When Bruce Springsteen arrives in Nowlan Park later on this summer, he’ll have the advantage of the pitch as an extra crowd space. The crowd at Sunday’s National Hurling League final didn’t get the pitch, but they filled every available seat and made their presence felt on it.
It was a truly memorable moment when this fantastic team managed to win a significant national title on their home patch.
Kilkenny is the home of hurling, and as it happens to be where much of the country’s silverware spends the preponderance of its time, it is only fitting that big games should be won and lost here.
Officially the attendance was recorded as 21, 447, but there were suggestions from some quarters that it was perhaps a few hundred closer to the stadium’s 23,000 capacity.
The whole concept was such a success that it had many punters wondering why it can’t be done more often. Despite its impressive size, a crowd of 22,000 would have looked like a sparse attendance in Croke Park, and the atmosphere would definitely have suffered.
This wasn’t the case in the ’Park, where every seat had someone on it, shouts and cheers rippled across the stadium and the whole caucophony became part of the action – the players feeding off it also.
Four years ago, these sides met for this fixture in Semple Stadium. The Thurles venue is Ireland’s second-largest stadium, but there’s plenty of people who might have instead opted to watch the match on TG4 than make the journey for an afternoon there.
Nowlan Park excelled as a venue, and the city thrived as well. The simultaneous Kilkenny Roots festival no doubt helped to manufacture the holiday/party atmosphere that the sunshine complemented.
From the morning, there was a buzz about the city that almost made it feel like a championship day.
The party was started as Tipp fans also got in on the act – with watering holes near Nowlan Park such as Langton’s, Leydons and Billy Byrne’s filled with blue and gold jerseys by 2pm.
Traffic began to build up, and any tourists around the John Street area were left in no doubt that a big sporting occasion, a date with the rivals – almost a derby – was in the offing. At times, the road doubled as a second pavement, the city centre artery becoming increasingly clogged with match-goers. By 3pm, the ‘Park was about three quarters full.
Nowlan Park was in superb shape, and more than a few people remarked on the exquisitley manicured pitch and perfect match conditions. Despite the size of the crowd, there was no hassle in coming and going throughout the afternoon, the operation was organised and run seamlessly by the county board and the Gardai.
St Patrick’s Brass and Reed Band were in fine fettle as well. The popular musicians are no strangers to Nowlan Park, but even they must have appreciated the swollen crowd pouring in through turnstiles, a packed stadium busier than any county final.
A minute’s silence was impeccably observed by all in the stadium for Emily Wilson, the 10-year-old Tipperary girl who died after collapsing at a camogie match on Saturday morning. Tragic events such as that are bigger than sport, and when they happen to a member of the GAA community – and a child – it hits home for everyone, regardless of county colours. Almost 22,000 people standing in perfect silence for a minute, united in sorrow and sympathy, is a truly powerful image.
What better start to the match than Michael Fennelly leading the charge with his goal when the game was not three minutes old. At times, he seems impossible to stop – and that goal set the match alight and got the crowd roaring from the off.
The absence of a baseball-capped Brian Cody marshalling his troops from pitchside made for unusual scenery. The sideline at times seemed strangely empty without the presence of the big James Stephens man, so long has he been in charge. There were plenty of young Cats supporters at the game who have not known a Kilkenny team without him.
As the game ebbed and flowed, the atmosphere only improved, as supporters cheered or jeered refereeing decisions, and audibly contested every ball.
At the end, however, there was no bitterness over the result, and people wearing the black and amber of Kilkenny or the blue and gold of the Premier were happy to share the bar for a pint and enjoy a bit of craic and banter – as always.
Michael Fennelly’s early run through the centre from half way to hammer home a goal after just two minutes and 20 seconds. It set the tone for the game and got the crowd in good voice from early on.
Statement of intent
With 15 minutes gone, Lester Ryan cleared Shane Bourke out over the sideline as he tried to keep the ball in play. It was a statement of intent from the Clara youngster, and the Kilkenny fans loudly voiced their appreciation for it.
Colin Fennelly lifting the league trophy in the air as dejected Tipperary supporters filed out of the stadium. His first piece of silverware as Kilkenny captain was undoubtedly a sweet one to savour, and served to whet the appetite for more.
Three big boos
Pick any one of about a dozen dubious refereeing decisions, but there was certainly a caucophony of boos on the half-hour mark when Barry Murphy awarded a free against Taggy Fogarty with questionable grounds. The Emeralds club man appeared to be battling valiantly (and lawfully) on the ground against five defenders before Tipp were given the free.
The minutes-long delay before the resumption of the second half, which necessitated referee Barry Kelly going down the tunnel to get the Tipperary team back on the pitch. What were they doing in there? It was enough to provoke plenty of jeers from black and amber clad fans when they finally emerged.
Tipperary’s Paul Curran flattening Michael Rice with a heavy-handed hit on 60 minutes drew a yellow card from the referee, but also a lot of ire from Kilkenny fans. After his injury-blighted season last year, no one wants to see the mercurial Carrickshock man having to be helped up by the medical staff with the championship just around the corner. The crowd were justifiably incensed.