PM O'SULLIVAN: If things can change for the good, they can change for the bad

"You talk about complacency" — Tommy Walsh

Our passions often become braided, with hurling and music a case in personal point.

 

The year in which Mark E Smith died delivered a wonderful and frightening summer of hurling. The most beautiful game is now the hip priest of Irish sport and Limerick’s colours the new paintwork and so many heads expanded.

While The Fall’s output will never be majority taste, the surge of their best work does a fair impression of hurling at full pelt. There is the same controlled fury, the same splice of force and grace.

Whatever his band’s merits, there is no doubting Smith’s writing as a storehouse of memorable phrases. I have been playing The Wonderful and Frightening World of… (1984) all week. No choice seems more apt.

The wondrous bit? Pretty straightforward.

The closing of a 29-year gap by Galway preceded the closing of a 45-year gap by Limerick. Both times, the raw joy of the winning county’s supporters has been a sight to behold.

I got stopped in the supermarket yesterday by an acquaintance. “I have a question for you,” he said. “Who’s going to win the All Ireland next year?”

He was being serious and he was being wry. Most of all, he was attesting to how people’s appetite is already whetted for 2019’s games.

How could it not be?

You had Clare’s Peter Duggan turning himself into elastic man for that point in their draw with Galway. You had Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy taking goalkeeping to new heights. You had Limerick’s Graeme Mulcahy, 28 last June, remaking himself as a hurler. You had a new structure constantly tilting into drama.

Graeme Mulcahy bundles the ball over the line in Limerick’s win over Waterford
Graeme Mulcahy bundles the ball over the line in Limerick’s win over Waterford

And then some…

Last Sunday, Limerick led by eight points with less than two minutes left. Some Galway supporters, showing lamentable disloyalty to a team there or thereabouts for four seasons, had left Croke Park. If nothing else, they missed one of the savage rallies, one of the fiercest All-Ireland denouements.

Two goals in quick succession will shudder nearly every lead. Credit to Limerick for holding out. They earned the space to grow as a team, a facet lost so far in the celebrations.

Did anyone leaving Nowlan Park on July 2, 2017 reckon Limerick would be All-Ireland senior champions 13 months later? I doubt it.

A massive performance by Michael Fennelly at midfield separated a poor Kilkenny team from poor opposition.

Give still more credit to John Kiely as manager, because no radical alteration in personnel lay to hand. That day in July, nine of last Sunday’s starting team likewise started.

Paul Browne is currently injured, with Peter Casey, Shane Dowling and Richie McCarthy, first-choice back then, were playing subs at the weekend. Tom Morrissey and Graeme Mulcahy, subs back then, started at the weekend. The core Limerick group is emphatically the same.

Tom Morrissey celebrates with his brother, Limerick defender Dan and supporters in Croke Park
Tom Morrissey celebrates with his brother, Limerick defender Dan and supporters in Croke Park

What changed? John Kiely kept his counsel and issued no credos in the media.

Eliciting such improvement from a hurler in his late twenties hints at serious mentoring skills. Aaron Gillane’s red card against Cork in the second round of the Munster round robin saw Mulcahy outdo himself in defending from the front. Putting it mildly, his previous approach did not include demonic workrate.

Kiely’s after-match interview ended up admirably level. He stated: “There was no tactical conundrum we had to solve.” He is not a man for calling a spade a digging implement.

For Limerick, the discernible formula appears to have been old-fashioned hard work, allied to the finesse of Paul Kinnerk as a coach.

A key figure with Clare in 2013, he has now put two counties top of the mountain.

Kinnerk’s progression, this time with his native county, is one of 21st century hurling’s most intriguing stories.

Yes, the standard of 2018’s senior final proved far from classical in overall terms, littered by nerves and 36 wides. But Limerick hurled really well this summer and will hurl even better in the future. Hopefully their unvarnished efforts are another knell for sweeper systems and young hurlers eating themselves fitter in over intense environments.

You had to enjoy Shane Dowling’s quip during the week about 99s after training and the odd pint after a big occasion. Young men respond well to being treated as adults.

