There is only one place to start. Croke Park, July 18, 1976.
Brian Cody was there that day too.
Kilkenny, the MacCarthy Cup holders and recently crowned National League champions, were going for a sixth straight Leinster title. The outcome was unimaginable.
The scoreline — Wexford 2-20 Kilkenny 1-6 — was unimaginable. The statistics — one point from play, one point in the second half, the county’s biggest defeat in a provincial final since 1896 — were unimaginable. Everything about it was unimaginable.
It was the afternoon the great Kilkenny team of the 1970s (Keher, Skehan, Henderson, Delaney et al) died and died horribly. For Kilkenny folk of a certain age, last Sunday was, while wildly unexpected, nothing new. They’d been there before. Plus ca. In the list of Great Noreside Disasters, which contains some beauties, this latest was barely in the ha’penny place. The 1995 Leinster final, when Offaly deconstructed them in the rain... The 1999 All-Ireland final, when Cork overhauled them in the last few strides... Going back farther, the 1966 All-Ireland final, when as white-hot favourites they were overturned by a young Cork... Now those ones hurt.
Being on the wrong end of an oft threatened and long overdue Galway detonation? Nah. Small beer. ‘Anyway, what does Kilkenny’s temporary discomfort amount to in the context of a great day for Galway and a very good day for hurling? (It wasn’t a bad day for Tipperary either, but that’s another story.)
Of all Cody’s concerns this week, the form of Tommy Walsh among them, perhaps the one that will disturb him most is the intimations of mortality that were exposed on Sunday. The All-Ireland champions looked human. Frail. Fallible.
That, as much as Galway’s performance, was the headline news.
What Kilkenny have done better than any team in GAA history, Micko’s Kerry apart, is to postpone the evil day. Against Galway in the 2005 All-Ireland semi-final they ran out of time. Against Tipperary in the 2010 final they ran out of bodies. They may have lost both games but they weren’t, in a certain existential sense, beaten. Last Sunday, on the other hand, they were hurled up a stick from start to finish, pushed over the edge by a team with their foot on the accelerator from start to finish. One knows not the day nor the hour.
Willie O’Connor offered the theory on local radio last week that Kilkenny might have been too fit too early this season. One can’t say they were over-trained, although that’s precisely what they looked against Galway, or that winning the league was a hindrance, but it’s not unreasonable to speculate that they put so much into preparing for the Dublin match they weren’t able to rise it again two weeks later. It may have been a coincidence that arguably their best performer upon being introduced was Michael Rice, just back from an injury layoff. It may not.
A cameo of their distress? No shortage of them. Jackie Tyrrell getting lost for Joe Canning’s goal. Tommy Walsh fluffing a line ball to Canning, who promptly pointed. A systems malfunction on a grand scale.
One episode was more eloquent and more poignant than all the rest, however. Kilkenny were in a promising attacking position under the Cusack Stand midway through the second half. Henry Shefflin tried to control the ball. Needed a second touch. Needed a third touch, but by then the sliotar was being cleared and moments later Canning had it over the bar down the other end of the field. It’s what can happen to a man with eight All-Ireland medals, 58 consecutive championship appearances and yet another winter lost to injury.
It was the first time since the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final against Limerick that Kilkenny were flat for a championship fixture. It was only the third time in 28 championship outings they didn’t lead at half-time and only the second time in Cody’s 58 games at the helm they were visibly second best for determination, speed of thought and speed of action — the first time being, of course, the 2001 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. Like 1976, this was end of empire stuff.
Or maybe not. The back door hadn’t been invented in 1976.
Ignore whatever paeans you read this week to Anthony Cunningham’s tactical genius and his brilliant wheeze of having Canning roam at will. (Next time Canning rotates position and Galway are beaten, wait for the moans about why he didn’t stay on the edge of the square.) This was a victory fashioned on the training field rather than on the drawing board.
Galway were a half-yard faster and a half-stroke sharper: that was the foundation of it. They erected their own version of the Berlin Wall across the half-back line, placed machine-gun nests in front of it, destroyed Kilkenny in the air and gobbled them up in midfield and at the point of breakdown.
As he sifts through the rubble, one small consolation for Cody is that his troops won the second half. Granted, they wouldn’t have done so had Galway been a touch more measured with their shooting in the last 10 minutes; it is no exaggeration to say that a 15-point winning margin would have been a more accurate reflection of their superiority. But Kilkenny did not collapse. The great man is entitled to draw some sustenance from that.
The issue from here is not so much whether the All-Ireland champions have a backlash in them, as whether they have three backlashes in them. Or to put it another way, assuming they win their quarter-final, what will be left in the tank for an All-Ireland semi-final? And therein lies the doomsday scenario for Kilkenny: the petrol running out for good in a semi-final against Tipperary...
In Galway hurling lives, as Scott Fitzgerald might have said, there have been no second acts since 1987-88. One challenge met and mastered, the next challenge is to create a template for themselves and their successors by putting three good performances together in succession.
You’d hate to be Kilkenny’s next opponents. You’d love to be Galway’s next opponents. To venture any more than that at this stage would be silly. But of one thing we can be sure: championship 2012 starts from scratch on Saturday.