Heroic Championship displays aren’t all about getting off to a good start; often they’re about getting over a bad one
If you were to trace the moment when Christy Ring made the leap from mere brilliance to greatness, Ringologists will invariably pinpoint the 1946 All Ireland final.
“Up to 1946,” his team-mate John Quirke would say, “Christy was just a very good hurler on a great team. But in the ‘46 final he gave a performance that marked him out as someone very special. He scored a magical goal but it was his overall display at centre forward. You could say that was the start of the real legend of Christy Ring.”
The thing though about the start of that legend was the start of that game went poorly for Ring. He embarked on a few solo runs only to be smothered by Kilkenny’s Jimmy Kelly and Shem Downey. He missed a couple of frees. One of his standout memories of that day would be meeting a friend afterwards who instead of lauding him for his wonderful solo-run goal or all the ball he hovered up after half-time, hit him with the remark: “You played well but how in God’s holy name did you miss those two early frees?”
We’re reared on believing the all-time great championship displays of the all-time greats were virtually flawless, that everything they did turned to gold, that they didn’t drop a ball, they didn’t hit a wide. It’s seldom like that. Once a decade maybe you get something like Frank McGuigan’s 11 points from play in the 1984 Ulster final. Most of the significant championship displays aren’t about operating in this often-mentioned but so-elusive Zone. It is, as the American performance consultant Ken Ravizza once put it, learning to have a good shitty day. It isn’t all about getting off to a good start; often it’s about getting over a bad one.
When Oisín McConville missed a penalty before half-time in the 2002 All Ireland final, he immediately thought of Bill McCorry, who is forever cruelly remembered as the man whose missed penalty in 1953 cost Armagh their first All Ireland.
“I knew I was going to be the scapegoat now,” McConville would admit in his autobiography. “I was in a daze for the rest of that half.”
Then running into the half-time dressing room Ronan Clarke told him to keep his head up. In fact, so many teammates came over to McConville, Benny Tierney felt he was being mollycoddled. McConville needed an edge to perform so Tierney scowled at him.
“What?!” fired back an incredulous McConville.
“Fix it! You missed one, now score one!”
McConville would snarl back before going on to fix it and ensure he’ll go down as the man who scored the goal that decided that 2002 All Ireland final.
Four years later another seminal Kerry-Armagh game would hinge on a remarkable individual display that could have been horrendous. Twenty minutes into that 2006 All Ireland quarter-final, Kieran Donaghy’s head was in turmoil. Big bad Francie Bellew was holding him by the shorts and holding him scoreless. The one time Donaghy got out in front, he let the ball slip through his hands and over the sideline.
“It was right in the corner, where all the Armagh fans were,” Donaghy recalls. “And they let me know about it. So was [Paul] Hearty. ‘Ah, Francie, you have him fuckin’ bate up a stick!’ I was saying to myself, ‘I’ll either be thrown out midfield now or I’ll be taken off.’”
It all turned on an inspired bit of leadership from Colm Cooper who ran in to his struggling teammate. “Keep going,” he’d tell him. “Don’t think it isn’t your day. All you need is one chance and you’ll take it.” Next thing Donaghy laid a ball off for Gooch, then another for Mike Frank Russell. Suddenly, Kerry and Donaghy were in the game.
“Jack [O’Connor] said it to me at half-time: ‘Donaghy, you could have turned your hole to it because everything was going against you, but you’re after getting us two points there.’” Then upon the resumption he would get one of the most influential goals of the last decade.
His teammate Tommy Griffin also endured a shaky start to the 2009 All Ireland final but such was his self-assuredness, his way of dealing with Colm O’Neill blitzing him for 1-1 was to have a laugh about it before going on to contribute handsomely to probably the best display a full-back line has ever given in September.
“Sure I blamed [Diarmuid] Murphy!” he’d reveal a year later. “First thing I said was ’Jaysus, Murph, would you save it for f***’s sake!’ What’s the point in throwing your hat at it? Just try and get the next ball. After all the hard work we’d put in we weren’t going to let a bad start get to us.”
It took Ken McGrath some time to think like that. When he retired last year, he had one bit of advice for any young player. “Don’t go judging yourself on the first 10 minutes. It was a good way into my career before I fully realised the importance of staying calm — if I went back again, that’s the main thing I would change.”
Waterford players would eventually adopt that mindset. In the immortal 2004 Munster final Paul Flynn didn’t touch the ball in the opening 30 minutes yet would rightly end up as man of the match — even though he would hit as many wides as scores in that second half. Just like Flynn’s beloved golf, hurling isn’t a game of perfect either.
Neither is football. Owen Mulligan feared he was about to be taken off before he got that goal against Dublin in 2005. Padraic Joyce thought he might be replaced at half-time in the 2001 All Ireland final. Kevin McManamon’s first touch upon coming on in last year’s All Ireland decider was to mess up a goal chance. With his second touch he’d kick the ball into Brendan Kealy’s arms. He’d give away a free Bryan Sheehan would punish while with his fourth touch he’d double-hop on the 40 which should have resulted in another Sheehan free.
But as we all know with his next touch he’d win the free which Stephen Cluxton would famously convert. Before that he’d grabbed the goal that turned the game. Just like Griffin it was all about the next ball. Thanks to that outlook, he’d have a glorious shitty day.
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