This hurling championship has been afforded a lot of plaudits this summer and rightly so.
Brilliant. Magical. Unpredictable. The best ever.
There’s something else it has been though, which we haven’t seen it described as yet.
It’s been an outlier.
In time that’s what we could even end up calling it — The Outlier Championship — by virtue of the identity of its two finalists, one of whom obviously has to be the champion.
Quite simply no championship in hurling or football since the advent of the back door has thrown up such an unlikely final pairing, and we probably won’t get anything like it for another decade or two again.
True, at the start of last summer, few saw both Donegal and Mayo making it to the football decider, yet for all the novelty that went with that match-up, both teams entered that game as reigning provincial champions for the second consecutive year. They might both have been nowhere in 2010 but by virtue of their progress in 2011, it wasn’t like either of them came out of nowhere in 2012.
In other words, that final pairing and its champions were consistent with what we call the Mickey Harte Theory.
Ten years ago when Harte delivered Tyrone its first Sam Maguire, he reflected on the importance of his team’s terrific comeback in the Ulster final earlier that summer. At one stage they had trailed Down by nine points before forcing a replay which they would win well.
For Harte, Tyrone simply couldn’t afford to lose in Ulster that year. Even though there would still have been a back door for them, they would have been damaged goods for the rest of the summer. They wouldn’t have had the sufficient confidence to win an All-Ireland; too many doubts arising from defeat in the province would linger and resurface. Only a team that had won an All-Ireland through the front door could go on to win one through the back door, he argued.
Time has proved Harte’s theory to be spectacularly sound. Prior to this year the only exception to his rule was in 2010 when Tipperary won the hurling and Cork won the football, both having lost in Páirc Uí Chaoimh earlier in the summer. And if any teams were going to buck his theory, it was those two sides, Liam Sheedy and Conor Counihan’s men having each already won several provincial titles and a National League title as well as contesting the previous year’s All-Ireland final.
Contrast that to Clare and Cork. Not a single player on either squad has won a National League medal. Only Tom Kenny and Brian Murphy have a Munster medal in their collection. This year both teams didn’t just lose in Munster but lost comprehensively, failing to even initiate, let alone pull off, the kind of comeback Harte’s Tyrone managed against Down 10 years ago.
What Clare do share with that old Tyrone team of Harte’s is they have players that have played in All-Ireland minor finals and won All-Ireland U21 medals. But it tends to be forgotten those Tyrone youngsters didn’t just arrive overnight at senior level. They won an Ulster in 2001 and a league in ’02 and started each year expecting to win the All-Ireland.
Clare and Cork had no such progression or ambition in recent years. Two years ago both counties were hammered out of the championship by a Galway team that would be hammered themselves by Waterford before July was even out. Last year Cork reached the All-Ireland semi-final, but it wasn’t like they beat much to get there.
About the only time in the last 15 years a team has come out of nowhere like this pair to reach and seriously contest an All-Ireland final was in 2010 when James McCartan’s Down caught a wave and a bit of the county’s old swagger, taking them to within a kick of a ball of winning it all. Ultimately they hit a ceiling like all new teams tend to do, in the face of a seasoned Cork team. But this year in the hurling there is no veteran kingmaker standing in the way. One of them will win it all.
Of course a number of things fell into place for both. They didn’t have to go through a serious power near the height of their powers. Kilkenny paid the cost of being so long on the road while Tipp played all their games on the road.
But what both management teams have done is remarkable. Jimmy bringing another second set of youngsters to an All-Ireland final, 14 years after the last time. Davy Fitzgerald has just turned 42 and already he has coached five teams to an All-Ireland semi-final and two into September. Ger Loughnane was already 42 when he first started coaching Clare. Only Fitzy’s old mentor Cyril Farrell and possibly his Waterford predecessor Justin McCarthy had done as much so young.
As they often say, we won’t see their likes again. Or the like of this outlier year either.