A minute into stoppage time at Croke Park, the three in a row long since secured, Galway found themselves pinned down deep in their defence. From a scrum of black and amber, Galway midfielder Alex Connaire eventually emerged with ball in hand, the danger averted.
Sean McDonagh’s 2-8 haul will naturally dominate the headlines from this Electric Ireland All-Ireland minor final, but Connaire’s industry and determination, when it didn’t truly matter, summed up what Galway brought to the occasion. They went for the jugular and never let up.
Aside from the 3-14 they scored in the hour, Galway registered 13 wides and could have won this game by more. They were surprisingly head and shoulders above a Kilkenny side they’ve now beaten in back-to-back minor finals.
McDonagh was among a small group of players who also played in last year’s decider yet, remarkably, the Mountbellew Moylough talent has just completed his Junior Cert. Afterwards, a microphone was thrust beneath McDonagh’s nose when he was named Man of the Match.
“Two years now,” he began, reflecting on his successes,
They’ve been the best two years of my life.
That’s three All-Irelands in a row now for Galway, a feat only previously achieved by Kilkenny (1960-1962), Cork (1937-1939 & 1969-1971) and Tipperary (1932-1934 & 1955-1957). The numbers they are racking up are highly impressive; five minor wins this decade alone, 11 wins in a row at the grade since they lost to Tipp in the 2016 semi-finals, and five wins over Kilkenny in that period.
Galway might even do what only Dublin, Cork, and Tipperary have done in the past and win hurling and football minor titles in the same season, their footballers through to the September 1 final. Galway manager Brian Hanley cut an excitable figure afterwards, joshing and backslapping with local reporters, though talk of doubles and trebles lowered his mood briefly.
Three-in-a-row? “It means nothing,” responded Hanley, all too aware that previous great minor Galway teams haven’t necessarily delivered any senior bounty.
“If we didn’t win that game but had six of them playing in future and starring and lifting Liam MacCarthy, I’d have been fine with that.
“A friend of mine said that if he got a euro for every time he was asked: ‘Whatever happened to that good Galway minor?’, he’d have a lot of money. So we kept reiterating that in our dressing room. We can’t let them take the eye off the ball now, they’ve got to move on and the only way to do that is in the gym and through hard work.”
Connaire wasn’t far behind McDonagh in the man-of-the-match stakes. The Sarsfields hurler had a fine first half when it really was a battle, winning three frees that McDonagh converted, before scoring a point himself.
Then Connaire played in a long ball to Greg Thomas who was fouled for a stoppage-time penalty that McDonagh fired to the net.
It left Galway 2-6 to 0-7 up at the interval, before they doubled their advantage to 10 with a run of five points after the restart. McDonagh, Davitt, and Thomas were all on the mark during that mini-blitzkrieg as Galway put themselves in a winning position.
What gave Kilkenny brief hope, even at that apparently hopeless stage, was that they’d been 12 points down against Galway in the quarter-final group stage and memorably fought back to level terms, only to eventually lose by three.
There was no such fiery response this time. Peter McDonald and Liam Moore did pull two points back for the beaten Leinster finalists, but Galway effectively sealed it with McDonagh’s second goal.
It was a corker too in the 47th minute as Thomas flicked the ball up and, in one sumptuous move, reverse hand-passed it to an unmarked McDonagh, who raced clear at the Hill 16 End and blasted home.
Even Kilkenny manager Richie Mulrooney admitted afterwards that it was a heavenly goal, worthy of leaving a deep imprint on such an occasion. Mulrooney, who led Kilkenny to minor wins in 2008 and 2010, acknowledged they were fairly and squarely beaten, though he was at a loss to explain his side’s performance.
“There’s no comparison between that display and the way we played against Limerick,” said Mulrooney. “We were just flat, for whatever reason.”
Mulrooney reminded his players in the dressing room afterwards that they can all still have big careers with Kilkenny.
“Some of the greatest Kilkenny hurlers of the 21st century, and even players playing against Tipperary in the senior final, they don’t have any All-Ireland minor medal,” he said.
“They didn’t appear in any All-Ireland minor final. This is only a starting step. Henry Shefflin, JJ Delaney, Tommy Walsh, Eddie Brennan, they don’t have All-Ireland minor medals. But that didn’t stop them, and it won’t stop our lads.”
Scorers for Galway: S. McDonagh (2-8, 1-0 pen, 6 frees, 1 ‘65); R. Davitt (1-2); T. Killeen (0-2); A. Connaire & G. Thomas (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kilkenny: B. Drennan (0-6, 5 frees); C. O’Sullivan (0-2); T. Clifford, P. McDonald, L. Moore & B. Wheeler (0-1 each).
M. Egan; A. Nolan, E. Lawless, C. Brennan; E. Collins, I. McGlynn, J. Cooney; L. Leen, A. Connaire; T. Killeen, S. McDonagh, C. Cunningham; R. Davitt, S. Morgan, G. Thomas.
Subs: G. Lee for Cunningham (46); S. O’Hanlon for Morgan (52); T. Davoren for Collins (55); C. Molloy for Davitt (60); N. Glynn for Thomas (62).
A. Tallis; B. Reid, W. Halpin, T. Roche; P. McDonald, P. Moylan, Z. Bay Hammond; L. Moore, J. Aylward; P. Blanchfield, T. Clifford, C. O’Sullivan; B Drennan, J. Doyle, I. Byrne.
Subs: D. Walsh for Blanchfield (38); A. Hickey for Aylward (45); B. Wheeler for Byrne (52); A. Murphy for Drennan (59).
Ref: P. Murphy (Carlow).