The boys of summer give us one final taste of spring

A first-hand account of the league final

The boys of summer give us one final taste of spring

Kilkenny needed to put some doubt into Clare heads. They got Tipp instead. A good match but it was the end of spring, not the start of summer. It won’t haunt anybody.

Three of us in the car to Thurles. Mé féin, Gatch and Eddie. Two Cork men and a poor fella from Tipp holding his own. First day of summer? Last day of spring? We’ll know later.

We talk about Frank Ryan. And sing along to La quinta brigada. We three langers would have been a fine, brave addition to the Spanish Civil War, had we just been born at the right time. Instead, we’re making the old pilgrimage, talking raiméis and we’re happy out.

Thurles. Traffic and the usual smell of burgers and chips. The usual debate too. Eddie wants to park inside the ground. Too much commitment Eddie. It’ll be dawn when the traffic clears.

We park in a housing estate. A parking consultant directs us toward the front entrance of a house. ‘You sure we’re okay here?’ ‘Yes. Gone for the afternoon, they are.’ We’re walking up the road and I look back. There’s a scaldy looking woman inspecting the car and wagging a finger at the parking consultant as if he’s dropped four tons of horse manure in her driveway. That’s why he is on the big money, I suppose.

Semple Stadium. One point. Semple Stadium is the spiritual home of hurling. As Killarney is the spiritual home of football. They should be the only two large GAA stadiums in the province.

I know Frank Field and the adjacent Prionsias Ó Murchú Pitch of Excellence (it’s some meadow, boys) will be wondrous. We don’t need it though. We need Games Development. We need a stadium of the size (and design) of Thomond Park. A place that would generate real atmosphere for club games and decent inter-county games.

Use the money to grow the games. Three centres of excellence around the county, starting with Mallow’s fine existing facility. Excellence and coaching is the future.

Anything else is ego. And will it be an unwanted levy on hard- pressed Cork clubs? We’ll come back to this another day.

Semple Stadium is the home of hurling. Yet today it looks like a series of farm buildings shoved up in darkness on four sides of a nice field. Nothing really matches but sure t’is grand.

No Hawk-Eye. No big screen scoreboard. A lousy PA system. No music. Not enough toilets. The presentation today is letting down the game, players, supporters and sponsors. Hurling is the living heart of our Irish culture, we should look at building it a suitable cathedral. No more lip service.

Kilkenny come out. The game changes but Kilkenny are old school. No bright cones laid out in pretty patterns. Just a bag of sliotars, on with the hurling.

The older he gets, the more like a reclusive dictator Brian Cody becomes. Kim Jong Cody. Cones are decadent! Today he has the hat further down over the face and you could only get glimpses of the seriousness radiating off the man.

On the other side, Eamon O’Shea is running around in his shirt sleeves like a man at the beach for the first time this summer. We’ll have the picnic and then we’ll go for a swim? Or will we swim first lads?

The teams perform a “respect” hand shake before the game. We’re lucky to be sitting in front of a few very smart lads happy to share their views with anybody within earshot.

Kilkenny have to change if they are to get the empire back. The game has changed. In the sixth minute, James Owens blows a free on Richie Power for a foul with the spare hand. Refs are snuffing out the spare hand curse, which is suffocating the game. It’s still manly, on the edge, etc but it tunes faster and smoother and more tactical now.

Kilkenny experiment with the short poc out. Early on, a quick one to Tyrell who shifts it on to Hogan. It works. A sign of things to come. A less reckless in possession KK 2014 model?

Bonner Maher is working like a Trojan. Kim Jong would give his kingdom for a modern number six. Michael Fennelly catches Bonner with a high tackle. The young woman in front of me, no more than 14, screams, ‘Ya boy ya, Fennelly!’

Eddie beside me raises his eyes. Centre back play has changed. Bonner is unorthodox but the most effective player on the field in the first half. He is a great yoke all the same, Eddie says to me.

Shefflin is quiet but one flick over the head and a pass played 40 yards with side spin says enough. His brain is at C while most people are trotting from A to B. Even now, if he hits a bad wide, it feels like a score to Tipp in terms of morale. He’ll never be just another player.

