Analysis of the implications can wait for another day. Is Kilkenny’s glass half-full? Half-empty? Look: forget it. Don’t worry about it for now, writes Enda McEvoy.
For the moment just exult in the memories. History witnessed in the shape of the first drawn final since 1959. A terrific struggle that exalted the sport – too relentlessly grinding to be a great match, but a great contest for exactly that reason.
What’s more, a proud hurling county performed with distinction and came very close to winning their first All Ireland in 24 years. That’s important too, as younger readers would do well to contemplate. Where hurling is concerned, no county is an island.
And not to overdo the old “hurling was the real winner” line or anything, but, well, hurling was the real winner.
Kilkenny trailed by seven points closing in on half-time, failed to raise a green flag at any stage of the proceedings and still didn’t lose.
Galway went up against the most successful team of all time for the second occasion in three months, hit 13 wides, twice trailed inside the last ten minutes and emerged unbeaten nonetheless.
There was, as with the Late Late Show, something for everyone in the audience. Nobody lost. Can’t ask for much more than that. That glass we mentioned earlier? From a neutral point of view, it overflowed.
Kilkenny will have their regrets. Not major regrets, but a couple of small ones.
The real break
The equalising free was soft? Perhaps, but these things happen. Tommy Walsh was fouled in the preface to it and Barry Kelly missed it? Unquestionably yes, but – again – these things happen.
When the breaks go for you, as they did for Kilkenny in 2009 against Tipperary, you take them and are suitably grateful. When they go against you, as they did here, you accept it and refrain from whinging.
The real break that went against Kilkenny occurred in the semi-final. Michael Rice’s injury. Had he been there on Sunday they’d surely have won by a few points, for Rice would have brought his customary high-grade workrate and low-key intelligence to midfield.
Naming Richie Hogan as his replacement was predicated on one imperative and one imperative only: that the Danesfort man would be acting as a third midfielder, picking up the crumbs that fell from the midfield quartet and stymieing Damien Hayes
Instead the champions employed Hogan as an out-and-out midfielder and the move blew up in their faces.
One can understand Brian Cody’s reluctance to change things and throw subs on willy nilly. Kilkenny accomplished the four in-a-row at the death largely because Cody emptied the bench and because, when he did, Michael Fennelly scored a point, T.J. Reid scored a point and Martin Comerford scored an All-Ireland-winning goal.
But this isn’t 2009 any more. Cody didn’t empty the bench on Sunday because he didn’t have the same kind of game-breakers that he once did.
Yet leaving Hogan, who’s done his best work at Croke Park in September at corner-forward, at midfield for the entire game was an error and a big one. Iarla Tannian was almost as ubiquitous as Myles Kavanagh had been in the national media last week.
If the management weren’t prepared to start Cillian Buckley, who’d done a good and manful job on a drowning team in the second half of the Leinster final, what could possibly have been lost by introducing him ten minutes into the second half? And biting the bullet and pushing Hogan into a forward line that was desperately short on incisiveness and cunning?
Driving long balls
The upshot was that Kilkenny spent the afternoon driving long balls straight down the middle. No Rice (or Buckley) to hit an angled ball in from wide. No variety as a result.
And they can’t say they didn’t know what might have ensued with this Route One approach. They were forewarned that Galway were good in the air; precisely that point was made on these pages last week. And still the favourites were eaten alive under David Herity’s puckouts in the first half.
What Kilkenny have done so well all these years, their opponents did better on Sunday. The basics. Catching, blocking, winning the breakdown. And when they gained possession they weren’t shy about driving forward with it, from Fergal Moore upwards.
Of the champions’ attack, Henry was the best by a distance, and then only when he made himself central and relevant in the second half. TJ Reid was next best, if occasionally erratic. The rest of them were a long way off the pace. And yes, much of that was due to the rigour of Galway’s defending. But are Eoin Larkin and Richie Power going to spend the entire championship promising much yet never quite delivering?
On the penalty, both player and manager did the right thing, Cody leaving it up to Henry to make the decision for himself. After all, who was anyone – even Brian Cody – to tell Henry Shefflin what to do in that moment?
Henry played the percentages and tapped it over the bar. That surely was the correct decision too, given that it put the holders a point ahead with three minutes left.
Because at that stage the game was about playing the percentages. If you can win, well and good. If you can’t win, then make damn sure you don’t lose. Henry takes his point and now Galway need two scores, unless one of them is a goal, to win.
If there was any Shefflin decision from a placed ball to take issue with last Sunday it was his decision to go low with that close-range free in the 15th minute. It seemed odd because Henry more than anyone over the years been a man content to take his point on the basis that a goal could not be far away.
Did he genuinely see a hole in the wall, as the Sunday Game panel believed? Was it, on the contrary, a badge of Kilkenny’s anxiety? It’ll be mildly interesting to find out, even if it makes no odds at this stage.
Paul Murphy was the best of the black and amber’s defenders. Brian Hogan put an unhappy first half, in which Niall Burke cleaned him in the air far too often for comfort, behind him to produce a storming second half. He didn’t just stop Galway attacks but, being the man he is, made himself the starting point for many a Kilkenny attack.
Like Peter Barry before him, Hogan is neither the most talented nor the most wristy of Noreside centre-backs. But also like Barry before him, he’s there to do a particular job and he does it brilliantly. Brian Cody does not opt for a hurler at centre-back when he can opt for a man at centre-back.
This was a day for men. Joyously, we had 30 of them. They gave us a contest for the ages. Exult in the memories.
Enda McEvoy is a columnist with the Irish Examiner