PEOPLE can talk all they like about Ring, Mackey, Doyle, about Tull Considine and Philly Grimes, all the great ghosts of hurling past, but be in no doubt about this; yesterday in Semple Stadium we witnessed one of the greatest ever individual displays in the long history of the Munster championship.
Fourteen points was Eoin Kelly’s final tally, nine of those from play, but that tells only part of the story. It wasn’t just that this was such a critical game for Tipperary, it wasn’t just the number of points, it was the quality, the sheer, breathtaking magnificence of so many of those scores.
Let’s take two by way of example, one from each half. Twenty seventh minute, Kelly burst headlong onto a huge Brendan Cummins clearance; that’s player going one way, ball the other, each travelling at a rate of knots. Didn’t matter; one touch, instant control, turn, over the bar.
Second half, Kelly’s final strike; sixth minute of injury time, Tipp three points in front, Limerick having just had an equalising goal disallowed (correctly), Darragh Egan won possession about 40m from the Limerick goal, wide right, under pressure. Outside him was Kelly, hugging the touchline, screaming for the ball; Egan heard, passed, Kelly took and with his marker closing in, without looking, struck a perfect ball over his left shoulder, straight between the posts.
Even Limerick fans, who travelled in their green-clad thousands, who came to Thurles with such high hopes, will appreciate that yesterday they were beaten by one of the all-time great individual performances.
One question, though, one big question; why wasn’t Damien Reale, Limerick’s ace man-marker, shifted onto Kelly? Because Diarmuid Fitzgerald, a converted defender, was such a scoring threat? Because Michael Webster, shifted to Reale’s corner when Kelly went to full-forward, is such a deadly finisher? Beats all understanding.
This was to be Limerick’s day, their big day. After an impressive start to the year they had taken the high road to Thurles, Tipperary apparently lost on the by-roads, sidetracked by talk of friction in the camp. Wasn’t apparent yesterday.
Limerick had the perfect start, two goals inside the first seven minutes, the first from full-forward Brian Begley after a Donie Ryan centre, the second by Andrew O’Shaughnessy, again after a Donie Ryan centre, to take a 2-1 to 0-1 lead. Thereafter it was the Eoin Kelly show, but the Mullinahone magician did have a good support cast.
The Tipperary defence has been leaking goals this year at an alarming rate; after those two breeches yesterday, they closed up shop. Main reason for this was the performance of the four on the flanks, Declan Fanning and Paul Curran in the corners, the magnificent Eamonn Corcoran on the right wing, Hugh Moloney on the left, with Conor O’Mahony also in control at centre-back in the first-half.
In midfield, an injury to Colin Morrissey meant an early introduction to the fray for Ken Dunne; he was quietly superb. Up front, centre-forward and team captain Ger ‘Redser’ O’Grady gave great leadership, won an amount of possession off Brian Geary in a spirited performance; had his finishing been up to his usual standards, Tipp would have been out of sight by the break. As it was, it was game tied, 2-5 to 0-11; significantly, eight of those points were by Kelly, and it would have been 1-8 but for a super save by Brian Murray.
All over the park Limerick were struggling, with the honourable exception of Begley up front (gave Phillip Maher a torrid time, on limited possession), O’Shaughnessy also looking sharp. Their full-back line was under the most ferocious pressure, ball after ball rained in as Limerick’s three outside lines, half-back/midfield/half-forward went missing.
Young substitute Seamus Hickey did impress at wing-back, Reale was completely on top in his corner, and Stephen Lucey came into the game in the second half; overall, however, a bad day for the Shannonsiders.
How, then, did they manage to stay so close to Tipp for so long? Why was it tied at the break, still just a single point between them with only two minutes on the clock? And it wasn’t as if Tipperary were missing a lot of chances; first half they were profligate, nine bad wides; second half they had that tidied up, reduced to four.
You have to credit Limerick’s courage, their doggedness. They should have been beaten out the gate, in fact, had Brian Begley, and the other half dozen Limerick forwards who were all inside the Tipperary square for that extra-time disallowed goal, been more careful of their positioning, they might even have got something. Their substitutions improved the side and they still have the potential to make a mark on this championship.
Tipperary? There will be a lot of euphoria in the Premier county today, but let them reflect; were it not for Kelly’s heroics, his genius, they could have lost. If ever a team, a county, had reason to be grateful to one player, it was Tipperary yesterday. Ultimately, however, we should all be grateful, his likes are rare.
On a different note. As good as Eoin Kelly was yesterday, referee Michael Haverty was bad. His call at the death, denying Limerick the goal that would have tied it up, was correct, but overall, this was a very poor performance.
Scorers: Tipperary: E. Kelly 0-14 (0-4 frees, 0-1 65); J. O’Brien 0-2; K. Dunne 0-2; M. Webster, G. O’Grady, J. Carroll, D. Egan, 0-1 each. Limerick: M. Keane 0-5 (all frees); B. Begley 1-1; A. O’Shaughnessy 1-1; S. Lucey 0-2; B. Foley 0-2 (frees); C. Fitzgerald 0-1.
LIMERICK: B. Murray; D. Reale, TJ Ryan (c), M. Foley; O. Moran, B. Geary, D. Moloney; D. O’Grady, P. O’Grady; D. Ryan, S. Lucey, C. Fitzgerald; A. O’Shaughnessy, B. Begley, M. Keane.
Subs: S. Hickey (Moloney inj. 19); N. Moran (D. O’Grady 41); M. O’Brien (P. O’Grady 41); B. Foley (M. Keane 56); M. Fitzgerald (C. Fitzgerald 62).
TIPPERARY: B. Cummins; D. Fanning, P. Maher, P. Curran; E. Corcoran, C. O’Mahony, H. Moloney; C. Morrissey, S. McGrath; J. Carroll, G. O’Grady (c), J. O’Brien; D. Fitzgerald, M. Webster, E. Kelly.
Subs: K. Dunne (Morrissey inj. 8); D. Egan (Carroll 59); S. Butler (O’Brien 66); W. Ryan (O’Grady 70+5).
Referee: M Haverty (Galway).