A chap finding the net in each of his eight outings, none of them a qualifier. Limerick completing the Shannonside Slam of championship, league, and province. Wexford’s first Leinster title in 15 years. Eddie Brennan’s Laois. Late-period Patrick Horgan, scoring goals off his knees. Late-period TJ Reid. Wexford’s finest Croke Park display since the 1996 Leinster final.
Two thunderous All- Ireland semi-finals, one of them a grim and fascinating arm wrestle, the other an affair so baroque (disallowed goals, disallowed points, full-backs scoring from deep in the enemy half, red cards that were and red cards that weren’t) as to be high rococo.
New champions who hit 3-25 last Sunday without breaking stride or sweat, taking them into the top five 70-minute All-Ireland tallies in history with a bullet. You wish you’d been around to see the hurling of the 1930s? Three-part All-Ireland finals and Mackey’s Limerick and Lory Meagher and all that thunder and lightning? Fair enough.
You wish you’d been around to see the hurling of the 1950s? Trebles for Tipp and Cork, Nickey Rackard’s Wexford, the rise of Waterford? Fair enough. You probably were around for the 1990s. Great fun and a blast of fresh air and not men but giants, off the field and on.
But successive All-Ireland finals in the middle of the decade ended 1-13 to 2-8 and 1-13 to 0-14. You have been around for the 2010s. Rejoice and be glad.
Brendan Maher, Padraic Maher, and Noel McGrath. This has been Tipperary’s most productive decade for half a century and these three have been pillars of the team. They seem to have been around forever and in terms of contemporary hurling longevity, they have.
They’re never injured, Brendan Maher’s cruciate apart, one of them even bounced back from a potentially career-ending illness and their collective consistency has been so relentless, that it’s almost easier to remember days they weren’t good than days when they were.
There was Brendan Maher’s anonymity in the 2018 National League final at Nowlan Park — and that was about the height of it in his case. Padraic Maher was prone to a degree of sloppiness around 2015 but flushed it out of his system, as he did those high and hanging clearances that have long become a thing of the past.
If McGrath, being the cerebral type rather than a blood and thunder entity, played many games without making the difference sufficiently often, one must nevertheless acknowledge the breadth of his body of work over the past 10 years.
In 50 championship starts, plus two walk-ons as a sub, he has aggregated 5-123, all but 0-14 of it from play, and has scored from play in 49 of the 52 appearances. That’s 2.5 points from play per championship start. Off the scale. Off the wall.
Yet the two Mahers have featured in five National League finals apiece and McGrath in three, all of them defeats. Prior to last weekend the trio had featured in six All-Ireland deciders, winning only two. On Sunday, the good ended happily.
Here’s what Tipperary have hit in four of their six All Ireland showdowns with Kilkenny over the past 10 years: 4-17, 1-28, 2-29, and 3-25. Come to think of it, might Kilkenny have done seven in a row — never mind five in a row — were it not for Liam Sheedy’s team in 2010?
The notion that Tipperary lacked backbone was patent nonsense long before this season. Over the years they came back for more so often as to put Oliver to shame. If the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final didn’t break them, nothing would. And it didn’t.
For most of the decade Kilkenny had a slightly better team: that was all. Sheedy put it brilliantly on Sunday evening when he reflected that there had been far too much talk about what Tipperary hadn’t achieved rather than what they had achieved.
One does not grumble about Buffy the Vampire Slayer not being The Sopranos, Veuve Clicquot not being Dom Perignon or The Beatles not being the Stones. (Or vice versa.) We ought to know by now that either one is the correct choice. These are not zero-sum selection exercises.
Kilkenny’s U21 class of 2003-06 have departed the scene; Tipperary’s U21 class of 2010 are still with us. The worm turned in the 2016 All-Ireland final and last Sunday it stayed turned. To saddle up and update, for the umpteenth and final time, our beloved Kilkenny/Tipp equine metaphor: it as though Mill House had a second coming after Arkle retired.
As a bonus item, herewith your combined Kilkenny/Tipperary XV of the Decade. No correspondence will be entered into. Eoin Murphy; Paul Murphy, JJ Delaney, Cathal Barrett; Brendan Maher, Padraig Walsh, Padraic Maher; Michael Fennelly, Noel McGrath; TJ Reid, Patrick Maher, Eoin Larkin; John O’Dwyer, Seamus Callanan, Richie Hogan.
A man seeing Liam Sheedy in the flesh for the first time at Tipperary’s All-Ireland media event was struck by his presence. “He vibrates energy,” yer man declared.
The Portroe man’s organisational skills have long been lauded. There were 27 people in his backroom team and none of them was along for the ride. Nor was it a surprise that a man of his experience would bring plain old-fashioned hurling nous to the gig.
