Given last Sunday night’s peculiar but surely forgivable digression by Derek McGrath and Dónal Óg Cusack had half the nation yearning for the return of the plain speaking of Ger Loughnane, it’s worth revisiting what the great Clare man had to say about the weekend’s two victors back in his final summers on our screens.
On the eve of the last season in which Kilkenny reached an All-Ireland final, Loughnane made the contentious remark that Brian Cody’s men were “functional beyond belief”. While at the time it drew the ire of many on Noreside, one resident from there, a certain Enda McEvoy also of this parish, observed at the time that it was the ultimate compliment of Brian Cody and his charges as well as a brilliant one-liner, worthy of capital-letters status.
“Functional Beyond Belief. What a line. What a man,” McEvoy wrote in the late spring of 2016. “There has to be a way of preserving him [Loughnane], spirit as well as body, so that he’s still stirring in 2116.”
If anything, Loughnane’s assessment of Kilkenny then is all the more valid and complimentary now.
“They’re getting the best out of what they have to an extent that no-one else could do other than Brian Cody,” he’d elaborate back then. “They should not be winning an All-Ireland with that team. Totally dependent on TJ Reid, one forward, and maybe Richie Hogan as well.”
And yet last weekend they beat Limerick, after subjecting John Kiely’s men to the definitive masterclass in FBB.
Unfortunately, some other and more recent comments from Tipperary haven’t aged quite so well.
During and after last year’s Munster championship, Loughnane deemed Tipperary to be “finished”. Although he made the nuanced distinction that such a demise “wasn’t [due to] a lack of character”, he claimed there was “a lack of energy”. The team had got “old”, and with “no infusion of youth”, they had simply “come to the end of the line”.
He wasn’t alone in that assessment last summer. After the ignominy of failing to get out of Munster, there was a general sense within hurling that Bonner, Paudie, and Brendan Maher had won their last All-Ireland.
This column happened to differ. A few days after Jake Morris’s shot came off the wrong side of the post against Clare in Thurles, we wrote here that a July without hurling might just be what the team needed. After so many years finishing in second (2011, 2014) or third (2012, 2015, 2017) on the podium and only being lambasted for not claiming gold, there was maybe no harm in coming seventh for a change. A possible new voice at the helm, not worrying about coming first or last in the league, rotate some of their veterans over the spring and they’d be right there.
“There’ll be no retirements to any key player this winter, the way there was a wave of them in the autumns of 2015 and 2016,” we’d write.
Our sense is that there’s more in them. We’re in a post-Kilkenny world, albeit one in which Kilkenny might still win the occasional All-Ireland. But so might Tipp.
More importantly, Liam Sheedy was thinking along similar lines. That same week he was at a press day promoting the Celtic Challenge and when asked about his native county, he was markedly upbeat.
“Maybe what they needed was a break and they’re getting that now. I know those lads, I had a lot of them at minor when they broke through, and I know what they are made of. They are serious warriors and they will be hurting big time by what happened this year. They will come back better, I think. It wouldn’t take much to get Tipp going again.” His return certainly hasn’t hurt them, not least for his faith in that minor crop of 2006-2007.
Tipperary and Kilkenny may no longer be exceptional teams like they were for other stretches of this decade and the tail-end of the last but they remain so competitive because each have a nucleus of exceptional players as well as managers.
As much as the post-2011 final discussion revolved around Henry’s comeback and Eddie Brennan’s reinvention as a wing forward and Cody’s powers of immortality, the emergence and contribution of Reid, Hogan, and Colin Fennelly were vital to that landmark win. Eight years on, there they still are, craving for more, more, more.
Two years into their senior inter-county careers, Noel McGrath, Seamus Callanan, Noel McGrath, Brendan Maher, and Paudie Maher had all won at least one All Star and a Munster title and by the end of their third year had all won an All-Ireland. In the intervening years they’ve had all kinds of highs and lows — hyped up a bit too much after 2010, perhaps, criticised excessively in subsequent years, and enduring various brushes with injury and even cancer — yet here they still are, McGrath Man of the Match four years on from shaking hands with Anthony Cunningham after another epic All-Ireland semi-final, Callanan scoring seven goals in seven games, and the Mahers still thundering out with that ball from the back.
Clearly, that wasn’t just another group of minors that won the Irish Press Cup for Tipp back in ’06 and ’07. As Sheedy might have identified then, and phrased it 14 months ago, that side featured some “serious warriors”.
Whatever happens on August 18, we should remember how we felt and what we thought after the remarkable weekend of July 27-28 just past. As Noel McGrath and Sheedy would hint last Sunday evening, this core group of Tipp players had shown their bottle many times in the past only for us to have forgotten.
In these pages last Monday, Donal O’Grady reasonably made the point that the term ‘resilience’ should now just as easily be attached to Tipp as Kilkenny. The truth is the world won’t be as generous, should they again end up on the wrong side of another one-score nail-biter to their greatest rivals. But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us striving to be better, and be mindful of and grateful for all the epics this group of players with ‘only’ their two All-Irelands have served us up the past dozen or so years.
The reality is it’s hard to even win ‘only’ one All-Ireland. Limerick found that out at the weekend, the luck they had in such tight games last year deserting them underneath the Cusack Stand and the gaze of that linesman last Saturday evening. Even when the GAA do bring in some measures to help officials make the big calls, there’ll still be sides that will end up harshly and even unfairly on the wrong side of one-score games.
The trick is to continue to be up there in the mix. Limerick may not have won this year’s All -Ireland but they also showed in 2019 why they were champions in 2018, as well as that they still have a bit to go to win it all again in 2020 or beyond.
So, yes, we have another Kilkenny-Tipperary final, their sixth All-Ireland final clash in 11 seasons, to go with the four league finals they’ve had in that time as well. But this is not like 2011 or 2014 or even 2016 when the future seemed to be painted in black and amber or threatened to be all blue and gold. Every kind of colour is in the mix now. Maroon, now that Galway have had their first proper break since 2014; Green and white, with Kiely making it clear he as well as his players will be back next year; Red, with Cork now under the stewardship of Kevin O’Donovan, likely to put the right people and systems in situ; and gloriously, the purple and gold.
The last paragraph in Damian Lawlor’s fine if premature 2014 book, Fields of Fire, was: “The next five years could see five different All-Ireland winners.” He wasn’t far wrong and it could still hold for the next five years. No two sides no longer dominate. This is still a post-Kilkenny world.
But by God, Cody still lives in it. There’s no such thing as a post-Cody world.