There was a resigned look that defeat always brings on the faces of the Kilkenny fans as they left Semple Stadium on Sunday - but despair? Not a chance.
As the steady stream of black and amber-clad men and women trooped away from the Thurles venue they merged with the happier counterparts from Cork.
There was plenty of banter flying back and forth between the fans, but there were also words of congratulations and commiseration. One line from a Kilkenny supporter seemed to sum it up - “We can’t complain - look at all they’ve done for us over the years”.
That was the theme of the afternoon. There were no tears, no bleak outlook or even foul moods - the Kilkenny fans knew that their heroes had given their all on the field.
Supporters crave success for their team, but even Kilkenny fans know they have been spoiled for more than a decade.
Since the start of Brian Cody’s reign, Kilkenny have won nine All-Irelands (2000, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012). Supporters have gorged on the number of times the Liam MacCarthy Cup has been brought back across the River Nore which, coupled with the amount of finals they’ve featured in, has seen the county become the top team in the country.
Hopes were high that they could make it 10 titles this year - the Cats were also chasing a record of a 17th successive All-Ireland semi-final appearance - but it wasn’t to be. A Cork performance with plenty of different elements ensured Kilkenny’s title defence ended without a visit to Croke Park this year.
That’s not to say that the champions went down without a fight. Typical of Kilkenny’s season, the Cats gave their all as they battled for a place in the semi-finals but, in truth, this was a game too far.
In what has been a rollercoaster of a campaign, Kilkenny tried to dip into that well of experience and effort but couldn’t find the level needed to earn a win. The players were able to rest following their exertions against Waterford in the quarter-final, but injuries and a run of four successive weeks of action meant the tank was emptied faster than it could be replenished.
While the country thrilled at the open championship that played out over the Summer, losing to Dublin hurt Kilkenny deeply. Missing out on the Leinster title meant the Cats didn’t have a five-week break, something which, traditionally, they’ve used to heal injuries and recover before making an assault on the All-Ireland series.
Granted, having home advantage against Tipp a week after that defeat to the Dubs helped. The atmosphere in Nowlan Park spurred the side on; so too did the introduction of Henry Shefflin to the game at a vital stage.
The emotion that helped get the team over the line against Tipp also played a part in the win over Waterford. That was more of a slow-burner, but just when it looked like Waterford would cause a shock, back came the Cats to settle the game in extra-time.
In the build-up to the Cork game, everything seemed to be clicking into place for Kilkenny. The return to the starting team of Michael Fennelly and Henry Shefflin meant the Cats were practically at full-strength for the first time in the championship.
They may have had two former Hurlers of the Year back in their ranks, but Kilkenny struggled to make an impact on the attacking front.
The facts? Three different players took frees and 65s in the opening stages. Secondly, of the three players who started in the full-forward line, none hit the target until Walter Walsh finished a move involving Lester Ryan and Eoin Larkin in the 65th minute.
That wasn’t to say that Kilkenny didn’t have chances, but by and large they were kept quiet by the Cork defence.
While the Cats struggled, Cork had better fortune. With Patrick Horgan calling the shots the Rebels worked their way into a good lead midway through the half.
Yet for all their best efforts Cork couldn’t fully close the door on Kilkenny. Typical of the team’s mettle, the All-Ireland champions kept themselves in the game at vital times, although not always from the usual sources - corner-back Paul Murphy ended a burst down the line with a point, while both Tommy Walsh and Brian Hogan were no strangers to the Cork half.
The first of the game’s talking points came on the cusp of the interval when Henry Shefflin was sent off.
Having already earned a caution for a flick in the 11th minute, Shefflin was dismissed by referee Barry Kelly showed a second yellow in the dying seconds of the first half.
The second card seemed harsh to say the least. The Ballyhale man was deemed to have caught Jamie Coughlan with a high tackle but the view from the Ryan Stand press-box was that the Cork attacker slipped just as Shefflin made contact.
The dismissal made little sense, especially given Shefflin’s experience - why would a player on a yellow card actively go looking for a second booking?
It was the first of several flash points in the game where Kilkenny and referee Barry Kelly clashed. Another incident occurred within seconds of the restart after Eoin Larkin was awarded a penalty.
The call was correct - but how corner-back Shane O’Neill wasn’t carded for a wild pull on the James Stephens man defied logic (as did the way in which Kelly didn’t retake the throw-in as Michael Fennelly and Lorcan McLoughlin scrapped on the half-way line).
Proof, if it was needed, that Kelly won’t be on any Kilkenny Christmas card lists this year came when Richie Power was made to retake the penalty after rattling the net with his first shot. The call was made for encroachment, but Anthony Nash’s double save from Power’s second effort was a real body blow for the Cats to take.
Even though they still had time on their side, that penalty was the beginning of the end. Twice Kilkenny rallied to close the gap on Cork but that extra gear, that final step up in pace, was missing. So too was the goal menace that Kilkenny have been famous for in the past. In recent years they have obliterated teams with big scores. This year? They’ve rattled the nets of the opposition twice in six games. One of those big scores came from a penalty, highlighting the fact that while it’s still a cliché, goals do win games.
Still Kilkenny battled to the end, but those old reserves of energy weren’t there this time. Thurles may have signalled the end of the road for Championship 2013, but defeat wasn’t a disaster - the fans who hailed their heroes at full-time certainly didn’t think so.