On Thursday, Stephen Sheedy and I went up to Athenry to have a look at the greyhounds and drop off a few tickets to Gerry Holian.
Gerry played midfield alongside Sylvie Linnane in the 1973 All-Ireland minor final against Kilkenny before pursuing a career as one of the country’s top greyhound trainers. He was the man behind the success of ‘Murty’s Gang’, our dog which won the Derby at Clonmel in 2002.
Gerry is a good hurling man but they’ve gone bananas up in Galway looking for tickets. Anytime I saw a 091 number coming up on my phone - and there were a few - I didn’t answer it because I’d no tickets. Galway were good to Clare with tickets in 2013 and the hurling public up there have been leaning heavily on us this week but the demand has been so crazy that you couldn’t meet it.
We took the scenic route up through Gort, Ardrahan, Craughwell and home through Clarenbridge. The maroon and white was a sight to behold from every house and telegraph pole available - one senses the Tribe have really come behind their team now, all a fair contrast to the first round in Croke Park against the Dubs. That doesn’t annoy me - that’s what happens with being battered down by defeat. Twenty years ago only 13,000 watched ourselves and Cork do battle in Limerick. We know what happened next.
This has always been one of my favourite weekends of the year. I’m not knocking football but hurling is such a brilliant game, and such a unique part of our history and heritage, that I’ve always argued the Government should make this weekend a Bank Holiday. I always make it into a class of a personal one anyway, that’s for sure.
This All-Ireland weekend though, is a little different than normal. Later on today, Clarecastle play Tubber in a senior relegation play-off. We’ve been a senior hurling club for over 80 years and to go down would be a bit of a nightmare. Everyone in the village, anyone connected with the Magpies, is on edge.
On Tuesday evening, there was a good crowd down at the field, full of past players trying to rally around the squad. Everyone knows how much is riding on this game, which brings its own pressures on the players. I took the session on Thursday evening and there is no point hiding it, there was a healthy tension in the air....
Let’s put it this way, we’ve more to be worrying about today than having a rattle at the All-Ireland 7’s in Kilmacud Crokes, something we’ve often had a go at in the past.
I’m not for a second going to compare a relegation play-off in Clare to an All-Ireland senior final in Croke Park, but the one thing I said to the group on Thursday night was that you nearly have to forget about winning and just focus on performing. If you focus too much on the result and final score, you won’t get the absolute most out of yourself, which is what Galway need to do to have any chance of winning. That is the biggest challenge Galway have faced this week but I do think they’re in a good place. We have no way of telling how their younger guys will perform, but half the starting team played in the 2012 drawn and replayed finals and that experience and confidence will filter through the group. It’s also a huge advantage to Anthony Cunningham and his management.
I saw Brian Cody interviewed the other night and he said that Galway were a different animal since the Leinster final, which they are. From early in the Cork game, they were making statements. This is definitely a new Galway. If they can play with real freedom they will go a long way towards fulfilling their potential and delivering a performance. That is the biggest challenge for any team trying to end a famine, especially against Kilkenny, who are guaranteed to perform.
Galway have momentum and confidence. They have played six games. They were brilliant in the semi-final but looking at it coldly, only one Tipp forward – Seamus Callanan – really showed up. The one definite with the Kilkenny forwards, even if they’re not going that well, is that they will put in a massive shift and work incredibly hard. Walter Walsh, Eoin Larkin and Colin Fennelly didn’t play well against Waterford but if you watch that match back again, the unseen work they did, all the hooking and blocking and flicking created much of the openings for the other forwards to exploit.
After failing to hold Callanan, Galway now have to face a forward just as good in TJ Reid, who was man-of-the-match against them in the Leinster final. Yet even if Galway manage to put a muzzle on Reid, Richie Hogan isn’t far behind him in the running for Hurler-of-the-Year. Ger Aylward has been in All-Star form. Eoin Larkin, Walsh and Fennelly have massive experience and will take watching. And there’s Richie Power, who is reportedly flying it. If Galway manage to even stop two or three of them, can they really stop them all?
I don’t think Galway have enough craft or know-how in the full-back line yet to stem that tide. Their half-back line has experience and physicality; Iarla Tannian has been around the block, Daithí Burke is a really good player (I’d expect him to be given the man-marking job on Reid) Aidan Harte has confounded a lot of critics. I would expect Galway to come with something different to shore up their defence but no matter how well they play, I can’t see that Galway defence withstanding the barrage of punches that Kilkenny are going to hit them with for 75 minutes.
Kilkenny won’t face that same defensive wall of bodies that Waterford set up with, but you can play whatever way you like with Kilkenny and they’ll still get around it. Galway will put up a big score but they’ll need to hit a career-high to surpass what Kilkenny are likely to hit.
Kilkenny are just masters at squeezing space and choking bodies. One of the biggest factors in Galway’s late surge against Tipp was the amount of ball the Galway defence and midfield were able to play, largely uncontested, into their forwards, and into space. For the winning point, Joe Canning was able to look up and play a lovely pass into Shane Moloney in a one-on-one attacking scenario. Jesus, Cody would go nuts if he saw that happening. It never does because the heat Kilkenny put on the ball and on the striker is ridiculous. They’re always looking to put heat on you in the tackle and in the turnover. Even moving Conor Fogarty to midfield has been another one of Cody’s great masterstrokes because the work he does in that battle zone is immense.
Galway need someone to really step up in attack and Joe Canning is the first guy they’ll look to. To really go down in the pantheon of great forwards, he needs to produce it here. He will have more chances to win an All-Ireland but delivering now has never been more important. He gave us a magic moment in the Leinster final with his goal but Joe has to give Galway more than a sprinkle of that stardust. He needs loads of digits behind his name.
Joe has a better forward line around him now than he’s ever had but it’s still not as good as Kilkenny’s. Everywhere you look, they can hurt you and do damage. You never know what Cody will do either with match-ups. You could see Eoin Larkin at number 14. Even from my experience of trying to deal with Kilkenny on the line, and trying to get match-ups right, it’s so hard to balance every equation because they are so flexible up front. And that greater firepower should get Kilkenny over the line.
For now though, all I’m hoping for is a great game. A magic occasion. Maybe enough magic in the air to let MacCarthy cross the Shannon again but the smart money has to be on Cody to collect the 11th.
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