We had a potential superstar seizing a game by the throat and shaping its direction; a team with its best days before it encountering a sticky situation and showing the patience and poise to play their way through it; Galway, in true Little Girl with the Little Curl nursery rhyme fashion, being very very good; and that poor red and white zombie that was lumbering around the place for the past couple of months finally being put out of its misery.
And then there were four, two of whom started out as certainties to reach the All Ireland semi-finals and the third a not unlikely candidate, with the fourth the steamer that has just about salvaged the 2015 championship as an item of conversation.
Three fixtures remain to prevent what began as the most open-looking championship in a decade and a half petering out into one of the most disappointing and constipated. We half-expected, or at any rate were entitled to hope for, an unusual suspect to end up carrying off the silverware in September. Instead it looks as though the Keyzer Soze figure will be none other than Kilkenny or Tipp.
Will August bring a twist to the movie’s penultimate scene? One can be fairly sure that Waterford will at worst pose all manner of interesting questions for Kilkenny, and for the moment that will have to suffice. Galway against Tipperary? One can’t be sure of anything.
Before all of that, a last glance back to the 2013 championship, that dazzling glitterball of a summer. Now, can someone please take it out and shoot it? If there was a final nail to be hammered into the coffin of its formbook, last Sunday was it. Come to think of it, not only both finalists but all four semi-finalists have gone backwards three of them at a rate of knots.
Admittedly this collective collapse renders 2013 the more pleasurable, the equivalent of gorgeous, wildly expensive, utterly impractical, dangerously teetering high heels of the kind beloved by certain women. Yet the daftest part of it all in view of everything that’s occurred in the meantime? Not that Clare won the All-Ireland two years ago but that this group of Cork players were a few seconds away from winning. Nothing Jimmy Barry-Murphy achieved on the field of play – not the bulging treasure chest of medals, not even the Hurley of God goal against Conor Hayes – would have come near equalling that particular accomplishment.
It’s diverting to ponder the differences today had Brian Gavin blown his whistle just as the sliotar dropped in the middle of Croke Park. The Cork County Board would be able brazen things out convincingly – “Things can’t be too bad here. We won the All-Ireland, boy!” – and as a byproduct would have been spared Dónal Óg and his Sunday night soapbox. Jimmy’s godhead would have been assured forever more, and he’d almost certainly have had the sense to retire on the spot and head for the nearest coursing meeting. And an eight-year gap without the MacCarthy Cup would have been snapped; next season it’ll be rising 11 years, meaning we’re back in 1954-66 territory. And back then there was a shortish, bald chap from Cloyne still around the place.
Galway on Sunday possessed what Clare didn’t a fortnight earlier: the heft to physically discomfit the Cork defence. They didn’t make the mistake of taking too much out of the ball or smuggling it down blind alleys, instead moving it quickly and isolating Mark Ellis, just as Dublin had managed to isolate Tadhg De Búrca for the opening 25 minutes of the curtainraiser.
Not for the first time this year, Cork’s due diligence was found wanting. At one stage in the second-half. Jonathan Glynn caught a puckout one-on-one with Aidan Walsh. There wasn’t another red shirt within five metres of the pair. Nobody to stand in and help Walsh out by attempting to spoil Glynn. Nobody even to stand off and wait for a putative break. Had they not watched Glynn plucking sliotars from the skies in the opening quarter against Kilkenny three weeks ago? Had they not read Saturday’s Irish Examiner?
Glynn’s goal, meanwhile, was pure farce, and not merely because none of the Cork defenders had the cop-on to foul him. Its manner wasn’t simply a repeat of Austin Gleeson’s goal in last year’s provincial quarter-final; it was also of a piece with Shane O’Donnell’s opening goal in the 2013 All-Ireland replay after Pat Donnellan was allowed stride half the length of the field. Fool me once, etc. But fool me three times..?
Criticism of the Cork management has been muted, however, and that is exactly as it should be. Might a different manager have done a (very) marginally better job this year? Possibly. But would a different manager have brought them as far as he did in 2013? Surely not. If it was Jimmy’s good fortune as manager first time around to happen along as the county unearthed their last great cache of underage talent, it was his misfortune second time around to have returned to a bunch of tidy hurlers – more than tidy, in the case of Patrick Horgan – at a time when Kilkenny and Tipp were producing alpha males, hunter gatherers, pirates, corsairs, assassins.
Bottom line, Cork have won as much as they were entitled to these past four years, very nearly winning an All- Ireland final they were scarcely entitled to. Try thinking of one big match they should have won and didn’t. Correct: you can’t. To reach again for a drum your correspondent has been banging for five or six years now, the march back to glory will only begin with an All-Ireland minor title and the appearance of a group of youngsters with sufficient force of personality.
The latter is a quality Waterford are not lacking. They looked flat in the first-half against Dublin, understandable enough coming down from the high of Munster final day. Derek McGrath had rejigged things in order to add a dash of lemon to the recipe. At half-time it was incumbent on him to regjig the rejig. Not being too proud to acknowledge it hadn’t worked, he did.
The key was getting Austin Gleeson further up the field. While Maurice Shanahan deserved the man of the match award, no Waterford player did more to mould the second half than Gleeson. Within six minutes of the restart he’d turned up in his own full-back line to force Niall McMorrow into a wide, galloped forward to score a point and won a puckout to force a free for another Shanahan point. In the space of six minutes Waterford effected a six-point turnaround and were breathing fresh air again. McGrath has been careful not to load too much onto Gleeson, who up to last month was still a teenager, this year. Sunday marked the first time he asked the Mount Sion man to step forward and become more than one of the supporting actors. It wasn’t quite an Oscar-winning turn, but one of these days it will be.
One of these summers, moreover, Gleeson will no longer be 20, or the Bennetts 19 and 18, or Patrick Curran 19, or Tadhg De Búrca and Tom Devine and Colin Dunford 20, or Jamie Barron 21. And one of these days, and sooner rather than later, Joe Canning won’t hit eight wides in the space of an afternoon.
We’re left with three All-Ireland semi-finalists who can be relied on to do what they habitually do, plus one exposed wire on the floor. It’s live, it’s dangerous, it’s coloured maroon and it may jolt the 2015 championship into life yet.