I flew to New Zealand the day after the 2011 All-Ireland hurling final. It was logical.
After a day like that in Croke Park, I needed to travel to the end of the world, 11,386 miles down under, to have any chance of getting my feet back on the ground.
Lots of things in sport are overhyped, but not beating Tipperary in an All-Ireland final. Try as you might, you couldn’t make it sound better than it felt.
The year 2011 was a particular case. They’d won the previous year and it wasn’t just that they beat us in the final but the way they celebrated it. Quicker than a scalded cat, I’d exited Croke Park that afternoon but you get to hear things.
Tipp acted like they’d buried us. They’d been jumping around like they’d finished us off, like they’d won a final and created a new era in the game.
I remember thinking over the following days, ‘nurture the bitter memories lads, store them.’ Tipp had come to bury Caesar, not praise him. And when it was all over they danced on his grave.
I thought if our team has the men we think it has, Hickey, J.J., Shefflin and Tommy Walsh, that Tipp celebration would be the starting point for the next campaign. On Winter nights when training was brutal and the championship was too far away to be seen, the memory of Tipp, self-proclaimed new kings, would drive them on.
Because if you’re a proper team you take offence and you nurture resentment. You feed off it. We’ll show the f....rs. They beat us but they didn’t bury us.
Through those Winter months I just know Kilkenny’s players hoped, then prayed that when the first Sunday in September 2011 came round Tipp would be togged out and ready for war at Croke Park.
Because they knew they’d be there.
I now live far from my native Slieverue. I’ve come home for most of the finals Kilkenny won and seen the couple they lost over the lost 16 years. Tell me about it.
We moved to England on September 1, 1998. First thing I did was return to Ireland a few days later to see the team lose to Offaly in the All-Ireland final.
Then Brian Cody took the reins and our lives changed. He lost his first final to Cork but there would only be two more final defeats against nine glorious triumphs.
We lost that one. Cork’s lighty-built but skilful and sprightly forwards were going for three-in-a-row in 2006 and threatening to be the team of the decade. Amongst the many things I’ve loved about Kilkenny is that ability to hold onto a grudge.
Cork had beaten us in 2004 and needed to be put back in their box. “See you next year.” wasn’t a term of endearment but a threat.
In 2006 those young and lightly-built Cork forwards met a new and young Kilkenny team and were made to look lightweight.
If a Kilkenny team could ever be said to play a “defensive” game, that team did. I didn’t give a damn. Another Sunday in September, another title.
I’ve told this story so many times you may have already heard it. But that evening after the game we were having a pint in the bar of the Gresham Hotel; there was my eldest brother Eamon, who is probably the most rabid Kilkenny fan in the history of the game (he still blames Cody for the two of the three finals he’s lost as manager!), his great friend the late ‘Duckie’ Ormond from Lismore in West Waterford, a few other renegades and myself.
We were minding our own business when lads from Cork began talking about the game. They were good fellows. They accepted Kilkenny had been the better team and on it went.
Except with one of them. You know the story; there’s sometimes three, often two but there’s always one awkward so-and-so.
He recognised me as “the journalist fellow.”
“You work for Vincent Browne, don’t you? (I had worked for Vincent’s Sunday Tribune but had moved on about nine years before).
“No longer,” I said politely.
He wasn’t interested in politeness.
“I’ll tell you about feckin’ Vincent Browne,” he said.
“Vincent is a good man and a very good journalist,” I said.
“You journalists are all the same,” he replied. “You think you know everything, but you know nothin’. You know nothing about Irish history. Call yourself a hurling man, do you know where Liam MacCarthy came from.”
People were getting edgy for this fellow had a manner that radiated tension. Eamon, my brother, has been known to dispense with diplomacy in these situation and I feared the worst.
This unfortunate man from Cork was heading down a very dangerous road. But for the only time in my life the right answer came at precisely the right time.
“The truth is I don’t know where Liam MacCarthy came from,” I said, “but I can tell where he is going. Home to Kilkenny.”
His Cork friends laughed the loudest and in a second all the tension was sucked from the scene. We had another couple of pints with the Cork lads and not another rancorous word was spoken. The obstreperous one became the quiet one.
But back to that flight to Auckland in early September 2011. I touched down in the land of the long white cloud on the Wednesday and though the Rugby World Cup was about to start, there was nothing but hurling on my mind.
That final at Croke Park had been joyous. Tipp came, saw and were conquered. Exactly as you’d want it.
