Pound for pound, Tipperary just look that bit stronger and better, says the double All-Ireland winning Clare captain. Which is some statement to make with Kilkenny in the other corner...
Wednesday evening. UL’s north campus pitch. The weather is balmy and bright. We’re on the astroturf pitch with the Limerick minors, a ritual we’ve followed now before our last couple of games. The dimensions are the size of Croke Park. The surface isn’t the same but the ball still shoots off the ground like a golf ball slamming against concrete. That’s what we want to try and simulate for tomorrow; pace, electric hurling pace. That’s what All-Ireland final day at headquarters is all about.
This is serious business but any chance I get, I remind the lads of how lucky and privileged we are. This is the day of days for hurling people. It’s everything for people like us who live for this game, for this warrior sport that we were lucky enough inherit from our forefathers. When you’re brought to the field as a young child, this is the dream. ‘Let’s enjoy this lads,’ I say to boys in the huddle afterwards. ‘Let’s really make the most of this opportunity.’ I know they are supposed to be better than us but let’s be the best we can be on the day.’
I’m thrilled myself to be part of the day, and to be part of great backroom team led by Pat Donnelly. The last time I was involved in All-Ireland final day was in 1997, when I was lucky enough to captain Clare to victory. It was a brilliant day in my life but it was also vastly different to the experience from two years earlier when we won our first All-Ireland in 81 years. I went up that year to absolutely enjoy the experience. I felt liberated after we had won Munster. For me everything afterwards was a bonus. I wanted to have a cut. I wanted to embrace the moment.
To be honest, the enormity of the All-Ireland final, and what we had achieved, didn’t hit me until about the Tuesday after the game. I was almost saying to myself, ‘Jeez, what are we after doing here?’ That can be a beautiful place to be. And it was.
Two years later it was a totally different ball game. We put an awful lot of stock into beating Tipperary in a Munster final for the first time, which we did. I made a speech and mentioned how we were no longer the whipping boys of Munster.
Liz Howard, the then Tipp PRO, had a go at me in a match programme for a Munster U21 championship game a few days later. And then all hell broke loose. The bould Loughnane had his say, unloading both barrels in the direction of Liz and Tipperary. Through no great making or design of my own,
I suddenly found myself in the middle of a storm. And I felt exposed going into that final.
We had beaten Kilkenny well in our semi-final but Tipp came barricading through the back-door, taking out Wexford who were then reigning All-Ireland champions. The pressure was on us big-time to beat them again. And by God if I didn’t feel the heat in 1995, I could feel the smouldering backdraft about to blow up in my face if we didn’t get the job done in 1997.
Mentally, I had to fight very hard to suppress the negativity and sense of dread before that game. The potential doomsday scenario I was imaging nearly unfolded when Johnny Leahy had a goal chance in injury time to win the match. Fair play to Davy Fitzgerald for stopping that shot because I’d say Johnny would have been coming looking for me if he had nailed it. Myself and Johnny had plenty of running battles when we played. We were always trying to hop off each other. Mother of God, can you imagine the payback the Tipp supporters on the pitch would have been looking to dole out to me if that ball had hit the net? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
When Davy did make the save, I was determined not to let the ball out for a ’65. I managed to get the ball in my hand, I negotiated a path towards the corner, threw the ball up, was blocked down, it went over the sideline, which took the sting out of the move and the Tipp crowd. Conor Gleeson had a late chance of an equaliser from distance but it drifted wide and we hung on. We played with an awful lot less freedom in that game, especially in the first-half. Yet the beauty of that win for us was the brilliance of our second-half display. To concede two goals, to score none, and still come away with a one point win was reminiscent of what the Dubs did to Kerry last weekend. It was the character we showed, the hurling we played, and the sense of theatre and drama at the end which encapsulated the ultimate sense of satisfaction.
We were all in agreement afterwards; 1995 was ecstatic joy, 1997 was more a sense of pure and beautiful contentment. It was even more satisfying for me considering the pressure I felt going into the match. But I worked hard on dealing with that burden. I broke down all those worries and stresses in a clinical fashion, I talked them through with a couple of close friends, chatted to a few team-mates about some of the likely scenarios.
The week of any All- Ireland final, it’s important to set aside time every day to visualise positive thoughts around the day, to have a clear picture of your goals and targets in your head. Because this day either happens to you, or you make it happen for you.
I think that’s especially important for Tipp now, that they don’t get caught up with the Kilkenny aura and almost myth that they can’t be beaten in All-Irelands. And especially when Tipp’s record against Kilkenny since the 2010 All-Ireland final – in league and championship – is desperate.
To the general hurling public, the widespread feeling would be that Tipp are the one team best set up to beat Kilkenny. The bookies have this level but Tipp are in a lovely position. They didn’t play that well against Galway but it was an epic match and Tipp got the job done. Getting it done was all that mattered, especially after last year’s disappointment. Tipp had to ride their luck at times but they lifted it when they had to, when it was demanded most.
