allowing for that all the same, to see them shoot a tally of 2-29 in the final not only underlined the explosive talent contained in their team, but also that they had stretched a few lengths clear of their great rivals.

THE WEST’S AWAKE

Despite strenuous effort, using the above cliche was unavoidable when summarising Galway’s return to the summit of the hurling world in 2017. For an awakening of a sleeping giant it most certainly was. Until recently, there were two valid schools of thought on the circumstances which befell the maroon and white when it came to Championship hurling. At all level. One was that they had a potentially simple path to an All Ireland title. The other being that their prospects were being debilitated by a lack of meaningful competition before being thrown in at the deep end.

Gerry McInerney’s white boots set him apart

Constructing an argument in either direction was pretty easily done too. The team on which the wondrous half back line of Pete Finnerty, Tony Keady (RIP) and Gerry McInerney, pictured, made light of their plight to manufacture back to back successes in 1987 and ’88. They would almost certainly have completed a triumvirate of back to back titles were they not robbed by the GAA’s insane decision to suspend the late Keady for playing a few games in America. The feeling that said ban was down to begrudgery and fear on the part of one county in particular is inescapable.

If such were the case, what it couldn’t do was impinge on the ability of the people way out west from producing a plethora of heavily stocked underage sides. Perhaps where the dearth of competition for the majority of their season did have a meaningful effect was when it came to (a) settling on their best combination and (b) getting those therein to gel sufficiently in time to perform when it was needed most.

A cursory glance at some of the stellar names of the game who weren’t around by the time the harvesting of autumnal gold did come around gives you some indication of the level to which they have been underachieving over the years. Ollie Canning, Damien Hayes, Eugene Cloonan, Francis Forde, Justin Campbell and Richie Murray to name but a few who would have been more than worthy recipients of a Celtic cross momento.

The fields seldom lay low when Cloonan was about

It’s a long road that has no turn and sometimes all that’s needed is the addition of a player – or a group of them – who have been inculcated with a winning culture to drive the thing over the line. Step forward Joe Canning. Though even that doesn’t tell half the story. As good as the Portumna powerhouse undoubtedly is – and has been since hitting the big stage as a 16-year-old.

However, in as much as Canning’s prodigious abilities were a boon to several Galway managers, his prowess perhaps inevitably also led to those around him becoming overly, if not totally, reliant on their marquee forward. To that end, as much as it might be wished to be otherwise, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Seeing an extra one might turn a good summer into a great incarnation, but one starting out solo is of little use.

JOE CANNING

Only the addition of some very talented supporting actors allowed Canning eventually get the walk down hurling’s red carpet. Up the steps of the Hogan Stand in other words. Though it is hard to credit, Joe is 32 this year. Yet, not only is there a feeling he still has plenty in him, but also that, combined with the abilities of Daithi and David Burke, Padraic and Cathal Mannion, Geraoid McInerney and Conor Whelan represents one of the most potent attacking forces in the game. In the end, almost prophetically, it came down to Canning.

In keeping with the captivating, whirlwind nature of the hurling landscape in recent years, that wasn’t without a twist. Reason being that, from the time the fulcrum of the Connacht county’s attack essayed over a mesmeric winner of their semi final against Tipp, it was as if they were as good as over the line.

Offsetting reading too much into that situation, then again, was the fact that the showpiece encounter threw together a novel pairing of the Tribesmen and Waterford. At the time, yours truly keyboared a piece outlining why, from a neutral perspective, the somewhat unusual combination for the conclusion of the championship was something of a no win situation.

Nobody would have begrudged Canning the ultimate accolade in the gamte. Similar sentiment surely applied to Tony Browne and ‘Brick’ Walsh and Austin Gleeson and John Mullane. Both counties had endured more than their share of reversals, however, in Waterford’s case, they happened to run Kilkenny in joggernaut mode in 2009,whereas, Galway had multiple unwanted notches on that belt.

During most matches, a team that fills the onion bag twice, especially in the opening stanza, could usually be assumed to be well on their way. On that particular day, mind you, even though Kieran Bennett and ‘Brick’ had beaten Colm Callanan before it was time for a cuppa, you guessed they were only putting their finger in the dyke like the little Dutch boy. Valiantly as Derek McGrath’s team fought on, those under the stewardship of Micheal Donoghue were always able to keep them at arm’s length.

STAND UP AND FIGHT

Galway’s victory, akin to a couple of Tipperary’s, left the impression that it could represent the beginning of a very bountiful period for them. To a certain extent, it did. Their acquiring of the top gong was the latest addition to a war chest which already included a couple of provincial titles in their ‘adopted’ home. Even with their plentiful resources, they eventually came up short of the fuel reserves required to triumph two terms on the trot.

Cian Lynch is equally as gifted as his uncle Ciaran Carey

I think that had less to do with their own limitations and more down to a Limerick team who had taken the city’s rugby anthem ‘Stand Up And Fight’ to heart and set about making up for all of their own years of hurt.

The final defeats of 1994 and 1996, three All Ireland U-21 titles on the bounce which probably didn’t yield anywhere near the amount of returns that were expected thereafter. And then, maybe most glaringly, the absolute annihilation incurred when they were at the final hurdle last. Caught up in the same Kilkenny typhoon which swept Waterford away a couple of years after the green and whites were the victims.

