A production of Hamlet with not one, but two princes. Two captains, two leaders, two scoring machines, two generational talents, two of the wonders of this hurling age. The two frontrunners for the Hurler of the Year award. Seamus Callanan and TJ Reid. The problem with All-Ireland finals is that there can be only one.
A pity in a way, given that if ever the rival captains on the big day had put in a mountain of grunt work, this pair had. By their scoring statistics we had come to know them this summer — to get to know them all over again, rather — and those figures were off the scale.
Reid entered the decider as top scorer in the championship with a total of 5-72. Callanan did so as top scorer from play with a tally of 7-16. The latter works out as an average of 1-2 a game, a degree of consistency that may just border on insanity.
Imagine the legion of good habits this entails. Accuracy, yes, but also supreme fitness, immense mental strength, vision, peripheral vision, and the ability to be in the right place at the right time. The ability to be in the right place all the time, even.
Callanan had found the net seven afternoons in succession. Astounding? Make that eight afternoons in succession. Compared to his bullet against Wexford, it was no thing of beauty, being scrambled home from the edge of the square after John McGrath’s shot squirted loose.
No matter. There is no such thing as a bad goal. Particularly not in an All-Ireland final. Particularly not two minutes after the restart when it puts your team three points ahead against 14 men.
Callanan followed up a minute later with a point from the corner. His pièce de résistance for the day would not be long delayed. Once more he won possession at top of the right. This time, rather than pull the trigger, he opted to ping the sliotar across to the centre, where he’d seen something nobody else had: John O’Dwyer ghosting into half an acre of grass.
Vision, peripheral vision, and precision-tooled delivery all in one. What a trifecta.
That would be that. If Callanan’s goal hadn’t finished off the game as a contest, his assist did. Suddenly it was getting like 1964 again. And so, nine years after Liam Sheedy’s first great rain-sodden day against the men in stripes, Tipperary once more buried their neighbours in a goal rush.
One could argue that such an outcome didn’t look likely in the first half, especially when Tipp spent most of the opening 25 minutes trying — and largely failing — to get the ball past the enemy half-back line. Great goalscorers, however, are not judged on the evidence of one half.
Neither side were shooting the lights out, understandably so in the conditions. The interval arrived with Kilkenny on 0-11 —0-3 of it from play by their forwards, 0-8 from Reid frees. Tipperary had 1-9 — 1-1 of it from play from their forwards, none of it the direct handiwork of Callanan.
Yet Tipperary had a fifth gear Kilkenny did not possess. We knew that beforehand. Indeed, it is arguable that Kilkenny did not possess a fourth gear.
Whatever chance Brian Cody’s charges had of keeping it tight disappeared when Richie Hogan was sent off. He didn’t receive any mercy from James Owens and, in the circumstances, he couldn’t have expected any. Four years ago Owens was the man in black when, shortly before half time, Colin Fennelly was clotheslined by Johnny Coen. It was a stonewall red. Owens, perhaps understandably anxious to avoid spoiling a big occasion, brandished yellow.
He was roundly and rightly criticised afterwards. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake a second time. Hogan at least has the consolation — for whatever it’s worth — of knowing that his dismissal did not affect the outcome of the game, merely the margin.
It did alter the pattern of proceedings substantially, of course, and here Cody and his selectors must look into their own hearts. Facing a team with an extra defender? Not fun, but it’s an intellectual exercise. There are ways and means of working the sliotar up the field. Just for God’s sake, don’t do the obvious thing and lamp a load of ball on top of the other crowd’s full-back line.
Ahem… This brainless straight-line attacking has been such a feature of Kilkenny’s play over the past few years as to have, at this stage, assumed the proportions of a pathology. In the second half yesterday, the long ball was their only ball, deposited on Fennelly on the edge of the square.
Loaded dice. Loaded in the defending team’s favour. Barry Heffernan could attack the dropping ball while Cathal Barrett and Ronan Maher stayed back with their brushes to mind the kitchen and do whatever sweeping was required.
Echoes here of General Melchett in the episode of Blackadder Goes Forth when he announces his gameplan for the next battle: go over the top and straight at the Germans.
“Like we did the previous 17 times?”
“Exactly! It’s the last thing they’ll be expecting!”
Reid spent the closing stages operating closer to goal, but there was always one blue and gold jersey too many in his way. A weak effort from Conor Browne apart, Brian Hogan did not have a save to make in the course of upholding a proud family tradition.
Reid now possesses the melancholy distinction of having captained Kilkenny to two All-Ireland defeats, both of them against Tipperary. No man could possibly deserve it less. He has been a hero for his county these past couple of seasons. Their El-Cid. Their Aragorn. Their Henry.
Talking of melancholy distinctions, both teams wearing black and amber at Croke Park yesterday failed to muster a single goal between them.
One might dismiss it as a coincidence were it not for the wealth of recent evidence that Kilkenny teams at all levels, DJ Carey’s U20s included, have forgotten how to score goals.
Callanan finished his afternoon by tapping over a free for the concluding score. It left him on 1-2 for the day, but meant he failed to maintain his average of 1-2 from play per game. Oh dear. What a loser.
There we’ll leave them. Two captains, two leaders, two scoring machines, two generational talents, two of the wonders of this hurling age.
And, by teatime yesterday, one newly-crowned king and one Hurler of the Year in waiting. Callanan’s day. Callanan’s summer.