Handing the captaincy to Seamus Callanan; simultaneously relieving him of the burden of the frees; recasting Noel McGrath as a midfield master of puppets; settling early on his goalkeeper. Full-back remained a moveable feast but one or two players always emerge or reemerge in the course of a campaign, as Barry Heffernan did.
Then there was, inevitably, Eamon O’Shea’s coaching. Niall O’Meara’s goal six days ago — the afternoon’s hinge moment to a far greater degree than Richie Hogan’s dismissal — came about because Tipperary talk about goals. They talk about goals almost as much as O’Shea stresses the need for “being at one with the game”; this is O’Shea, after all. O’Meara could have popped his point.
Instead he went for the jugular and, as per instructions, hit the sliotar low and with a bounce. How many times had the move been rehearsed in training?
The Tipperary County Board appointed the right man and he produced a perfectly balanced ticket. Their Cork counterparts in their turn have to get it right now. Like Sheedy, Kieran Kingston has been there before. Not a bad starting point.
James Owens might have brandished red rather than yellow to Bill Cooper in the All-Ireland quarter-final, an incident that attracted little comment and less opprobrium at the time. Sean Cleere might have issued two straight reds to Tipperary players in the semi-final. Owens might have shown Cathal Barrett a yellow for wrapping his hurley around Richie Hogan last Sunday.
All of which constitutes whataboutery and had no relevance to the question Owens faced shortly before half-time. Hogan forced him into making a decision; Owens made it and did so without advice from above. The end.
Only to very few people outside Kilkenny was it anything other than a red card. Nor, surely, do we need to point out, firstly, that it is not the referee’s job to make a game of it and, secondly, that Owens did not cop out like he did for the Johnny Coen/Colin Fennelly incident four years earlier.
Talk surfaced in midweek of a possible appeal against the red card. Kilkenny shouldn’t dream of it. Having for two decades been good and gracious winners, last week they were shrill and petty in defeat. They’ve gone from being underrepresented on the pundit roster to being overrepresented and it backfired. It was one thing to lose the match; it was quite another to lose the ensuing PR battle.
Deciding to prolong an unwinnable fight would be preposterous. In instances like this the best is silence. Let’s not flog a dead cat, people.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s obvious that Limerick won the Munster final too easily, not so much because of the extent of the margin but because they didn’t have a glove laid on them in the closing 20 minutes. It was no rehearsal for fighting their way to the buffet at Croke Park a month later — and against Kilkenny, you always have to fight your way to the buffet.
Still, if Tipperary’s year was a 9 out of 10, Limerick’s was an 8. For most other counties a failure to retain the MacCarthy Cup would have rendered the season a write-off. Not so John Kiely’s men, given the 45-year wait that ended 12 months ago. Two items of silverware out of three by way of a follow-up ain’t bad. At all.
Back during his days as Tipp manager Nicky English once dilated upon the natural or normal progression of an emerging team. Going close against experienced opponents; reaching the stage of being expected to win big games; losing as favourites but learning lessons; finally, winning as favourites.
All that the defeat to Kilkenny entailed — losing a match you’re expected to win — was a necessary lesson Limerick skipped in 2018 in the process of short-circuiting their way to glory. They failed to realise they were heading into a street scrap against the ultimate street scrappers.
Limerick will be among the favourites for each of the next three All-Irelands. Their semi-final setback didn’t make this any less likely. It made it more likely.
As if to underline hurling’s circularity, this week Brian Cody found himself in the same place he’d found himself 15 years ago. Once again Kilkenny were well beaten on the big day. Once again there was nothing wrong with their spirit, drive, or attitude. Once again it was his entire strategic approach to the game that called out for contemplation and renewal.
Most of their deliveries from deep in the third quarter last Sunday went either intentionally to Colin Fennelly (outnumbered) or unintentionally to Cathal Barrett (spare). Once more his troops found it beyond them to
unpick opponents fielding an extra defender. Once more they could think of nothing more profound than the long, straight, bog-standard, easily defendable ball. And this while Tipperary had Eamon O’Shea.
This was pre-Griffin Wexford, the long ball to the ghost of Tony Doran on the edge of the square. Even Jack Charlton would have blushed.
We’ve been here over and over again, dating back to Henry Shefflin’s dismissal in the 2013 All-Ireland quarter-final at Semple Stadium. Is it that Kilkenny do not practise for 14 against 15 — surely not, given the frequency of their meetings with Davy Fitz’s Wexford — or is it that the players are so hardwired to lamp any oul’ kind of ball forward, with the imprimatur of the boss, that they revert to first principles under pressure?
Kilkenny are not only unable to do lateral thinking, they don’t want to try. Intellectual laziness, anti-intellectualism, or both. If Cody was the right man to manage the county on Sunday morning, which of course he was, then he is the right man to manage them next year.
With one huge proviso. His coaching structure is no longer fit for purpose. Reissue, repackage, repackage, re-evaluate the songs. Rip it up and start again.