A championship like no other. A champion team like no other.
A final like no other?
Well, two out of three isn’t bad. The sequels can’t always match what’s gone before.
Yesterday’s All-Ireland senior hurling final might not rank with some of the classics we enjoyed this year, but the finish — in all its turbulence, all its chaos, its perverse plot line and over-excited denouement — was of a piece with a season like no other in the game’s history.
We even had the mustn’t-have accessory of 2018, the dreaded nine-point lead, being whittled away as the clock wound down.
None of this will matter on Shannonside this morning, of course. Limerick wake up deserving All-Ireland champions for the first time since 1973. They won by a point having led in the second half by nine, a fair indication of both their dominance on the field and the agonies endured late on by their supporters.
They did it the hard way: on their way to yesterday’s decider, they beat Tipperary, Kilkenny and Cork. In the final itself, they had to overcome a rash of first-half wides and late goals which had their manager experiencing flashbacks to their 1994 collapse against Offaly.
No matter. Limerick entered the record books as All-Ireland champions before teatime yesterday, and when their supporters rub their eyes this morning, they’ll find it’s still true in the cold light of day.
They built their victory on a stirring second half, with youngster Kyle Hayes carrying the fight. Goals from Tom Morrissey and Shane Dowling appeared to make it safe until Joe Canning reached for his thunderbolt to provide a thrilling conclusion.
However Limerick were the better team over the course of the game. No doubt.
Galway’s resurgence, embodied in Canning’s heroics, cut the Limerick lead to a point eight minutes into injury time and kept the game alive longer than should have been the case. Limerick only managed three scores in the closing half-hour of play, but those scores were two goals and a point: they were calm at the back, despite losing two of their full-back line to injury, and their forwards worked to the very end.
For all that, the nightmare of the past haunted John Kiely late on. The Limerick boss was an eyewitness to the Treaty collapse in 1994 and to their defeat two years later to Wexford. When Galway started storming the green barricades, he heard the echo of the 90’s.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I was a sub in 1996, on the panel in 1994, and I saw it happen in front of me. I’ve seen it happen in front of my eyes.
“You can’t block it out - you just acknowledge it and park it. Something else will happen to take your mind off it - someone will say something or you’ll notice something yourself and you’ll get distracted from that thought, as it were.”
It’s a fair mantra and one Limerick adopted well all year. Something has always happened to take their minds off the possibility of losing. The appetite for work, for instance, which marked Limerick’s semi-final win in particular was a potent card yesterday as well. They turned Galway players over twice on short puck-outs in the first ten minutes, and Graeme Mulcahy’s goal - an invaluable boost to an inexperienced team - was emblematic of their drive. Mulcahy was outnumbered by defenders but he persisted in scrummaging for possession, and when the ball squirted loose he nudged it over the line.
Further back, they backed themselves. The fear for an inexperienced team on the big day is that they don’t take risks in a decider, even if risks have been the currency of progress all season.
Captain Declan Hannon’s first point was another example of Limerick bravery yesterday. He was a long way from Joe Canning when the Galway man was free ahead of him, but Hannon saw the opportunity when Canning was sold ever-so-slightly short with the pass. He risked the interception and made it; his point from long range was a rare exclamation mark in a first half which was disorganised and lacking punctuation much of the time.
Limerick’s lead at the break, 1-10 to 0-9, could have been twice that but eleven first-half wides was a fair reflection of their shooting. Kyle Hayes ran riot on the resumption with three points from play, however, and at the three-quarter stage Tom Morrissey robbed Gearoid McInerney and beat two defenders to find the net, making it 2-15 to 0-12.
A nine-point lead. Trouble.
Sub Shane Dowling’s goal seemed to make it safe for Limerick on 68 minutes but driven by Canning’s bullet free and Conor Whelan’s clever goal, Galway were on the scent deep in injury time.
GOAL! What a finish by Joe Canning! pic.twitter.com/Ai4VSDzlZp— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 19, 2018
Credit Mulcahy for the point that put green and white ribbons on the cup, even if the game ended with Galway dropping the ball in around the Limerick goalmouth.
Spare a thought for Galway too. In the eighties, they’d have won two All-Irelands with the games they played this year. They survived two replays to get to the final, and in Canning’s defiance in a losing cause they had one of the displays of the season.
