AT the final whistle a great roar erupted from thousands of Leeside throats and rumbled around Semple Stadium. But only at the final whistle.
It was as though, unlike the 1999 All-Ireland final, where they roared their team home in the closing 10 minutes, the Cork fans didn’t want to tempt fate.
As though they feared that even in his death throes, the striped giant might still lash out and inflict a mortal wound.
Not on Sunday. Not in 2013. Not this Kilkenny team. It was an afternoon on which everything went wrong for them. It was a summer in which everything went wrong for them.
A sea of troubles and then some. By the 56th minute they’d lost the Hurler of the Year to a second yellow card, had lost their most creative forward to injury, had seen no fewer than three players miss chances from placed balls in the first half, had had a goal ruled out and had an opponent stay on the field despite a blatant strike with the hurley. The Kilkenny of 2008 would have overcome such trifling obstacles by reaching for their bazooka and blowing them away. The Kilkenny of 2013 could not.
They ran out of legs. They ran out of petrol. They ran out of bodies. They ran out of luck. The only thing they didn’t run out of was spirit. That they drew the second half with 14 men — shades of last year’s Leinster final when, with the game long lost, they made sure to win the second half — will be of some small comfort to Brian Cody, who at least won’t have to reproach himself for sending out a team that died horribly.
This death, as deaths go, was painless. And so the most vibrant hurling championship in 15 years, the summer of Dublin’s glory and Limerick’s resurgence, will not now end with the familiar main character kicking down the front door in the last reel, murdering everyone and reclaiming his throne. That is only fitting.
Any grounds for legitimate complaint by the old champions? A couple, but nothing that would have altered the outcome. When you manage only a point from your starting forwards, and that arrives five minutes from the end, you’re not entitled to get your knickers in too much of a twist.
Granted, Henry Shefflin’s second yellow was harsh. This wasn’t a clothesline job, and Jamie Coughlan’s head was already dipping when contact was made. And it should go without saying that Shane O’Neill had to walk for his pull across Eoin Larkin. But the penalty had to be retaken; Tommy Walsh was so far ahead of the ball when Richie Power hit it he waspractically marking Anthony Nash. Since the Offaly game on June 9 Kilkenny have been skating on increasingly splintering ice. On Sunday they fell through it. Nothing less, nothing more.
The lack of goals — one from play in six and a half matches — was not a cause of their decline but a symptom. What was even more damning was the lack of points.
Look at their scoring returns in the championship: 0-26, 1-14, 0-16, 0-20, 1-12 and 0-14. That works out as an average of less than 0-14 per match since Offaly.
The real wonder was that they remained in the championship so long.
Perhaps the seeds were sown as far back as the closing stages of last year’s championship when Michael Rice and TJ Reid suffered injuries — both of them the result of bad strokes with the hurley — that reduced the pair of them to shadow men this summer. Add in the Shefflin saga. Now for good measure throw in the ongoing fitness problems of Michael Fennelly and Eoin Larkin, two previous Hurlers of the Year. Far too many parts of the machine no longer functioned adequately, never mind smoothly.
The only real criticism to be levelled at them was the lack of imagination they demonstrated in the second-half. A player short in the full-forward line, the obvious strategy — nay, the only strategy — was to angle diagonal ball for the two men inside to come out onto. Instead they reverted to type and lumped mindless sliothar over the top. Conor O’Sullivan won’t have as pleasant an afternoon on his birthday.
It’s unfortunate that Cork haven’t received, and probably won’t, the credit they deserve. It’s also inevitable. The fall of Goliath was front-page news for days. Groundshaking tumbles always are. Only afterwards did scribes get around to interviewing David.
But there was a neat symmetry in the fact it was Cork who were the other crowd. They were the bystanders when this Kilkenny team came of age in the 2006 All-Ireland final. On Sunday they were there for its passing.
Still, what precisely did defeat mark? Certainly it was the end of the Kilkenny team that won six All-Irelands in seven years. What else, if anything, it marked cannot yet be stated.
Naturally Shefflin will not want to vacate the stage on such a downbeat note. What player would? But one imagines that the flesh as much as the spirit will have the casting vote there.
As for his manager, it’s difficult to visualise either one bad result or one disappointing summer influencing his judgement. Come the autumn Cody will, a la Éamon de Valera, look into his own heart and decide what happens next. The Cody era will only have ended when yer man is the former Kilkenny manager. And that may not be any time soon.
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