The neutral expectation is that Kilkenny will find a way again, how they will deliver another All-Blacks-type performance. Tipp will have to strengthen their minds, to be totally focused on winning their own individual battles, totally clear-headed on their own performance, on giving absolutely no energy to Kilkenny.
The amount of energy Kilkenny sap from you before a ball is even throw in is incredible. I saw that first hand with Dublin, especially in 2011 and 2014. We had beaten them in the league final in 2011, and in the championship in 2013. Yet the amount of emotional energy they drained from us before our championship matches in 2011 and 2014 was a contributing factor in our performance in those games, both of which Kilkenny won handsomely. Trying to crack that mindset is not easy. You know they are coming for you, that the tornado is being whipped up. No matter how hard you try to block out the outside world intruding, it’s impossible. ( well almost) ‘Ah, how will ye handle TJ Reid? What damage will Richie Hogan do?’
It’s huge in the context of a game this big that Tipp have worked hard on the mental side of things. You will hope that most of your team will hit a 7/10 performance. There’s no point thinking they’ll all reach a 9/10, because it won’t happen.
But if everyone hits a 7, a few more will hit the 8, and some might reach the 9, that could be enough. But if too many of your team goes below a 7 against Kilkenny, it just won’t do against this crowd.
I’m sure Tipp have done everything. They won’t have left a stone unturned. Yet having reached a 10/10 in nutrition, strength and conditioning, hydration, flexibility, won’t be enough either. Tipp will be drawing on their heritage and their tradition but they are only one particular group in a long lineage of Tipperary men. You can’t be relying on what Jimmy Doyle and John Doyle – the Lord have mercy on them – did either. And you won’t. It doesn’t work like that.
Just pulling the blue and gold garment on over your head won’t be enough against these boys unless you man up and go to war with them.
You always back Kilkenny in a battle but I fancy Tipp. I have fancied them all year. They were highly impressive in Munster. They didn’t play quite as well against Galway but they handled the five-week break – which so many Munster champions before them couldn’t – and got over the line.
Mick Ryan’s management all year has been superb. He has kept guys on edge like Brian Cody. He was rewarded training ground form. His decision not to start John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer in the semi-final was a great call. He would have got a lot of stick if they had lost narrowly . But they didn’t.
Mick is going up against the greatest manager of all time now but he has served an impressive apprenticeship. He learned a lot from Liam Sheedy and Eamon O’Shea. He has been involved in five All-Ireland finals (one replay) against Kilkenny as a selector, while he played on the team which beat Kilkenny in the 1991 All-Ireland final.
He knows what this is all about. He understands the mentality required for a day like this against Kilkenny, which you cannot underestimate. The backroom team Mick has assembled has added the freshness on the sideline that has been mirrored on the pitch with the additions of Seamus Kennedy, Michael Breen, Dan McCormack and John McGrath.
Mick will have planned well because he knows Cody will have planned just as hard. He will surely have taken note of how Cathal Barrett struggled so much, especially physically, on Conor Cooney in the semi-final.
It was the first time we’ve seen Barrett struggle in two years but Cody will target any perceived weakness with a particular match-up designed for maximum impact.
On the other hand, I think Tipp will try and get at the Kilkenny full-back line. Joey Holden and Shane Prendergast are an awful lot better than we have probably given them credit for but Tipp have got to try and find a way to get Paul Murphy away from the middle, primarily because of his brilliance but also the protection and help he gives to the two beside him.
Tipp will have massive faith in what Seamus Callanan, John McGrath and ‘Bubbles’ can do inside. If Tipp get enough ball inside, I think they will do enough damage to win the match.
Tipp have been very settled all year, especially their half-back line, which has been their launch pad. The Tipp midfield has also had a different dynamic with the partnership of Brendan Maher and Breen. The loss of Michael Fennelly too really opens up the door for Tipp even more.
Kilkenny will trust themselves and back themselves to the hilt but there are question marks. Will Liam Blanchfield play as well again as he did in the Waterford replay? How will Kilkenny handle the realignment required for Fennelly’s absence? Kieran Joyce will probably go centre-back on ‘Bonner’ Maher but I just think there are more certainties about Tipp now. Pound for pound, Tipp just look that bit stronger and better.
That sounds like an amazing statement to make with Kilkenny lining up in the other corner but sometimes the planets are all aligned. I just think they are for Tipp this year. I expect them to win but whatever happens, I’m expecting another epic. Another day of days. And it is just an honour and a privilege for myself and the Limerick minors to be part of this day. Anytime I am lucky enough to be involved in an occasion this big, I always think of what my old mentor and friend, and that great Tipperary man, Len Gaynor, used to say to us when he first came to Clare.
‘Live it. Love it. Embrace it.’
By God, I will.
Don’t miss the Irish Examiner GAA Podcast. Daithi Regan, Tadhg O’Connor, Eddie Keher, Eamonn Murphy and PM O’Sullivan join Peter McNamara to discuss the Kilkenny v Tipperary All-Ireland hurling final.
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