We are the chosen generation, there is no doubt about that! Never have so few given so much for the delectation of the faithful.
These past 16 seasons have been brimful of high achievement. There have been 15 All-Ireland final appearances, including two replays; 10 All-Ireland victories, including six National League/Championship doubles, and now more.
Saturday’s gut bursting, nerve testing All-Ireland final replay, an absolute hurling-fest against mighty Tipperary, brought us to another milestone - a record 10th All-Ireland winners medal for Henry Shefflin. He is in a class of his own now, the genuine ‘King Henry X of Hurling’.
“Bearing in mind the injuries he has suffered, the achievement is terrific,” insisted Kilkenny manager, Brian Cody, after Shefflin was let loose from the bench in the 57th minute of a viciously flowing game to play a hands on part in the county’s latest MacCarthy Cup success, League/Championship double.
The history of hurling tells us there have been great and memorable times for Kilkenny. There were the seven All-Ireland wins between 1904 and 1913. There was the trilogy of finals against Cork in 1931 that prompted the suggestion the counties should be declared joint champions.
There was another golden era of in the sixties when Kilkenny lay the 45 year bogey and beat Tipp (1967) in the championship. There have been other thrilling times too, like the double, double of 1982 and 1983.
Now this generation have their fabulous moments. A declaration of the best can be subjective, but the final of September 7 and the replay of September 27, 2014 have, for me, been the greatest of my 40 years experience; possibly of all time.
The pace of the game was never as it is now. The touch was never so pure. The conditioning of the players was never so good. The individual skills, like the incredible hook by J.J. Delaney on Seamus Callanan in the 18th minute that prevented the scoring of a goal, were never as finely turned.
Judged any way, or against anything, it was indeed a ‘Mac-nificent’ 35th All-Ireland success against superb opponents. In our preview last week we wrote that a very good team wouldn’t win the All-Ireland final of 2014. It happened!
The heroics of the vanquished, of top ’keeper, Darren Gleeson, James Woodlock, all three Mahers, Shane McGrath, John O’Dwyer, Seamus Callanan and company should not be lessened in the darkness of defeat.
They and their colleagues played a powerful part in the elevation of the championship to a new height in the national consciousness.
At half-time Tipp looked to be in a good place, a very good place. There had been times when Kilkenny’s tight man marking arrangement in defence had them troubled. Yet they managed a 1-7 to 0-8 interval lead, which may not have been great.
More worrying was their threat up front, their ability to find gaps in the winners defence. Kilkenny goalie Eoin Murphy did well to save from Patrick Maher in the 5th minute. There was Delaney’s wonderful intervention in the 18th minute. You can get these moments in games, but....
At the other end, the Kilkenny threat wasn’t as apparent. They had a goal disallowed in the 26th minute when a long free from Murphy was touched into the net by T.J. Reid. It was a square ball, no doubt. By comparison, the Tipp goal didn’t appear in as much danger.
Ah, but from the start of the new half all changed. Within 30 seconds Richie Power shot a wide. Then goalie Gleeson was called on to make a great save from Colin Fennelly at the Hill 16 end after Eoin Larkin worked an opening after gathering a longer delivery from Michael Fennelly.
We couldn’t be sure at the time, but Kilkenny’s game was on a new pitch. They reeled off the next five scores during as many frantic minutes per Richie Power, a free from 70 metres near the right sideline; T.J. Reid following a foul on Colin Fennelly, who was suddenly on fire; Colin Fennelly at the double with assists from John Power and Cillian Buckley before Reid landed another free following a foul on Richie Power, who fielded a long Kilkenny puck-out.
By the 42nd minute the score had changed to Kilkenny 0-13, Tipperary 1-7. The momentum of the game had changed, significantly.
The Cats were flying. The deadly movement was absolutely terrific up front. Better than that, the defence in its entirety, was rock solid. Each man in the sector grew in stature as the contest wore on. The bite in the tackling, the hooking, blocking, chasing, putting the bodey on the line...it was unreal stuff.
Kieran Joyce was brilliant, powerful in the air and on the ground. He showed the strength of Hercules when driving through tackles to get in clearances. He will wait a long time to get a day when he will play better.
On field captain, J.J. Delaney read plays with an unreal eye, and some of his catching, hooking and blocking amazed.
For an example, refer to the 49th minute. Two successive blocks by defenders broke a ball to Jackie Tyrrell. His clearance was picked up by John Power. Kilkenny point (0-14 to 1-9).
Paul Murphy simply dominated all that came against him. He was perfectly placed at the finish to make a chest block from a goal bound shot that could have earned Tipp a draw. Jackie Tyrrell intimidated the way he fronted up to his opponents early on. He held the high ground after that.
