What a year of ups and downs for Kilkenny

From the start of 2010 the 'drive for five' became the signature tune for all Kilkenny followers. We all knew the journey would be difficult, yet we hoped that somehow our greatest ever set of warriors would climb the hurling Everest.

From the start of 2010 the 'drive for five' became the signature tune for all Kilkenny followers. We all knew the journey would be difficult, yet we hoped that somehow our greatest ever set of warriors would climb the hurling Everest.

The inter-county hurling game

When Kilkenny ultimately succumbed to a wonderful Tipperary side on All-Ireland final Sunday in September, the disappointment around the county was obvious. It was a new experience for many young followers. Hurling's greatest team were finally knocked off their perch, but their contribution was rightly acknowledged by followers everywhere.

It is easy with the benefit of hindsight to look back and say that some tell-tale signs during the year hinted that claiming a fifth title in-a-row was going to be beyond being extremely difficult. Injuries were starting to take their toll far more than in previous years, a factor, no doubt, of the wear and tear of multiple knocks and bruises.

The form of a few players dipped on occasions and the confidence which has always been the hallmark of this Kilkenny group was not quite the same as in previous years.

When Tipperary rose from the ashes of Pirc U Chaoimh they went gunning for Kilkenny. Revenge for defeat in the 2009 final was always the motivation. The squad had learned plenty from that traumatic loss.

Kilkenny's All-Ireland preparations this year were surreal. While the team and management were well up to handling the carnival-like atmosphere, the mood was excessively over-hyped.

That hype was understandable given the potential history in the making, but the real beneficiaries were Tipperary who got on with their own preparations under low-key media attention.

Whether to play the injured Henry Shefflin and John Tennyson was the big call leading up to the final. I said so then and I repeat it now that Brian Cody and his two selectors, Michael Dempsey and Martin Fogarty made the correct call to start both players. It was a gamble worth taking.

Even though the 'drive for five' failed , we really have been on a wonderful roller-coaster journey over the past decade. A new journey and a new dream will re-emerge in 2011.

The inter-county football game

The occasion is not easily forgotten. I was attending the Cork versus Waterford Munster final in Thurles and the minor game had just concluded. Sitting inside the dome enjoying some refreshments I was watching the TV screens as Louth were about to capture their first Leinster championship title since 1957.

The Wee County had confounded everyone with their march through Leinster and defeating their great adversaries Meath in the provincial final was the icing on the cake. The dramatic events in the closing stages left a small county shattered and their neighbours across the border uneasy at the manner of their triumph.

The result spawned all sorts of conspiracy theories, but it must be acknowledged that the referee and his officials were major contributors to the concluding fiasco. What should have been Louth's greatest hour in over 50 years ended in acrimony and turmoil!

The aftermath to the game and the subsequent efforts at securing a possible replay was far from satisfactory. Unfortunately for Meath, the manner of their success did the county no favours in their subsequent Qualifier game as they were unfairly tagged as the 'bad boys' of the championship.

The real losers, though, were Louth. Victory was snatched from their grasp in highly controversial circumstances. Who knows how long it will take the county to get so close again to capturing the Delaney Cup.

The club game

In terms of commitment, excitement and desire from both teams, the game I enjoyed the most this year was the drawn county junior hurling final between Barrow Rangers (Paulstown) and John Lockes (Callan). The senior and intermediate grades may have delivered games of superior quality at times, but you cannot beat the passion from two highly-committed teams when a county title is at stake.

The Callan side looked in total control early on, then lost their way and had to ultimately dig very deep to snatch a draw which seemed beyond them for much of the second half.

Barrow Rangers were brilliant for much of the game. But when the contest was at its most intense in the closing 10 minutes the earlier efforts seemed to have taken its toll on their players.

When the Paulstown side reflect back on 2010, they will surely know that they let a county title slip from their grasp in that game. "Play to the final whistle," is a well-worn clich. John Lockes will be grateful that their players remembered this important little instruction when it mattered most.

The player

He is being acknowledged as perhaps the greatest hurler of them all, but that accolade sits comfortably on Henry Shefflin's shoulders. He has been Kilkenny's most important troubadour during the past decade as the conductor in chief of a wonderful team.

Great players don't always turn out to be great leaders. You could not say that about Henry Shefflin. His absence at various stages this year robbed Kilkenny of their most influential hurler.

It would be disrespectful to Tipperary to suggest that had Henry Shefflin managed to see out the entire 70 minutes that it would have altered the result of the All-Ireland final.

I don't believe it would. Tipp were just going to make it their day no matter what. But we can surely speculate at how tight the game might have ended had Shefflin been at his most imposing self on hurling's most important day.

