KIERAN SHANNON: Start of something special as 2013 proving year to remember

Turns out Christy Cooney was wrong after all.

You’ll remember a couple of years ago he got all worked up about outside managers, claiming that they were not only a “cancer” but that they “don’t work” either.

Well, judging by the scenes from Croke Park and the Gaelic Grounds these past two weekends, they do work.

Thanks to Anthony Daly and John Allen, Dublin and Limerick are provincial champions, real All-Ireland contenders while the rest of us are getting to enjoy the most joyous hurling championship in so, so long.

How long? A championship that was underrated, even by the end of the same year, was the 2004 campaign. Though it would end with the familiar pairing of a Cork-Kilkenny decider that September, the early and midsummer was full of romance and drama. Michael Jacob’s injury-time strike that sent the ball crashing to the net and Brian Cody crashing to the ground; Paul O’Brien’s injury-time goal that shaded a seven-goal thriller for Waterford over Tipperary; the greatest Munster final ever; how could you not love a summer that would see Waterford and Wexford walk away with provincial honours?

This year is bound to trump it on the basis of offering greater novelty later into the summer, which means we have to go back to that obvious reference point of the GUBU summer of ’98 for something as tumultuous and unpredictable as the championship of 2013. While we somehow don’t see this year’s Munster championship-winning coach waging war on the airwaves and everywhere else as his counterpart did 15 summers ago, not since the Loughnane years has a championship been so open. And what really makes this summer so invigorating is the prospect that we’re going to get more summers like this in the coming years.

As early as May 2000 in his championship preview for The Sunday Tribune, Enda McEvoy wisely foresaw that hurling historians would mark August 1999 as a watershed. Brian Cody’s first All-Ireland semi-final win as a Kilkenny manager coincided with Ger Loughnane’s last day in Croke Park as a Clare manager while in the other semi-final a young Cork team would foil an aging Offaly one in a classic. The revolution, or at least the revolution years, was over; the old empires had struck back. Just how prescient McEvoy was, not even he could have known. While the Waterford team of Dan, Mullane, McGrath et al would make so much of the noughties not just tolerable but delightful, the bottom line was the traditional Big Three would win every subsequent All-Ireland. While ’98 was the start of something for Waterford, it was essentially the end of the line for all the other little guys, the end of something special. In contrast, 2013 feels like the start of something special.

If this year’s Munster championship was hugely competitive, imagine what next year’s is going to be like? Limerick are now here for the next five years. Clare’s age profile means they’re also geared to be around for the rest of the decade. Waterford showed on Saturday evening that while Tony Browne may depart the scene, his spirit and legacy endures.

Tipp will regenerate, the All-Ireland winning minor team of last year possibly providing the kind of wave of freshness that the minor winning teams of ’06 and ’07 did to the veterans that won Munster in ’08.

Cork’s own transition phase must finish soon.

And yet for all of Munster’s current and future strength, we suspect Leinster, or at least the Leinster championship, will provide three of this year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists. Galway may be too erratic to go all the way but they’re too good not to produce one good performance this summer. While hurling does not quite yet have five seasoned, high-performance set-ups like the upper end of football has, it has at least one in Daly’s Dubs.

Then of course there’s Kilkenny. Watching their epic qualifier wins over Tipp and Waterford, it reminded us so much of Cork’s last-gasp wins over Waterford in ’06 and Galway in Thurles in ’08; Clare’s win over Tipp in ’99 and their comeback against Galway the same year.

They may not end the year as champions but never more in their defiance in those victories have Kilkenny shown why they’ve been champions.

When Donal Óg Cusack was recently asked about his greatest hour in hurling, he recalled that win over Galway. He had been sent off but what he gloried in was that his team had shown that they could never be written off, would not be defeated.

Loughnane said that beating, pummelling, Tipp in ‘99 was as sweet as any victory in Clare’s glory years, that what sustained him in another protracted year like that was the thrill of the big games as much as the lure of more silverware.

Brian Cody these last few Saturday evenings looks and sounds like a man who knows what Cusack and Loughnane meant.

The eternal man and his eternal men will try to keep going forever in this eternal summer.


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