GREEN SHOOTS

Having said all of the above, there were signs of green shoots of promise igniting in that they had, as mentioned a while ago, ran Kilkenny close in an All Ireland semi final a few years back. When it took two goals from the Power brothers to see them home. This wordsmith will have to admit to never having heard of TJ Ryan’s replacement John Kiely before he assumed the role.

John Kiely guided Limerick to the reward their talent has always merited

Very quickly however, it became clear that Kiely and his players would let their hurling do the talking. Which manifested itself in the form of those from the Treaty City running up huge scores in most of their matches. 0-27, 5-22, 3-32 and 3-16 in the final where they derailed Galway’s effort to emulate their wonderful team of the late eighties in recording back-to-back titles.

Though I can’t have been alone in wondering was it going to have shades of ’94 once Galway began to come back at them. Sometimes, mind you, the feeling is that if something is meant to happen, nothing or nobody will throw it off course. With Limerick that season, every game, and their doings in them appeared to be a statement of intent.

I’ve been very fortunate to witness some unforgettable sporting occasions over the past three decades. Some in person, others which were broadcast. The fourth game between Meath and Dublin in 1991 will forever top the bill in the former category.

The latter bracket has quite a few inhabitants to it. The penalty shoot-out in Genoa during Italia ’90, our defeat of the same opposition in New York four years later. Katie Taylor’s garnering of gold in London at the 2012 Olympic Games, the oft-referred to hurling final of ’94 and numerous others.

Well, the scenes after Limerick had eventually sated their 45 year famine stand comparison with any of them. From hearing Linger by The Cranberries, of whom Dolores O’Riordan had passed away earlier that year, reverbarating around the old ground, to the now famous photo of Cian Lynch and his mother celebrating out on the pitch.

Personally, though, and this is scarcely an earth-shattering shock, the moment which encapsulated most how much these things mean to people was seeing JP McManus in the dressing room afterwards.

A great Irishman. A man as proud of Limerick as it undoubtedly is of him. Someone who had given so much to the regeneration of his home place. Up to and including the hurling team. If I was ever asked had I any addictions, sport would absolutely top any such list – a short head in front of curry! Whatever about the curry, you suspect the South Liberties clubman is exacrly the same. Home, however, is where the heart forever resides.

TO WIN JUST ONCE ISN’T ALWAYS ENOUGH

When Clare sensationally defeated Kerry in the Munster SFC Final of 1992, Marty Morrissey uttered the immortal prophecy that “There won’t be a cow milked in Clare for a week”. Now, Limerick must have one of, if not the actual, biggest population of dairy farmers in the country. Few could have blamed them, then, if relief milkers from Farm Relief Services were deployed for a while as the county adjusted to bringing the prized piece of silverware home for the first time in 45 years.

Perhaps some of the supporters did. In fact that can probably be taken as read. To their immense credit, mind you, John Kiely and his players showed commendable focus in demonstrating that, for them, to win just once wasn’t near enough.

Of course, that statement, if taken literally, is contradicted by the fact tbat they did not, after all, hold onto Mac Carthy Cup in consecutive seasons. However, their annexation of the National League and Munster titles in 2019 – which meant that for a period they held the three major trophies available to them – demonstrated that not only had they the hunger to add to their haul, they possessed the firepower, strength and depth to do it too.

A late, lamented friend of mine had a saying “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. In no way is that an inference of weakness on the behalf of Limerick. Merely a realisation that, no matter what team it is, eventually mileage does catch up with them. Which actually makes their progression as far as they did last year all the more noteworthy.

SEAMIE CALLANAN INSPIRED TIPPERARY TO YET ANOTHER TITLE

Winning just once not being enough could also be applied to Tipperary. Reference was made much earlier in our journey to the gut feeling that, after their 2010 triumph, they certainly underachieved to a large degree. So anyone would be forgiven for wondering would the same thing happen after they regained supremacy in 2016.

A very harsh cynic might argue that in failing to hold onto or regain their title in the last two seasons it is but more of the same. In this case though, I think the Munster team should be cut a bit of slack. For at least three reasons. One, doing back-to-back titles are not as easily done as Dublin and Kilkenny make it look. Two, rather than look to their shortcomings, far better would it be to highlight the overdue excellence of both Galway and Limerick. Three, the re-appointment of Liam Sheedy as manager cannot be underestimated in terms of its impact.

Liam Sheedy has the Midas touch with Tipperary

With absolutely no disrespect intended to either Eamon O’Shea or Michael Ryan, the bank official from Portroe brings something special to the table which seems to extract that little bit extra from what is already a supremely talented group of players. Sheedy had already committed to remaining on as boss and a few rounds of the league had been played before there was life on board, but not as we knew it.

The prospect of Tipperary and Limerick locking horns would’ve undoubtedly been one of the most mouthwatering dishes of the summer had we, rightly or wrongly, not been devoid of the opportunity to savor it. Clinging to my repeatedly mentioned need to accentuate the positive of any given situation, the prospect of them meeting as two fresh and refreshed teams is a tasty enough dish to keep the appetite until life returns to normal. Whatever that is!

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