To have come back from one major injury in testament to the player's incredible dedication and desire to don the black and amber once again. This he did with spectacular results.

Now he has to repeat that tortuous process all over again.

Don't worry! Henry Shefflin will be back at some stage in 2011. The sport's greatest ever hurler is entitled to say goodbye to his inter-county career at a time of his own choosing. No yet. Not yet.

Goodbye to the inter-county scene

Many players said farewell to the inter-county scene in 2010 and I have selected three.

Derek Lyng enjoyed a glorious career with Kilkenny. He came on board as a raw intermediate player and left as one of the county's greatest ever midfielders having won six All-Ireland senior medals. The Emeralds player epitomised the real characteristics of a Kilkenny hurler, namely honesty and commitment.

Sean g hAilpn had no desire to leave the inter-county scene, but his manager Denis Walsh felt he had no more to contribute. By any standards hAilpn was an inspirational player and leader to his team mates. He had many highs in a glorious career, with the captaining of his county to All-Ireland success being the ultimate accolade.

Unfortunately for hAilpn, he will always be seen as one of the main protagonists in the disputes in recent years which ravaged Cork GAA and split public opinion in the county.

hAilpn was a hugely charismatic figure and his positive influence on hurling in particular should be acknowledged. That influence should not disappear just because he is now gone from the inter-county scene.

The last of the trio of departing players is Kildare footballer Anthony Rainbow. His long and loyal service to Kildare brought modest rewards, yet he displayed remarkable dedication to his county over a long period of time.

He knew his opportunities would be limited over the past two years as Kieran McGeeney rebuilt the side. Still he was prepared to sit on the bench and offer his undoubted experience and advice to the emerging players.

An immediate appointment as a mentor with the Kildare under 21 players was no surprise. Those young men would do well to heed the advice of one of their county's greatest ever players.

The surprise

After reclaiming the All-Ireland club senior hurling title, the Ballyhale Shamrocks looked odds-on to complete their quest for a fifth title in-a-row in Kilkenny. However, they were well beaten by the eventual county champions, O'Loughlin Gaels in the semi-finals.

Like Kilkenny, the Shamrocks were deprived of the services of their talisman Henry Shefflin, but even his presence would hardly have stopped the impressive match of the Kilkenny City side to eventual championship success.

The team managers

The All-Ireland winning managers always figure prominently when awards are being handed out at this time of the year. Liam Sheedy (Tipperary) picked up the overall Manager of the Year award from Phillips recently. It was richly deserved.

The 2009 All-Ireland final loss to Kilkenny was, undoubtedly, the lowest point in Sheedy's inter-county managerial career and you would not blame him had he opted to depart after that game. He hung in, redrew his tactics and plans and September's success was ultimately down to his astute management as much as the ability of his players.

The Cork football manager, Conor Counihan, also endured the disappointment of All-Ireland failure in 2009. Like his Tipperary counterpart, he too saw his side emerge reinvigorated in the Spring to capture the National League and championship titles.

They just about managed to get the better of Down in the All-Ireland final, but the Rebels, and Counihan in particular, deserved this long overdue title.

Departing officials

Tributes to departing local GAA officials Ned Buggy, Joe Pyke and Tommy Duggan at the recent County Convention were richly deserved. The trio contributed enormously to their respective Boards over many years.

The energy and dedication of Ned Buggy and Joe Pyke saw the activities of the Northern Board and Brd-na-ng grow significantly during their years at the helm as secretary and chairman respectively.

Their expertise will not be lost to Kilkenny GAA. Joe Pyke continues as Team Liaison Officer with the county minors, while Ned Buggy will continue to assist with fixtures activities in the county.

Tommy Duggan held the difficult job of chairman of the Kilkenny Football Board. It is a thankless and unglamorous role. Tommy did a good job in difficult circumstances.

GPA recognition

It is well over a decade now since the first shots were fired in an effort to get formal recognition for the Gaelic Players Association. Through many of those years suspicion reigned that 'play for play' was at the heart of the GPA's ambitions.

The move towards formal recognition gathered momentum over the past five years and once trust was created between the parties, the prospects of reaching an amicable outcome grew. Plenty of people within the GAA, though, remained to be convinced that recognising the players' body would be a wise move.

I spent quite a bit of time involved in those discussions between the GAA and the GPA. I was very pleased at the formal recognition of the players' body at this year's Congress in Newcastle, Co. Down.

Despite the sincerely held concerns by some members at the recognition of the GPA, this was a wise move by the GAA and brings a conclusion to a long-running saga for the 'Association.