Now a much more focused figure, Dowling harks back to Seánie O’Leary, Cork’s artist attacker and genius ballplayer of the 1970s and ’80s.

Everything else presumed, requisite boxes ticked, the main element required in hurling is energy. Since drawing with Kilkenny in the Leinster final, Galway looked to be burning fuel. A new structure meant a minimum of seven games in their drive for title retention. Hindsight says even seven would have been too much. Nine proved way too much.

Heel of campaign, Limerick just had too much energy.

There is nice outlook on the positivity front. Take five different senior winners in six seasons, a ratio that rarely occurs.

Again, Galway harvested three of the last four minor championships, indicating their stay at the top table is set for long haul. We must hope Waterford seize 2019 and close a 60-year gap, a possibility that makes their botched attempt at appointing a new manager still more grievous.

Equally, five different counties landed an U21 title during this decade: Clare, Galway, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford. If burning favourites Cork beat Tipperary in Sunday’s U21 All-Ireland final, it will mark the first time that six different counties took this title in a single decade.

Wherever you look, hurling possesses a wide spread of contenders. Judging by recent U21 results, this scenario seems stable.

Next year, seven counties will count as senior contenders, with Dublin and Wexford far from out of the hunt.

Dublin can say: ‘We wasted three years. Now let’s scorch a year.’

Wexford might say: ‘If we do different things, we might get different results.’

Same time, let us be honest. However stable, this scenario is still not sufficient for the inter-county arena. Self congratulation does not apply.

We need to hit the North and ask hard questions about Ulster hurling in general and Antrim hurling in particular. Tipperary only made tomorrow’s U21 final because Ulster slipped last year to a nadir in the grade. We need to avoid Offaly bouncing between Leinster and Joe McDonagh Cup.

Wonderful and frightening…

The club scene is the dog about to howl. Disquiet was best expressed by Tullaroan’s Tommy Walsh.

The former Kilkenny star recently warned in a radio interview against superficial interpretations of hurling’s health on the basis of one inter-county summer.

He instanced U17s in his club who are without a competitive game for months due to the Kilkenny minor team making last weekend’s All-Ireland final. Their plight is exacerbated by U17s no longer being eligible for adult hurling.

Walsh was stark: “The club is a massive failure at the moment. It’s terrible. It’s an awful place to be.”

He continued: “I would say if we don’t sort it out (I would say ‘we’ as in me, the clubs, the county boards and the GAA), if we don’t sort it out we will not have hurling in 10 years’ time. It’ll be just elite. There’ll be nothing going on. Because in Kilkenny (I don’t know what way it is around the rest of the country) summer soccer is coming. I thought we had no soccer players in Tullaroan. You talk about complacency. We need to sort ourselves out. Or…”

That ellipsis is eloquent. If things can change for the good, they can change for the bad. The club scene is hurling’s seed-bed and must be minded. I am 51 and the change in perception of hurling and the GAA over my lifetime strikes me as pure remarkable.

Outsiders see Kilkenny as a place in which hurling has forever reigned supreme.

Maybe so but the reality is that hurling is several times more popular within the county than it was back in the 1980s, when I was young. Back then, the idea that you could have a similar passion for The Fall and Ger Henderson’s performances at centre-back would have seemed ludicrous to most people. Never the twain would meet because the most beautiful game was distinctly uncool.

The 1990s happened. Ireland grew claws, went bust, and my crew became grey of hair and reluctant to dance. The great Willie Meighan, organiser of so many gigs in the long gone Newpark Inn, died last November. But the last time I saw The Fall, during 2013’s Kilkenny Arts Festival, so many of the faces in The Set were hurling faces, ones I saw this summer in Croke Park and Semple Stadium.

Genuine quality means genuine passion. And genuine passion will always survive, whatever its form, into and beyond middle age.

If you have the luck to get beyond middle age, as Willie did not.

Every congratulation to Limerick. Our summer, whatever its nature, is over. We have left the capital. All the while, we need to guard against the complacency wonderment brings.

Over to Croke Park, the house where hurling’s tempo is set.

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