We buried the ewe and hit the road, speed limits a moveable feast. Where? Warrington’s Irish Club. When? August 18, 2002. Why? Kilkenny and Tipperary in an All-Ireland semi-final.
Phil had searched for the nearest Setanta Sports outlet to North Wales. Warrington came up. Although living in England until 2006, I hardly missed a championship match during the decade. An exception was that day.
Good exception, best of reasons. A close friend was Phil Davies, whose parents owned a small holding in Denbyshire. His father had just suffered a heart attack and Phil needed help with farming that weekend.
No bothers, All-Ireland semi-final or not. Phil was the soundest, a rugby fanatic, a man in need of no tutoring where Kilkenny and Tipperary were concerned.
“It sounds like a Valleys rivalry,” he said. “Treorchy and Treherbert. Real ‘love to hate you’ stuff…”
Sunday morning was a blur of nerves. Nor is trimming sheep hooves a quick job. But camaraderie shines the present, as later the past.
The last job involved a wheelbarrow and a dead ewe, spraddled and undignified. Side of field, we dug a hole. I was thinking about Croke Park, about my own crowd in a particular Drumcondra pub, the talk and the tension.
Here were Tipp, unbeaten by Kilkenny since 1967, the year I was born. I was 35 and I had never seen Kilkenny beat Tipperary in an important match.
The sun was strong overhead and I was sweating, pleasantly enough, with the turns in digging. Some moments in your life have this pointless inexplicable clarity. I can still see that ewe, clay silting down its face, Phil whistling and moving the shovel. Reminiscence is the opium of the middle-aged.
So we hit for Warrington, mad for rush. Kilkenny’s minors were taking on Galway in the curtain-raiser. Four Ballyhale lads, including Cha Fitzpatrick, are on this team, leaving me intrigued. But there was no chance of catching the minor match, with the time we set off.
Even then, August 2002 looked a crucible for Kilkenny hurling. Fire can be transformative, a vehicle of new life, burnt stubble. New life is all there is.
Following triumph in 2002, Kilkenny proceeded to take nine more All-Irelands under Brian Cody’s management. Would defeat that August day not have rewritten hurling history with a highlighter pen? Yes, says 2016.
The manager brought DJ Carey out of retirement. Had Tipp won, Cody would likely have felt obliged to resign, two All-Ireland semi-finals gone on the trot. Losing to Galway in 2001, when a man up after Gregory Kennedy was sent off, remained a sour topic on home ground.
Cody set out a new team: Martin Comerford at full forward, Henry Shefflin at centre forward, Derek Lyng at midfield, Peter Barry at centre back. Everything was on the line. Supporters knew of fine prospects on the way, including these 2002 minors. Even exiles like myself, away off in Oxford, knew about the prospects. The Kilkenny People was sent over from Derrynahinch every week.
I knew the names, including Ballyhale names. I had seen them as U14s.
But the future was no good. What about Tipp?
We got in the door of the Irish Centre as the national anthem was being played.
There were three men in a Kilkenny jersey. Straight over, spotting my one: two from the town, the other man from Gowran.
The match itself was closer than life, more like a dream. It looked the same old championship story when Conor Gleeson goaled for Tipp in the 48th minute. Now they owned momentum. But Kilkenny gritted and found a genius goal 11 minutes later, DJ Carey setting up Jimmy Coogan.
We could not quite believe. Then Carey flicked over the game’s last score, stamping a four-point lead, meaning Kilkenny had to win.
I felt this cartoon head rush, a long stretch beyond anything MDMA can offer. We jigged and bucked and jumped, the four of us, perfected as strangers in the one jersey. All our lives would contain this moment.
For Kilkenny hurling, it was a crucial achievement, in and of itself. Brendan Cummins, goalkeeper that day, spoke in last weekend’s newspaper column about the difference he discerned between 2002, when Kilkenny edged home after a brilliant contest, and 2003, when Kilkenny destroyed Tipperary by 12 points that could have been 20. For Cummins, Kilkenny found their ruthless boots in August 2002.
I have no doubt that becoming the first team to beat Tipp in 35 years wrought this transformation. Nothing would be the same (most of all relations with the county’s fiercest rival). I walked out of Croke Park in September 2014, Kilkenny having taken the replayed All-Ireland final, Tipp chewing regrets about the first day. I was thinking about Phil Davies, the fun we had, the life I lived in the early 2000s, when a lot of mistakes were made. But I was happy.
Fire can spring life, same as reminiscence is the opium of the middle-aged. The window is down and we are flying along, CD on the go. Part nerves, part admiration, I am singing along with National Velvet, Catatonia’s album of four years before. Shared admiration is one of the reasons we became such friends. Phil has this savage unforced pride in being Welsh.
He is in Spain now and we have not spoken in years. But the silence is warm. Middle age… There we are, flying, singing along to ‘Road Rage’: “You could be taking it easy on yourself/You should be making it easy on yourself.” Never a truer word.
Singing along to ‘Don’t Need The Sunshine’: “Well it’s a most peculiar feeling, like sunburn in the evening.” You know when you are heading for a serious aftermath.
Then Birkenhead Tunnel, a strip-lit flushing dark. I am trying not to look at my phone, at the time. Phil clocks the mood. “Don’t worry,” he says, looking over. “You’ll be there in time to see them win.”
Don’t miss PM O’Sullivan’s analysis of Sunday’s All-Ireland final in tomorrow’s Examiner Sport
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