There are some All-Ireland finals that were they played another nine times would produce a myriad of different outcomes.
“Yeah, like 2003,” Donal O’Grady is snorting as he reads. (See, Donal? We can read your mind.) Like 2003 of evil Leeside memory indeed. And – yes, guys - 1999. And 2014 (drawn version). Last year’s decider is not one of those All-Ireland finals, however.
Let Limerick and Galway at it again and in one — but only one — of those alternate universes does Joe Canning’s free have the legs to find the target and send the game to a replay. In each of the other eight hypothetical encounters Limerick not only win, they either win with a few points to spare or they win going away, as their dominance for the 70 minutes of normal time on August 19 insists they might well have done.
Is it more painful to lose an All-Ireland final by a point after playing so badly than it is to lose an All-Ireland final by being beaten out the gate? Probably, not that such existential niceties should detain us when there are numbers to be crunched.
Specifically, the numbers that demonstrate the fall in Galway’s output and why as a consequence the men in maroon go to Nowlan Park tomorrow stuck in a situation unimaginable two months ago: the prospect of failing to reach the All-Ireland series. We’ll repeat that and add to it. Galway. Failing to reach the All-Ireland series. From the Leinster round robin.
The traces date to the All-Ireland semi-final replay against Clare, the day the umpires on the white flag no longer had to complain about repetitive strain injury syndrome. A team that had taken Kilkenny for 1-28 at the same venue four weeks earlier, and that had hit 0-26 while breaking neither stride nor sweat in the 2017 showpiece, slumped to a bottom line of 1-17.
Against Limerick a fortnight later they had 0-16 beside their name with 70 minutes on the clock. A year that had in midsummer shimmered with the promise of consecutive silverware ended with a dying fall. No matter.
New season, next ball, back on the horse.
But Galway haven’t remounted the quadruped. Pearse Stadium a fortnight ago. Galway 0-16 Wexford 0-16. Lordy. If any passing Tribesperson can think of a worse championship display by the county could they please contact us by postcard, submitting date, venue and opponents?
There’s certainly been any number of days when Galway hurled better and lost. Oh. The one against Carlow two weeks beforehand, you say? Right… The Wexford debacle marked the third time in their last four outings that a crowd who not long beforehand were a pointscoring machine failed to make it to 20 white flags, that most basic of requirements for championship contenders. Eight points from play against Wexford compared to the 0-19 from play in the 2017 All Ireland final or the 1-22 from play in last year’s replayed Leinster final? In a different setting, Galway’s slump in GNP would incur investigation by the EU and the IMF.
It’s a long time since they carried so much baggage into a big match. The absence of Canning. The absence — far worse — to date of anyone to fill the Joe-shaped hole. The suspicion that in emphasising power their training regime has neglected other facets.
There’s also the issue of metal fatigue. All 14 outfielders who’d taken the field against Waterford the previous year took the field against Limerick last August; the inference about the absence of a sufficient challenge from the subs you’ll have long ago drawn yourself. What’s more, 11 of those outfielders from last August had featured against Kilkenny in the 2015 decider, an encounter in which Galway were well beaten. That’s a lot of hurling done.
At this stage a trip to Nowlan Park looks exactly what’s needed to electro-shock the visitors out of their current state of plodding zombification. Micheál Donoghue’s record against Brian Cody is better than 50%. Nor should it be forgotten that Kilkenny have failed to register a championship win against a contemporaneous Top Four side since 2016.
The hosts will ask Colin Fennelly to take Daithí Burke away from the edge of the square. At the other end Johnny Glynn, who did such a job on Pádraig Walsh in Thurles last July, will surely be assigned to test Huw Lawlor, while Conor Whelan’s blend of self-sufficiency, directness and accuracy has rarely failed to discomfit the men in stripes.
The rhythm of Galway’s cycle with Kilkenny, as with Wexford’s cycle, means that every so often a window of opportunity presents itself. Thereafter it is matter of how wide they succeed in flinging it open, as they did in 1986-87 and as Wexford did in 1996-97. But the window does not stay open indefinitely.
Last summer, when they met Kilkenny three times in the space of a month and a half and beat them twice, by eight points and seven points respectively, it appeared as though it would take at least two seasons for the wheel to turn back towards Noreside. It doesn’t appear that way now. Galway do not want to be travelling to Parnell Park next Saturday looking for a result.
At the risk of playing the dreaded not-that-kind-of-player riff, it was patently clear what impelled Maurice Shanahan and – of all people - Pauric Mahony into their excesses at Walsh Park last Sunday. Sheer old-fashioned frustration.
One can imagine their manager’s frustration too. Although rewiring the car he inherited from Derek McGrath was never going to be anything less than a two-season job, the process would have been expedited by two developments: the return of Austin Gleeson to his 2016 refulgence and the discovery of one — and preferably a brace of — three points a day scoring forwards. Fanning got neither.
Thus the structure the Waterford players enjoyed under McGrath became a straitjacket. The failure of the Bennetts and Patrick Curran to kick on means that the dearth of scoring forwards that was an issue in 2015, when the county hit 0-16 in the Munster final and 0-18 in the All Ireland semi-final, remains so.
Of Waterford’s front eight and two subs against Kilkenny in that semi-final, seven took the field last Sunday — a figure that doesn’t include Mahony, who missed the 2015 championship. Regardless of what has or hasn’t been happening in the dressing room, this is stasis.
The interests of good governance demand that the county board executive have a thorough debriefing session with Fanning in the next fortnight. Provided he’s able to explain how and why things will be better in 2020 he’s entitled to their backing. Five points to make up, most of the second half to do so and wind advantage to boot.
Then the sliotar comes back off the upright, Seamus Callanan does what Seamus Callanan does and that’s that. Not so much a case of lock the gates and make ‘em watch as open the gates and let them go home.
Was there cause for such an outbreak of breastbeating in Clare after the events of Sunday evening in Ennis nonetheless? Tipperary in full spate will do this to all comers.
Correction: Tipperary have spent the 2019 championship so far doing this to all comers. Despite the negligible opposition Limerick were back in the zone against Waterford, so many players so on the money that they’ll be bringing considerable momentum to the Gaelic Grounds tomorrow.
Yet under the current management Clare’s record in the provincial preliminaries has been solid and the very fact they’re so different in size, shape and business practice means they’ll ask questions of the All-Ireland champions that other teams don’t. Be funny if it ended in a draw, wouldn’t it?