Cillian Buckley enjoyed a good opening half, but he capped that afterwards. He left proof at the end of a season of promise. And Padraig Walsh, called into the team for the replay, got better and better as the battle waged. He plundered a magnificent point from 60 metres in the 66th minute to underline beautifully his magnificence at the time.
Following that early second half flourish from the winners, Tipp were always climbing a hill. They hit back for minors from Noel McGrath and Callanan to get the divide down to the minimum before that Tyrrell created, and John Power executed, point mentioned above meant all six attackers had scored.
John O’Dwyer posted the next point. Eoin Larkin replied with a beauty from the right, created by a great, explosive run by Paul Murphy (0-15 to 1-10).
When the game hit the 55th minute Tipp got a lucky call. A good tackle by Joyce on Callanan was deemed to be a foul. Penalty. Callanan settled for a point, ignoring the chance to try for a goal.
Enter Richie Power, big, big time. This half was the crowning glory of his senior career. His elegant, deadly touch crucified. He snatched a sideline ball from the sky from Michael Fennelly before drilled the sliotar into the net. The gap opened, 1-15 to 1-11.
Tipp hit back for a point from Callanan. The second Kilkenny goal followed. Michael Fennelly got in a shot that goalie Gleeson got his stick to. John Power raced into the square and batted the ball home (2-15 to 1-12). It was the 62nd minute.
You would have expected Kilkenny to power home. No. Tipp charged back. Paul and Eoin Murphy combined to prevent Callanan goaling, instead conceding a point from a 65 to John O’Dwyer. Padraig Walsh posted a reply.
Brendan Maher pulled back a point before Callanan finished a half blocked effort from Patrick Maher to the net in the 69th minute (2-16 to 2-14). Three minutes of additional time were called.
It seemed a long, long time before Henry Shefflin broke a clearance from defence to the right for Colin Fennelly to picked up. His Ballyhale Shamrocks clubman worked space, posted a point.
It was the 72nd minute. Kilkenny weren’t going to be beaten.
It was some game, again. Michael Fennelly, who started in midfield rather then where selected at wing-forward, was more involvement during the opening 10 minutes alone than he had been in the entire drawn game.
His driving play was huge in the working of the victory. For me he was the best, although the good hurling, chasing, blocking and covering of his midfield partner, Conor Fogarty, especially during the first half, was staggering.
The defence may have stolen the show during the second period. The fact they out-classed Richie Power’s contribution spoke volumes for their work, because the Carrickshock man was superb. The almost casual way he can win ball and lay it off with intent is hard to credit.
I don’t think I have ever seen him play better, even remembering the 1-13 he scored in a recent club match. This was more valuable, because it was at a higher level. He completed the ‘Top Three’ among the man of the match contenders.
SCORERS: Kilkenny - T.J. Reid (0-5, frees); John Power (1-1); Richie Power (1-1, point free); Colin Fennelly (0-4); Eoin Larkin, Richie Hogan (0-2 each); Padraig Walsh, Michael Fennelly (0-1 each). Tipperary - Seamus Callanan (2-5, points frees); John O’Dwyer (0-3, one 65); Shane McGrath (0-3); Noel McGrath (0-2); Brendan Maher (0-1).
Kilkenny - Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, J.J. Delaney, Jackie Tyrrell; Padraig Walsh, Kieran Joyce, Cillian Buckley; Richie Hogan, Conor Fogarty; Michael Fennelly, Colin Fennelly, Eoin Larkin; Richie Power, T.J. Reid, John Power. Subs - Henry Shefflin for Hogan 57th min; Lester Ryan (capt) for M. Fennelly (inj) 66th min.
Tipperary - Darren Gleeson; Cathal Barrett, Padraic Maher, Paddy Stapleton; Brendan Maher, James Barry, Kieran Bergin; Shane McGrath, James Woodlock; Gearoid Ryan, Patrick Maher, John O’Dwyer; Noel McGrath, Seamus Callanan, Lar Corbett. Subs - Michael Cahill for S. McGrath 55th min; Conor O’Mahony for G. Ryan 63rd min; Shane Bourke for Corbett 63rd min; Jason Forde for N. McGrath 66th min; John O’Brien for J. O’Dwyer 67th min.
Referee - Brian Gavin (Offaly).
Frees - Kilkenny 11 (7 and 4); Tipperary 13 (9 and 4).
Wides - Kilkenny 8 (2 and 6); Tipperary 8 (3 and 5).
Attendance - 81,753.
KP man of the match - Michael Fennelly. He edged out Kieran Joyce simply because of his constant involvement and the sheer volume of productive work he got through during his 57 minute involvement.