HOW did Galway, trailing by 17 points 11 minutes into the second half (2-19 to 0-8) come within a couple of scores of pulling off one of the great comebacks of all time and nearly win this All-Ireland SHC quarter-final in Thurles on Saturday?
A Bigger question: How did Galway find themselves in that calamitous position in the first place?
Let’s take the second question first. If you’re any good at all on the sideline, you should always finish with a better 15 than that which started; on any given day, there are bound to be a few starters who don’t play up to scratch, and an astute management team will spot that and move accordingly.
But when your side manages only six points in the first half in perfect hurling conditions, as Galway did (2-13 to 0-6 they trailed at the break), then scores 3-8 in the second; when 2-3 of that 3-8 is scored by the three substitutes who have been on the pitch for all of that second half, then questions need to be asked.
David Tierney scored 1-2 from play in the second half ; why wasn’t he started? Eugene Cloonan, one of the finest forwards of this generation, goaled from a penalty and set up several other scores. So why wasn’t he started?
Richie Murray is another proven player for Galway (against Kilkenny especially). Why did he have to wait until just before half-time for his introduction? These are questions Conor Hayes will have to ponder as Galway reflect on this latest implosion.
Kilkenny, too, have questions to answer. For those opening 46 minutes they were firing on all cylinders. Defensively they were almost completely on top; Alan Kerins was posing problems for James Ryall, notched two first-half points from play, Ger Farragher likewise with Noel Hickey, another brace from play, but that was it.
James McGarry was in control between the sticks, Michael Kavanagh and JJ Delaney were on top in the corners, John Tennyson was a powerhouse at centre-back, Tommy Walsh was genius on the wing; in midfield, Cha Fitzpatrick was on fire, ably assisted by Derek Lyng, while up front, five of the six Kilkenny forwards scored from play in a lop-sided contest.
The game began evenly enough, three points apiece after nine minutes, but then the floodgates opened. Sadly for Galway, the first major blow was self-inflicted, as the Galway captain, keeper Liam O’Donoghue dropped a long-range Cha Fitzpatrick free over his own line.
The second Kilkenny goal was also a soft one; debutant wing-back Ger Mahon was being given a bit of a roasting, first by Eddie Brennan, then by Henry Shefflin, but in a move of disastrous proportions, the youngster was shifted to full-back in a direct switch with Tony Óg Regan and was instantly found wanting. Aidan Fogarty slipped in behind, picked up a breaking ball and booted a soft goal. But there was nothing flukish about the succession of outstanding Kilkenny points, with Shefflin leading by example.
But, impressive and all as Kilkenny were in that period of dominance, how much of it was down to Galway mistakes, on and off the field? What happened to Kilkenny for the final 25 minutes?
They can point to the sending off of midfielder Derek Lyng for a second yellow card offence in the 57th minute, but by then the tide was turning anyway — what happened?
“You often see that when a team goes a man down it lifts them, but unfortunately it didn’t happen for us — Galway seemed to get going and we went stale, said impressive Kilkenny forward Eddie Brennan. “Our backs were magnificent in the first -half, second half they did it as well but they weren’t going to hold them out for the whole match. We are in a semi-final anyway, thank God.”
Manager Brian Cody was happy, however: “We were doing very well obviously at half-time, in good shape, still were 15 minutes into the second half, chipping over some good scores. It went mad then, Derek got sent off, they swarmed forward. That’s not a surprise — last year they were a very good team, beat us well, reached the All-Ireland final. They weren’t going to come up and not play at all. The pressure was savage on our lads, obviously, with a man down; I’m not sure how impressive we were, but I’m very, very happy.”
Scorers: Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 0-11 (0-5 frees, 0-2 65’s); J. ‘Cha’ Fitzpatrick 1-2; E. Larkin 0-4; M. Comerford 0-3; A. Fogarty 1-0; E. Brennan 0-1, D. Lyng 0-1 each. Galway: G. Farragher 0-5 (0-3 frees); D. Tierney 1-2; N. Healy 1-1; E. Cloonan 1-0 (pen.); A. Kerins 0-2; D. Hayes 0-2; C. Dervan (65), R. Murray, 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, N. Hickey, JJ Delaney; J. Ryall, J. Tennyson, T. Walsh; J. Fitzpatrick, D. Lyng; E. Brennan, M. Comerford, E. Larkin; E. McCormack, H. Shefflin, A. Fogarty.
Subs: M. Fennelly (McCormack 58); M. Rice (Fogarty 68).
GALWAY: L. Donoghue (c); D. Joyce, T. Óg Regan; O. Canning; D. Hardiman, S. Kavanagh, G. Mahon; F. Healy, C. Dervan; C. Connolly, D. Forde, A. Kerins; D. Hayes, G. Farragher, N. Healy.
Subs: R. Murray (Connolly 35+1); E. Cloonan (Mahon 35+1); D. Tierney (Healy inj. 35+1); E. Lynch (Forde 61); K. Wade (Farragher 65).
Referee: D. Kirwan (Cork).