Michael Ryan is in and out of the pitch all the time and it’s eating Brian Cody up. A tackle from Michael Cahill gets Cody into the referee’s ear.

Soon Ryan and Cody are having words. I wonder is Ryan just there to wind Cody up? This is all good fun until Kim Jong goes nuclear and ends up in the Tipp dugout. What would hell’s kitchen suggest happens next...?

When Tipp are good, they are very good. That’s their problem. They puff up with confidence very quickly. And then...

Why is Shefflin not moved out the field by now? The answer comes when he contributes to winning a penalty. The ‘Reid’ penalty isn’t a great strike but it gets there.

Tipp start the second half well. Gleeson is a good keeper and his distribution is really good. Kilkenny are adapting as we watch but Tipp stay confident until they are well past the point where everybody else started worrying for them.

Brendan Maher is doing well at centre-back for Tipp. That area looked like an open wound earlier in the league. Padraic Maher is a great half-back but his value is exemplified at full back. He loses his hurley in a one-on-one with Power and kicks the ball back to Gleeson. As much confidence as strength.

Where did Tipp get all these Mahers by the way? Did they trade in all the Ryans?

Anyway Michael Cahill is really impressive in tight areas. If you got hurler of the year for being able to perform inside a phone box, he’d win every year.

Reid goes into full-forward. Different game now. Kilkenny get the breaks from a couple of bad refereeing decisions. They start making chances.

Noel McGrath scores a brilliant point. Off balance, on his bad foot. I heard a ‘coach’ say lately: ‘Boys, you have to plant your feet and move your weight through like a golfer.’ I can’t agree. Top players can strike sweetly off balance while standing on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon on a windy day. The modern game demands it, and McGrath is great at it.

More good stuff then bad from both sides now.

Wizardry from Richie Hogan sets up Richie Power for a point. Worth the entrance fee. His move one way and hand pass the other needs to be watched. Pattern. I presume other teams have people here note taking also.

The two Richies seem to have been arriving for a long time without actually getting here. Suddenly they aren’t kids anymore. Cody needs them to lead now.

Tipp have the same want. Going onto the final stages of ordinary time, I’m thinking this would be the perfect time to throw assassins like Lar Corbett or Eoin Kelly in. The new hurling has taken a lot of the pulling, dragging and rucking out of hurling. Lar and Eoin make sense again.

The lads behind me say it’s a real ding-dong oul match now.

Kilkenny find more of Tipp’s limitations. John O’Dwyer has a bad miss. Bonner Maher’s big preference for his right side starts looking expensive.

On the line, Cody is so excited that I’m expecting his hat to rise into the air on top of the column of steam gushing from the top of his head.

At the end of ordinary time, and kids invade the pitch and spray sliotars around everywhere. Can’t beat it.

Late in extra-time, a Darren Gleeson free goes wrong.

Fennelly is less than inches from him and moves into him as he is striking. Not an alibi but a consideration. Watch it back later. Kilkenny score the winner.

Everybody forgets Darren’s excellence all afternoon. The boys behind me freak.

And so Davy Fitz wins the league. Kilkenny didn’t need it. They won last year, and who remembers? Kilkenny needed to put some doubt into Clare heads. They got Tipp instead. A good match but it was the end of spring, not the start of summer. It won’t haunt anybody.

Kilkenny keep changing around the team, it’s what they do. They’ll be different this summer and they’ll be good.

On the way home, Eddie sings Sliabh na mBan. There are two versions of the song. The popular, two hours after closing time version was written by Charles Kickham. Corny and romantic. The version in Irish was written, they reckon, by Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (An Ogie from Cork, ye’re welcome) and is an angry blood and guts account of 1798.

Tipp need Ó Longáin’s defiance. They need to be harder on the inside. Not hell’s kitchen hard. But hard. Big difference. Forget the Cody-O’Shea hand shake. What about the deputies?

I watched the Kilkenny number two wave his fist into the Tipp dugout. Michael Ryan came over and shook his hand.

All fur coat and no knickers never made it to the Hogan Stand in September, Michael...

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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