he buildup has been intense. There have been moments of magic and incidents of violence contrasted with pure poetry. There have been political manoeuvrings and committees sitting in judgement.
It’s been full of twists, turns, thrills and spills; shocking developments and last-minute reprieves. In the end, two worthy rivals face off against each other, so that the neutral observer is no longer sure who to root for.
But enough about the Game of Thrones finale. We have a hurling finale to settle.
One could be forgiven, however, for confusing Croke Park on Sunday for the Dragon Pit at King’s Landing. The place will be boiling over with two sets of hungry supporters, a large proportion of whom will be hoping to see their county win the Liam MacCarthy for the first time in their lifetimes.
For neutrals, it’s hard to think of a more purely pleasurable final to sit back and watch. The freshness of it. The first All-Ireland medals in the back pockets of the winners. The first championship meeting of these two counties since 2011, when Waterford beat Galway in the quarter-final. The first final since 1996 without the involvement of any of the big three: Cork, Kilkenny, and Tipperary.
No matter who wins, neutrals will be beaming.
Galway have been exceptional. They’ve motored efficiently through the championship, relatively unscathed and unrattled until meeting Tipp. Ever since their win over Waterford in the league quarter-final in April, they’ve remained unbeaten. Waterford, meanwhile, have had the more romantic narrative: bettered by Cork in the Munster semi-final when they momentarily went without a sweeper, they’ve come back around to embrace the system with more belief than ever before.
They beat Kilkenny for the first time since 1959 (the year, incidentally, of their last All-Ireland victory); they showed formidable belief in themselves by beating Cork the second time of asking. They’ve been through adversity this year, but steadied the ship.
I do think that Galway’s experiences of final day in 2012 and 2015 will stand to them, even just in terms of knowing what to expect in the run-up to 3.30pm.
I’ve enjoyed reading pieces by former players this week describing their experiences of final day: the bus, the nerves, the waiting around, the inevitable chicken and pasta. On these intense occasions, introverted players always have my sympathy. Team sports are full of extroverts, but there are always the few (myself included) who’d rather hunker down in their seat with headphones than chat on the bus. You and your squad are together all day, when really you just want to go somewhere quiet on your own to mentally prepare. You can be drained before you even take the field.
Two players who won’t have the luxury of nerves or of a slow start are Joe Canning and Austin Gleeson. Both majestic forwards on their respective teams (or, as Lar Corbett ingeniously put it on The Marty Squad recently, ‘talismen’), they’ll need to be out of the traps early, to settle their teammates as much as themselves.
The psychological importance of the big men playing well in a final can’t be underestimated. On a day when everything seems heightened and loaded with fate, a poor performance from a totemic player can seem like a bad omen. On the other hand, explosive performances from Canning and Gleeson might reassure their respective teams that the script might just be going their way.
Also under scrutiny will be the aforementioned sweeper system. Whether it’s been Tadhg de Búrca or Darragh Fives, it’s worked brilliantly for Waterford. For an All-Ireland to be won with a sweeper would be game-changing in its own way. It’s not the dour, defensive grind that so many make it out to be. In fact, it’s frequently a launchpad for counter-attacks, not a million miles away from what Jurgen Klopp calls gegenpressing: plug all the gaps in defence, suck in the opposition forwards and midfielders, then play the ball forward.
The fact that Waterford have tucked away 11 goals this season, while Galway have only scored two, should demonstrate that it’s anything but a negative tactic. While Waterford’s goal threat will be a worry for Galway, they’re well placed to combat the sweeper system with their power in the air and direct running game. But will what worked against Wexford work against Waterford?
Personally, I can’t wait for tomorrow afternoon. Every hurling supporter has two sets of beloved players. There are the players from your own county who you support and defend no matter what, because the joy they bring you when they do the right thing is like nothing else. There are also, however, the players you choose: the hurlers from other counties who you admire because of their ability, their attitude or the way they play.
For me, both Galway and Waterford have an abundance of these players.
Brick Walsh was captain in 2008 when Waterford were steamrolled by Kilkenny in the final; current captain Kevin Moran was wing back on that team. I can’t get this narrative out of my head, of seeing these two veteran players — both at the latter end of their careers but also, somehow, in their prime — bury the memory of 2008 and finally clinch that medal.
But whatever happens, I’ll be beaming.