ONE word best explains it: pride. It was what made underdogs Kilkenny such a driven team going into yesterday’s excellent Guinness All-Ireland hurling final in Croke Park and ultimately inspired a memorable victory.
And what was arguably Brian Cody’s greatest achievement as a manager was embellished by the captaincy of Jackie Tyrell — the first James Stephens man to lift the Liam MacCarthy Cup since Cody himself enjoyed the distinction 24 years ago.
Cork were devastated, their dreams of the three-in-a-row in tatters at the end of a match they never looked likely to win, the disappointment all the greater for the 11 players who participated in the last four finals as well as a dedicated management team headed by John Allen. But, as was very much the case with Kilkenny when they had their treble ambitions shattered by the Rebels two years ago, they could have no excuses.
For a team which had more than its share of narrow escapes — 12 months ago against Clare and several times this season — it was a case of their luck running out. All because the League and Leinster champions came up with a game plan to limit the influence of key Cork players and lessen the effectiveness of the team overall.
And, how brilliantly they succeeded, overcoming adversity in terms of J.J. Delaney’s loss, the doubt about John Tennyson’s fitness, gaining outstanding leadership from Henry Shefflin and winning vital battles, which 24 year-old relative newcomer Aidan Fogarty from the Emeralds club best personified with a superb display.
But he was just one of a number of stars in a team which triumphed because they had so much belief in their ability when so many people questioned it and, most of all, because they had the innate skill to punish Cork all over the field.
Cody talked briefly afterwards about the value of ‘tackling’ and in terms of how Kilkenny’s forwards put so much pressure on the Cork backs, that element of their play was hugely significant. One particular incident, where Seán Óg Ó hAilpín was surrounded by four players in the 18th minute, best illustrated what was clearly a Kilkenny strategy (perfected by the likes of Tyrone footballers) and which reaped a rich dividend.
Four minutes earlier, the teams had been level for the third time, and while scores were to be tied twice more up to the 27th minute, it was Kilkenny who were forcing the pace. Cork were playing catch-up and that was to be the way all the way to the finish, when a 66th minute goal from Ben O’Connor raised hopes of a late recovery.
There were some promising signs for Cork when Niall McCarthy hit a good spell at centre-forward and Ronan Curran was quite involved at centre-back until Shefflin moved out from full-forward and won some vital ball). However, by the end of the first quarter, it was clear that Kilkenny were in the ascendancy, doing best at midfield (through Derek Lyng) and beginning to excel in defence where they would master all of the Cork forwards with the exception of Ben O’Connor.
Additionally, Cork’s cause was not helped by the fact that they made some unforced errors in terms of ball distribution — poor clearances from John Gardiner and Brian Murphy were to gift Kilkenny two scores. Apart from that, captain Pat Mulcahy was being exposed by Fogarty’s speed and craft and, most tellingly of all perhaps, their much-vaunted half-back line was being seriously curtailed.
It was no surprise then, shortly after a Joe Deane free had levelled the scores for the last time, that Kilkenny gained an important psychological advantage with a goal from Fogarty in the 29th minute. Martin Comerford, now playing an important role at full-forward, sent in an angled shot from the right and Diarmuid O’Sullivan dropped the ball into Fogarty’s hands.
Approaching half-time, Kilkenny’s own half-backs were rampant, with Tommy Walsh doing marvellous work on the right and James Ryall turning in possibly his best performance on the other side. And, nothing had changed at the back, with Noel Hickey gaining a grip against Brian Corcoran which he was to maintain all the way to the final whistle. Likewise, the recalled Michael Kavanagh (winning his fourth medal in his seventh final appearance) was to turn in an impeccable performance in the right corner.
Turning over 1-8 to 0-8 in front, Kilkenny were never to lose their lead. Twice Cork brought it back to two points, but they were never regaining parity in the absence of a goal. And, a 53rd minute point from Richie Power, who was to mark his return from injury with a very solid second half display, stretched Kilkenny’s lead to four points. And that was the biggest margin up to then.
Up front, Cork’s problems persisted, with neither of the two McCarthys making any headway, Neil Ronan never involved, Corcoran rarely seeing the ball and Joe Deane not getting sufficient possession to pose the type of threat he hinted at earlier on. Looked at from Kilkenny’s perspective, the consistency of their defensive covering, which saw captain Jackie Tyrrell blossom after the break, enhanced their grip on the game and they were coasting to victory until a break by Niall McCarthy made the opening for the in-form Ben O’Connor to goal.
This came just over four minutes from the end of normal time and actually ended the scoring. In remaining time Cork got the ball forward a few times, holding out the hope of an equalising goal, but in truth in never looked like happening.
Barry Kelly, to give him credit, proved that the step-up in terms of the standard required was well within his capability.
Scorers for Kilkenny: H. Shefflin 0-8 (0-5 frees); A. Fogarty 1-3; M. Comerford, D. Lyng, J. Fitzpatrick, R. Power and E. Brennan 0-1 each.
Scorers for Cork: B. O’Connor 1-4 (0-1 free); J. Deane 0-6 (0-5 frees); N. McCarthy, J. O’Connor and J. Gardiner 0-1 each.
KILKENNY: J. McGarry; M. Kavanagh, N. Hickey, J. Tyrrell (capt.); T. Walsh, J. Tennyson, J. Ryall; J. Fitzpatrick, D. Lyng; E. Brennan, M. Comerford, E. Larkin; R. Power, H. Shefflin, A. Fogarty.
Subs: E. McCormack for Larkin (46); R. Mullally for Lyng (69).
CORK: D. Óg Cusack; P. Mulcahy (capt.), D. O’Sullivan, B. Murphy; J. Gardiner, R. Curran, S. Óg Ó hAilpín; J. O’Connor, T. Kenny; T. McCarthy, N. McCarthy, N. Ronan; B. O’Connor, B. Corcoran, J. Deane. Subs: K. Murphy (Sarsfields) for Ronan (39); W. Sherlock for Mulcahy (47); C. Naughton for T. McCarthy (59); C. O’Connor for K. Murphy (64); C. Cusack for Kenny (70).
Referee: B. Kelly (Westmeath).