A nice little four-marker to get your brain in gear this fine morning. What feat have Galway achieved under Anthony Cunningham in the championship against Kilkenny that no other county have managed on Brian Cody’s watch? We’ll give you a minute.
Okay, we’ll give you another minute...
Right, time’s up. The answer is this. Under Cunningham, Galway are the only team to have beaten Kilkenny in the championship and not been beaten, never mind been beaten out the gate, the next time the sides met. Leinster final 2012, drawn All-Ireland final 2012.
It’s one of the reasons the Kilkenny manager, who looks around corners for spectres and shadows as a matter of course, will be even warier than usual tomorrow.
There are others. Like the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final and the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final.
The counties have met 11 times in the championship in the Cody era, with Kilkenny winning seven and Galway three. For a county that haven’t won an All-Ireland in that period, those three victories constitute quite an accomplishment, and one byproduct is that it’s possible — bizarre as this may sound — to feel sorry for Cody.
Think about it. There’s Galway wrecking his head time after time, normally when they’re least expected to. Yet how much grief do they give everyone else? Precious little. A win against Tipp in the 2005 quarter-final, a win against Cork in the 2012 semi-final. That’s the sum total of what they’ve mustered against The Rest come the business end of the championship.
Against everyone else, Galway throw shapes. Against Kilkenny, they land punches. So Cody is perfectly entitled to be browned off and to wonder what sins he or his county have committed against them in some past life. Let’s face it, it wasn’t in Leinster that Galway copped those hockeyings in the 1960s, in which case you could understand the grounds for karmic payback. Why always me? Brian Balotelli.
If one wanted to get all scientific, one could describe Galway’s role in the story of Cody’s Kilkenny as that of catalysts. A catalyst is — one of the very few things I remember from my chemistry classes two centuries ago — an entity that triggers a reaction without itself undergoing change.
Kilkenny’s chastening at the hands of Galway in 2001 prompted the back to back All-Ireland victories of 2002-03, the manager having learned a harsh lesson about the dangers of falling asleep on the job and of believing everything was right in training when it patently wasn’t.
Their chastening at the same hands in 2005 prompted four in a row and six out of seven, the manager having learned a harsh lesson about the importance of space: blocking it off at one end, opening it up at the other, protecting one’s full-back line, all that jazz. The penny finally dropped that there was more to hurling than a game where one lad hit the ball and everyone ran around after it like U12s, and Mick Dempsey and Martin Fogarty made sure it stayed dropped.
Unfortunately for them, and for the game itself, Galway’s chastenings at the hands of Kilkenny led to absolutely nothing. They returned home and reverted to being Galway.
Sometimes, Galway continuing to be Galway, what you see is what you get with them and other times it’s anything but. Two years ago they conceded four goals to Westmeath in the Leinster quarter-final; a few weeks later they visited the apocalypse on Kilkenny in the final. Last year they were highly unconvincing against Laois; it was the prelude to flopping against Dublin in the provincial decider and Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final. This year they were even more unconvincing against Laois, meaning that tomorrow — well, who knows? Not Cody. Almost certainly not Cunningham either. But if the former sleeps badly tonight, he has every reason to do so, and if he thinks he has every i dotted and every t crossed, he has still further cause for insomnia. He might even recall, with feeling, the line from Chesterton. “That which was our trouble comes again out of the West.”
There is no moral in this story, not even as a subtext. It is not as though Kilkenny compare to some all-conquering Shakespearean tragic hero whose fatal flaw is exposed by Galway and Galway alone. When Offaly were beating them in the 1980s and 1990s, they were doing so with crisp ground hurling that exposed Kilkenny’s weakness for taking the sliotar to hand and taking too much out of it. In other words, Offaly identified and exposed a pathology. When Galway beat Kilkenny, there is no such parallel. It is simply Galway being perversely Galwayesque.
In the absence of the injured Michael Fennelly, the favourites have no obvious candidate to lie in on top of Galway’s Iarla Tannian tomorrow.
The back-up plan may be to put Richie Hogan there and get him to take Tannian for a walk instead.
It is a gambit Galway will surely employ on the other 40 vis-a-vis Jackie Tyrrell.
A few years ago, during one of his earlier incarnations at centre-back, Tyrrell marked Cyril Donnellan in a league match at Nowlan Park. Donnellan didn’t appear to do much that afternoon but still ended up with four points. Exposing Tyrrell is surely the first item in Cunningham’s game plan.
For their part, Kilkenny will try to stop Johnny Coen coming out with the ball, as they did with such extreme success in the 2012 All-Ireland replay, and will try to stop Joe Canning, or duine eile, getting one on one with a defender on the edge of the square under a long-distance mortal shell, as they did with such extreme lack of success in the opening minutes of the 2012 Leinster final.
Walter Walsh returned to form against Offaly after disappointing in the league final. Mark Kelly has a habit of scoring goals at a certain level; we’ll know before the summer is out if he can do so at a higher level. Tommy Walsh’s three wides when introduced a fortnight ago make it doubtful Cody will reach for him as a Hail Mary option should circumstances demand it.
It can fairly be argued that Galway didn’t do enough in the second half when the sides met in the league semi-final on Easter Sunday, falling to a pretty limp defeat. Yet such an argument ignores the second-half sequence in which David Burke hit the crossbar, Kilkenny won the rebound and moments later Colin Fennelly pointed at the other end. A four-point swing, and Kilkenny won by four.
Let’s pretend Burke’s attempt was two inches lower and the sliotar hit the back of the net. There is no Kilkenny score at the other end. There is no four-point turnaround. Would Kilkenny still have found a way to win?
Would — more likely — Galway still have found a way to lose?
The answer is irrelevant; what’s relevant is this swing moment occurred and Galway came off worse. Which doesn’t imply there’ll be a swing moment tomorrow, still less that Galway will come off better for it.
Finally, Joe Canning. If time is not yet running out for him to win an All Ireland medal, time — and this is an infinitely more disturbing prospect — it is running out for him to compile a body of work at inter-county level that complements his gaiscí in the yellow and blue of Portumna.
He doesn’t have to, and cannot be expected to, win it on his own tomorrow. But he must be at the heart of everything good about Galway, creating and cajoling and leading and lifting.
As yer man in the green helmet has been for Kilkenny time after time. As the man in the red helmet has to be for Galway now.
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