Yet they’ll also have regrets with their porridge. For all Canning’s second-half brilliance, he spent a good deal of the first 35 minutes a long way from the danger area. In that region of the pitch they had Jonathan Glynn, who approached this game with a reputation like Goliath, full-forward for the Philistines long ago.
According to the match programme - not always one hundred per cent accurate, admittedly - Limerick full back Mike Casey was giving away four stone and five inches to Glynn, who ambled into the edge of the square before the ball was even thrown in.
That advantage wasn’t utilised by Galway: they managed four balls into Glynn in the first half and Casey either broke them away or won them independently.
Whether the two replays Galway were engaged in took a toll or not, their manager Micheal Donoghue wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know. Obviously we were where we wanted to be today.
“I still thought the two weeks, we had enough time and the lads bounced back really well. I’m not going to sit here and use any excuse. We didn’t hurl the way we want to hurl for periods in games.
“The lads worked really hard at the end of the game. My thoughts on the players isn’t going to change. Yeah, we’re bitterly disappointed . . . we just seemed to be struggling to get into it. Sometimes games go like that.
“It wasn’t panic at half-time, there was just try and improve some of the areas we wanted to focus on. Until the last ten minutes we didn’t get into a bit of a flow and then we got the sucker punches of goals but Limerick worked really hard from the off and got massive scores.”
In the green and white corner Kiely wasn’t sure if the weight of history had an impact on the players in the closing stages, but he admitted he felt it himself: I don’t know, I’ll have to talk to the players and see how they felt themselves, really.
“I know I felt, ‘Oh crap, this isn’t going to happen, is it?’. And you’re just imploring the players to win those last few vital balls.
“It’s such a difficult thing to do, like. Can you imagine the pressure they felt under in those last 10 to 15 minutes? Just incredible.”
And now it’s over. The championship that unfurled like a Russian novel ended with victory announced in a Limerick accent. Limerick’s self-belief and determination was matched all year by a calmness in the eye of the storm.
They say in bullfighting that a bull can only be used once, because he learns more in one bullfight than a matador learns in his entire career: Next year Limerick will be even more formidable with this bullet point on their CV.
They’ll need to be. Other counties will be drumming their fingers all winter.
Galway will see yesterday as an opportunity lost. Cork will be thinking of their six-point lead in the semi-final with eight minutes left. Clare will be considering that they were able to beat Limerick in Munster.
Kilkenny will mull over the goal that got them within touching distance of Kiely’s men in Semple Stadium late on.
Waterford and Tipperary’s new managers will want to energise their squads. Dublin and Wexford will need to progress next springtime.
All of them will point to Limerick and think: If they can do it, can we?
Moments that mattered
By Larry Ryan
The scruffy opener
John Kiely wanted a lead early on, but not too much of a lead.
He just needed something tangible to show for Limerick’s authoritative start, even if that confidence sometimes melted when the shot was on. But then Kiely had urged his players to get shots away, not to dally in possession. At times haste begot waste. Graeme Mulcahy’s 16th-minute goal was the least their bedding-in period deserved, even it was a goal to reflect a scratchy opening period. Kyle Hayes’ arrowed cross was inviting, and Mulcahy spilled and dunted and persevered until the green flag went up.
Morrissey’s steps to heaven
Kiely said afterwards how pleased he was that attacking turnovers contributed such a sizeable chunk to Limerick’s tally. Micheal O’Donoghue refused to condemn his defenders afterwards for taking the ball into danger, insisting they had stuck to his gameplan.
But Limerick lurked all day for muggings whenever Galway chanced a blind alley.
Their second goal came when it was needed, with Joe Canning sawing into their advantage.
Morrissey robbed Gearóid McInerney in possession before setting off on the merriest of dances through the rest of Galway’s defence. A question of steps? The first big step to heaven.
Ultimately, the defining moment when the ball landed in Tom Condon’s paw at the death. But there had been any number of eleventh-hour dips and twists on the rollercoaster. If James Shehill will be disappointed with his contribution to Mulcahy’s goal, his remarkable point-blank save from Seamus Flanagan, at some cost to his health, made the grand finale possible. Johnny Glynn’s first goal ignited terror and sent Limerick minds to disheartening archives. Joe Canning’s blistering free had the press box, anyway, decide on the inevitability of a draw. Mulcahy’s composure to sneak another point was critical. But even as Joe’s final free dropped short, fate hadn’t yet made the call on the 45 years of hurt.
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