We’d been hoping and hoping for something to ignite and when it finally did yesterday, it was like opening the door to a backdraft.
This semi-final was epic, one of the best I’ve ever seen in Croke Park. After the diving and hair-tossing episode last weekend between Tyrone and Monaghan, the GAA world were taking a hammering all week about cynical play and borrowing the worst habits from the Premiership. It was a football issue but hurling couldn’t really cock its nose either and say we have a superior product because we had no real evidence to back up that routine claim hurling people like to make.
We’ve had to fight off accusations of importing football concepts into our game to its detriment. Sweepers were nearly more topical than shooters. We had to suck it up as hurling people but then we get that kind of quality yesterday which makes everyone boast again that we really do have the greatest game on earth.
The backdrop added to the intrigue. After Galway were abject in their defeat to Waterford, some people were calling for Anthony Cunningham’s head. They were almost writing his epitaph. If they win the All-Ireland, they’ll be looking to canonise him.
Does this great game ever really fail us?
It was a killer that there had to be a loser. If the fourth official had announced that there were only two minutes to play, we’d all have been more than happy to come back again on Saturday. Yet if there was to be a loser, it didn’t deserve to be Galway.
Conceding three goals and failing to raise a single green flag just highlights the enormity of the achievement. That’s effectively a ten-point swing and yet Galway were still able to summon the resolve and spirit to dig out an unbelievable victory. Anytime Tipp sank their fist into Galway’s midriff with sickening effect, Galway refused to hit the canvass. They kept jabbing away at Tipp’s chin before they eventually took them down.
I would have put my house on a Tipp-Kilkenny final three weeks ago but I just sensed there was something different about Galway after they took down Cork. There is real steel about them this year. I even thought Cunningham’s bould statement after losing the Leinster final - that he’d see Brian Cody again in the All-Ireland final - sent out a message. His players were transmitting that same defiance all afternoon yesterday. The code was clear; ‘Not today, we’re not backing down today’.
That’s what happened last year in Thurles when Callanan also cut loose in the second half. The heads dropped. They gave up. There was never any danger of that happening here when the game threatened to get away from them Galway. There is that steel there now that you normally don’t associate with Galway teams. Nobody showcased that more than David Burke. He thundered into the game and was the dominant player in the middle third.
The Galway management still shouldn’t escape some criticism though, and they will know as much themselves. Leaving Padraig Mannion on Callanan for 60 minutes was kamikaze stuff. Mannion is a great lad but he just wasn’t able for Callanan, primarily because he wasn’t cute enough. He just kept getting caught on the wrong side of him.
When I played Harty Cup with St Flannan’s, Bishop Willie Walsh coached the defenders. If you conceded one goal, Willie would say it was probably your fault. If your man bagged two, it was probably management’s fault for not making a move. But if you conceded three goals, Bishop Willie would say that both would have to take the blame.
And yet Galway refused to go away. Part of that is probably down too to them having played five games prior to yesterday. A Galway team has never gone into an All-Ireland final with six games played. That will give them huge confidence but they won’t get away with some of yesterday’s defending against Kilkenny.
Only for goalkeeper Colm Callanan, Galway would have been beaten. It’s no surprise to me that he is playing so well this year because my former Clare team-mate, Christy O’Connor, has been coaching the Galway keepers this season. I had Christy with me for six years as goalkeeping coach in Dublin and he did a brilliant job with Gary Maguire and Alan Nolan. He brought them to another level. I had him in coaching the underage keepers in the Limerick Academy on Thursday evening. He gets keepers as sharp as a blade. Some of those saves Callanan made were right out of Christy’s coaching philosophy; fast hands, fast feet.
It must be sickening for Seamus Callanan to have scored 3-9 yesterday and still not end up on the winning side. He was untouchable. He could have had a fourth goal if his namesake hadn’t saved a penalty in the 65th minute. A goal at that stage would have won the game. Seamus went for it but he played the percentages. He went high and knew he’d probably end with a point as a worst case scenario.
This goes back to an argument I’ve been making all year. I don’t agree with this rule. You saw two of the greatest dead-ball exponents yesterday fail to beat the keeper. There is too much pressure now on the taker. The keepers love it because everything is stacked in their favour.
There was another huge call with Barry Kelly overruling his umpire late on when he signalled a 65 for Tipp. A two point lead at that stage would have been massive but Barry made the right decision. It hit Lar Corbett’s hurley but those are the kind of marginal decisions that decide the fate of a team and it’s season.
For Tipp this is a hard defeat to stomach, especially when the players wanted to sign off with an All-Ireland for O’Shea. But there was no magic from ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer. ‘Bonner’ Maher didn’t make the impact Tipp hoped or needed him to make. More of their big names were just that fraction off the sharpness required at this stage of the season and the punishment is devastating.
It is no coincidence now that the Munster champions have had such a dire record in All-Ireland semi-finals over the last decade. Cork in 2005 were the last team to win the All-Ireland through the front door. The only other two teams to win an All-Ireland in that time – Tipp and Clare – came through the back door.
There is so much put into winning Munster now that teams will surely be asking themselves in the future, ‘Is it really worth it?’
That’s a debate for another day. Yesterday belonged to Galway. An epic performance. An epic game. At last. Hallelujah.