It was 2-17 to 1-16, four points in it at the end, but it was actually a domination. Kilkenny were in control and even if their superiority wasn’t fairly reflected on the scoreboard, victory was never in doubt.
Tipp, the coming team, had been sent on their way. We asked them the question they’d asked us a year before.
What are you like when you take one flush on the chin? Can you bounce back to the centre of the ring as we have just done? Will this strengthen or weaken you?
You can accuse me of Tipp-baiting but the truth is that the 2011 defeat put a young and talented Tipp team on the floor and though they’re now back in Croke Park, it’s taken them three long years.
Once in Auckland I set up camp at a hotel in Takapuna, a nice suburb right on the coastline of a beautiful city and found a grand place to while away an hour or two. The Coffee Club it was called and there I did something I’d never done before and haven’t done since.
I temporarily dispensed with my press card and decided to be a simple and appreciative fan. I wrote a longish letter to Brian Cody that was nothing more or less than a hymn of praise to the performance of the team and his contribution to that.
Not just for beating Tipperary a few days before, but for all the victories, for all the days out.
I know I told him that my brothers and I didn’t get together as often we’d like, but there’s an unspoken agreement to meet in The Temple Bar on Dorset Street a little after midday on the day of the hurling final, provided Kilkenny are involved.
Whoever owns The Temple Bar has holidayed in Barbados through the last 15 years. My brothers, to be fair to them, were never slow to call the next round.
Sure, we meet on other days. Family weddings, funerals but they don’t come round as often Kilkenny playing in the final. And though it was an expression of gratitude for 12 years of mostly great hurling, I thanked Cody in particular for beating Tipp in that 2011 final.
I’ve met many Tipperary people down through the years and when they tell where they’re from, I can’t help myself.
“First thing I learned to hate in life was Tipperary. Happened when I was five years old.”
I don’t tell them that the older I’ve got the worse I’ve become.
When you’re a boy and Ollie Walsh is your hero and Sean McLoughlin comes barging into the square, gets close enough to see the whites in Ollie’s eyes and then hand-passes the ball into the roof of the net, you’re left with the post traumatic stress. Ollie was so good and that was so wrong.
They banned the hand-passed goal far too late.
Old Tipp supporters will disagree, but I remember their team as bullies. It was why in the years that followed I loved the way Pa Dillon dished it out a bit; the way Ger Henderson came stampeding forward from centre-back, the way Frank Cummins could hit a man a shoulder and scramble what was inside his head.
I loved the way Brian Cody took that “let’s-take-the-battle-to-them” attitude and destroyed Jimmy Barry-Murphy in the 1983 final. That was the year Barry-Murphy scored that spectacular overhead goal off Conor Hayes in the semi-final. Everyone thought Cody wouldn’t be able to get near him.
One minute into the game Cody gets the ball and takes off. “Jimmy, you mark me.” And the star full-forward was no match for the man who would become a legend. Cody has given that same attitude to his team.
You wouldn’t call it passive-aggressive. You wouldn’t call it passive anything. But it’s not nasty, nor mean-spirited. It’s manliness and it’s founded on plenty of character.
In that hymn from Takapuna I think I told him what it meant for a group of Slieverue men and women to meet in the Temple Bar before the final. That’s become our pub.
Now Slieverue is not exactly Ballyhale, and though we too refer to ourselves as being from “the parish”, we’re not James Stephens. They’ve won plenty. We’ve won little.
I’ve always reckoned it means more to us because of that. We don’t have a club team that’ll be winning the county final, nor one that dreams of Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.
Kilkenny, the county team, is all that we’ve got. That makes it bigger. Have you ever wondered why when England play a soccer match, the Cross of St George flags bear the names of Mansfield Town or Aldershot or Port Vale or Crewe Alexander. Not Man U, or Liverpool or Arsenal.
Slieverue is the Port Vale of Kilkenny hurling.
I included bits and pieces of all this in the letter to Cody and told him whatever happened in the future, I would always be grateful for the past.
He and his team owe us nothing. God knows they’ve been a credit to the county. I mentioned he’d never know how much joy the team had brought to the lives of Kilkenny exiles scattered around the world.
And I apologised to him for Eamon saying he was to blame for the two of three finals he’d lost as manager.
*David Walsh, from Slieverue, is chief sports writer with the Sunday Times in London. His parents Billy and Kitty are deceased, his four brothers Eamon, Brendan, Ray and Gerry are all Kilkenny followers. His only sister Caroline has more sense.