Fans, bookies, the public never stop believing

Back in 1982 when Kilkenny were operating for a short period out of the top division in hurling a colleague pondered on the county’s profile.

Back in 1982 when Kilkenny were operating for a short period out of the top division in hurling a colleague pondered on the county’s profile.

“Whether Kilkenny are up or down, they are always news when it comes to hurling,” was his upbeat summary.

Things never change, it would appear! Here we are on the verge of a new season, and after what many hardened observers suggested was the greatest All-Ireland senior final (and replay) ever, the Cats shadow has already swept over 2014.

Who are the bookies favourites to take MacCarthy home?

Kilkenny, would you believe? Paddy Power bookmakers have the Noresiders at odds of 11/4 to be crowned senior hurling kings in September, with Tipperary the second choice at 7/2 followed by current holders, Clare at 4/1. We are a long way out from September at the moment, but even after Kilkenny missed out on the semi-finals for the first time in 17 years they are still feared, no matter what any others achieve or how they achieve it.

It is in interesting situation, actually.

Point of reference

Oh, by the way, back in those dark days in the eighties Kilkenny played a draw with Kerry - yes, the Kerry senior hurlers - in the League in Tralee, but they rebounded smartly that year to win the All-Ireland.

In fact, they won the League and Championship double and repeated the feat the following season with Pat Henderson (Fenians) as the driving team manager.

We offer that as a point of reference. And here’s another one. Cork contested last year’s All-Ireland hurling final after being relegated from Division 1A of the League. And yet another - Kilkenny won the League in 2013 after losing their opening two matches.

The point is that hurling is a strange old game, and with tradition forever a factor, the likes of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork are always in with a chance of making September celebration time.

Clare are the current super power in the game. They surprised and delighted in almost equal measure as they careered to victory in Croke Park in September. If you didn’t enjoy that hurling, your needs can’t be satisfied.

Clare introduced us to hurling at a different pace, be that running, ball carrying, shooting or whatever.

It was great stuff. Exciting stuff! Colourful! Dynamic! The GAA couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement for the game.

Fitzgerald a wonder

To be honest, I have to admit that their manager, Dave Fitzgerald is a bit of a wonder to me. He is most certainly an ideas man when it comes to the game. Invariably he has a trick up his sleeve for games, but if not, he has the opposition distracted and wondering. You have to admire that.

A couple of the counties - Galway and Limerick in particular - reckoned Fitzgerald would come up with some sort of a plan when facing them in the championship. He didn’t disappoint! Yet good men in the opposing dug-outs couldn’t take the edge off Clare’s all out attacking game.

Cork got two chances to shackle them, but they couldn’t do it. Whether you come down on the side of Cork’s failings or Clare’s brilliance when sizing up that situation doesn’t much matter, the MacCarthy is now resident in the Banner County after a delightful and most eventful hurling season.

The new champions would appear to have the material to drive on. They won the under-21 All-Ireland title in 2009, 2012 and 2013, beating Kilkenny in the finals in ’09 and 2012, which would suggest they have a rich seam of talent right now.

Speed and a deadly first touch were the outstanding features in that hugely impressive 2012 win over Kilkenny (2-17 to 2-11), qualities which were very much to the fore in last year’s senior final and replay.

That Clare managed to carry forward the successful formula from under-21 level to the higher grade is to their credit. Sure, they lost to Cork and they had an escape when being brought to extra-time by Wexford in the championship, but by the time Clare reached the semi-finals they were a far different, a far better team and squad than started out on the road with a 2-20 to 1-15 win over Waterford.

Eight All-Stars

Clare finished the season with MacCarthy. Eight of their players won All-Star awards. To the victors the spoils, and all that! Kilkenny open the competitive season with a clash of champions - League and All-Ireland - against Clare in Ennis on February 15. There are those who suggest the outcome will give us a clear insight into the 2014 season.

Hardly! What it will do is tell us who the better team is on February 15, maybe a bit more, but nothing earth shattering.

All the same, the promise of a blockbuster will lure because neither side will want to bend the knee. When it comes to the business end of the season, expect them both to be there or thereabouts. You never know, however! Remember the delights of the high class League final between Kilkenny and Tipperary last May?

All the indications that day were that one or the other would end up with Mac at the end of the season. It didn’t happen. Fate intervened. It’s a long way from February to September. A lot can happen!

Kilkenny have taken an interesting route towards the new season. A long list of new contenders for the squad was compiled by manager, Brian Cody and selectors, Michael Dempsey, James McGarry and Derek Lyng.

The ‘new lads’ were put through some testing training routines, while the longer servers worked away on a less demanding grind. All will be unleashed during the Walsh Cup, we have been promised.

Some have big mileage on the hurling clock (see separate piece) - Henry Shefflin is entering his 16th season; J.J. Delaney his 14th; Tommy Walsh his 13th; Jackie Tyrrell his 12th; Brian Hogan his 11th.

Players who have given more than fans could ever have expected are ready to have one more go - at least - on the hurling roundabout. The fans are already dreaming. Thirty-four All-Ireland wins offers some entitlements!