IT MIGHT sound strange for a back to say, but it was the James Stephens forwards who came in for the greatest praise from Philip Larkin.
“It was a brilliant performance from the forwards,” said the veteran Village man. “It has been for two weeks running. Their work-rate up front was something else.
“The lads went back to doing what they do best,” he said. “At the start of the year we said we would go back to the style of game we had a few seasons ago, just to work fierce hard up front and fight for everything. It showed out there.”
Was the victory down to something as simple as that?
“Yes,” he confirmed. “You won’t win a game unless you work hard like that and that’s exactly what the lads did.
“You could see it in the Shamrocks performance – they just couldn’t get clearances away on their own,” Larkin continued. “If you’re clearing the ball under pressure then the backs at the other end have a great chance of getting to the ball much quicker. Eoin (Larkin) had a great game, but every one of the forwards was brilliant.”
It was a remarkable way for the club to win their ninth senior county title. Had he thought that chance had slipped by when the Shamrocks equalised with that injury-time free – “a dubious free,” he said smiling – in the drawn game?
“There was no point in saying otherwise – we thought we had the Shamrocks beaten, but it didn’t happen,” he said.
“However, five minutes after the game we were back in the dressing-room and we just forgot about the result. We said to ourselves we were still in it, we weren’t beaten. The lads put in a great effort during the week, things were nice and relaxed and people were up for the game again. The work-rate was great again on Sunday, but this time we won.”
Much of their victory was made on the way James Stephens never let the Shamrocks settle on the ball, Larkin reckoned.
“You can’t give them time on the ball because they have exceptional hurlers,” he said. “The Shamrocks are a team who have been on the go for some time now – that was their fifth final in six years. It takes its toll, so we were probably that bit fresher, a little hungrier. Whether the hunger did anything, the freshness helped.”
It was a great way to end the year for a Stephens team who came in under the radar.
“Last year Henry was missing for the Shamrocks when they lost to O’Loughlin’s in the semi-final,” he said. “People were expecting them to come back and win again this time, which was fair enough as they have been the form team in Kilkenny. We came in under the radar, but we’ve been unlucky over the years too,” he said. “Last year was the first time we didn’t reach a final or semi-final of the senior hurling championship in seven years.
“This is the third final I’ve won, but I’ve lost three as well,” he said. “It’s a nice way to finish.”
The question had to be asked. Surely this wasn’t a swansong for Larkin?
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “It was a great one to win, especially when you’re coming near the end of your career. It was a nice way to win it.”
And the path to victory was built on Eoin Larkin’s goal, which came at the right time for the Village.
“The Shamrocks were 0-9 to 0-6 up at the stage,” Larkin recalled. “If they get three or four points ahead of you, you’re chasing the game, then they get a goal and then it’s over. Eoin took his goal well, then got another point which gave us the lead at half-time. That was probably against the run of play, but it lifted us. We drove on from there. The Shamrocks got to within a point of us but never led again – you can’t let a side like that get three or four points ahead of you because you’ll be left chasing the game.”
That gameplan never altered, even when down to 14 men. Some said the Village played as good, if not better, after the red card – but Larkin didn’t see it quite like that.
“Ah, I don’t know if we played better,” he said. “Our best player for the last number of years had been sent off – it was terrible to see him go – but it galvanised the 14 men. Everyone stayed working; I thought Tomas Keogh and Niall McQuillan played brilliantly. I think that was their first championship win of any grade with the club, but that’s hunger – when you haven’t won anything you can’t beat hunger.”
The players could hear their supporters chanting before the final whistle, but Larkin was too experienced to start celebrating early.
“We knew when we got seven points ahead that we were close,” he said. “We were four points up there for a while, which is a bad lead – if they get a goal they’re right back in it. We knew we weren’t safe, but when the whistle blew after that last puck it was some feeling.”
Philip Larkin has played in six senior hurling county finals for James Stephens. He lost the first to Young Irelands (Gowran) in 1996, but then helped the Village beat Gowran to win their first county title in 23 years in 2004.
The Village retained their title 12 months later when they beat Ballyhale, but lost successive finals to the Shamrocks in 2008 and 2009.
Sunday’s eight point winning margin was biggest since O’Loughlin Gaels beat Graigue-Ballycallan by 11 points (1-17 to 1-6) in 2001.
Of the team who started Sunday’s replay, Donnacha Cody, Jackie Tyrrell, Phil and Eoin Larkin, Eoin and David McCormack had all played in the 2004 final. Subs on Sunday, Gary Whelan, Richie Hayes and Fran Cantwell started in 2004. Starters in 2011, Tomas Keogh, Matthew Ruth, Niall Tyrrell and Derrick Brennan were unused subs in that win over Gowran.
James Stephens have now won nine county SHC titles, and a first in six years. The last time they won the county title (2005) was the same year they won the club All-Ireland title.