works through seven big questions for the new hurling decade.
This day 10 years ago we’d have said Kilkenny would remain the power in the land, even if they wouldn’t — couldn’t — win another seven All-Irelands in a decade.
We’d have said Tipperary were the coming team. We’d have said that on the law of averages Galway would surely lift the MacCarthy Cup at least once in the 2010s.
On all counts we’d have been correct.
On the other hand, it was not yet apparent Clare had a golden generation and were about to turn on the tap. Declaring Offaly were about to fall off the map altogether would have been a leap. Nobody saw sweepers, and the concomitant fuss, barrelling down the road, while the prospect of Davy Fitz leading Clare to All-Ireland glory prior to ending the decade by decamping to the other side of the world and leading Wexford to a first Leinster title in 15 years was unimaginable.
Not that we should feel too bad about any of this. Long before Francis Fukuyama decreed the fall of the Berlin Wall presaged the triumph of liberal democracy and the End of History, one Norman Angell argued that the growth of trade between the economies of Europe had rendered war unprofitable, the corollary being that no nation would be daft enough to start one. His opuswas published in 1910 to wild acclaim.
Right now the easy and obvious course of action is to posit that the 2020s will at the top level be probably as democratic as the 2010s (five different MacCarthy Cup winners), possibly as democratic as the 1990s (six different MacCarthy Cup winners) and definitely more democratic than the 2000s (three different MacCarthy Cup winners).
Too easy and obvious? Undoubtedly.
The scorelines are getting even more scorier, as Bertie Ahern might have said.
From the 2-22/0-23 of the 2009 All-Ireland final to the 3-22/1-28 of 2014’s drawn game to Limerick and Cork hitting 1-28 apiece in normal time in the 2018 All-Ireland semi-final (a score every 75 seconds) to Tipp racking up 3-25 last August under a hands and heels ride, no recourse to the whip.
Can this continue? Is it desirable that it continues? In an interview last summer Patrick Horgan was asked if he’d like to have played at a time when corner-forwards weren’t obliged to worry too much about their tackle count; John Fitzgibbon — Cork’s God of Close-in Things — was the unspoken reference point. “100%,” Horgan responded. “Who wouldn’t? Feck sake. The poachers could stay in there close to goal.”
The game needs more goals. The game needs more goalscorers. Paudie Butler declared a few months back that “all these long-range points are not adding value to hurling”. While one hesitates to go near a sleeping canine, a National League experiment that awarded four points for a green flag would be bracing and informative. Life moves pretty fast. Sometimes it’s no harm to take a moment to stop and breathe.
Although Liverpool’s rampaging full-backs are a source of wonder, it’s safe to assume that Liam Ryan’s point for Wexford in the All-Ireland semi-final will not constitute the start of a trend. It is also safe to assume that some coach out there is lovingly finessing a tactical wheeze that will soon provoke comment if not spark controversy — and that we won’t see it coming.
The current inter-county game is a two-headed beast: a structured possession game in the middle third and an execution game inside each 45’. Are we shortly about to witness inside forwards operating even further from goal, partly to prevent opposition wing-backs from scoring?
Alternatively and anachronistically, how about a return to a limited degree of ground hurling in order to bypass rucks, split iron curtains and make defenders turn instead of standing over the ball? Might a team emerge with a bunch of cyborg forwards operating a running game like Cyril Farrell’s 1980s Galway and bludgeoning their way through the enemy by dint of their sheer power, with a couple of triggermen inside firing from close range?
The very fact modern hurling teems with earnest, busy artisans is the reason we need the artists. The very fact everyone else is running around at 200 miles an hour calls for the odd chap capable of lowering the pulse of a match.
The very existence of flocks of players converging on the man in possession places a premium on the existence of someone who stands apart, someone who can see through the ruck, find space where none appeared to exist, wave his wand and zap the defence-cleaving 30-metre pass.
Amid the continued fetishisation of, in other words, Noel McGrath is not in danger of becoming an extinct species just yet.
We always ask the same question after they win an All-Ireland, the entrails always appear propitious and the answer always ends up being the same. The difference this time around is — naturally — the presence of Liam Sheedy.
He’ll be up against it nonetheless, the reformatted championship structure having rendered a successful title retention substantially more arduous than it was under Michael Ryan and Nicky English.
In view of the fact that a diversion via the back door didn’t damage them last year it’d be intriguing to know how much thought Sheedy has given to the possibility of taking it handy in Munster this time around (game time for some of the youngsters, a breather for one or two of the old hands), finishing third in the group, getting in some R and R in June, then aiming to be at 90% for the All-Ireland quarter-final. Win that and surf the momentum thereafter.
Offaly’s slow demise occurred before our eyes, each new low being reported on in day-glo colours. Cork’s slow demise occurred both on the big stage and off it; it came as a jolt in recent months to realise that the decade had passed without Leeside winning a single All-Ireland at senior, minor or U21/20 level.
Offaly’s disappearance is at least explicable on population grounds; Cork have no such excuse. If Ring ochóned that hurling was half-dressed without Tipperary, what would he be saying now?
Whatever about the Páirc Uí Chaoimh debt, this newspaper’s revelations of Cork’s day-to-day deficit were in a way even more chilling. The implications for the county’s discretionary spending, and for the freedom of the management teams they unveiled with pride and fanfare during the autumn, are dispiriting.
Rebel folk groping for positives might try this. In the same way that the All-Ireland minor title of 1995 led to the U21 double of 1997-98 and the senior glories of 1999 and 2004-05, it is not a leap to posit that a breakthrough for Cork at under-age level could have all sorts of pleasing knock-on effects in after years. We have, however, been waiting for that breakthrough for a while now.
He’s manager for life, clearly, and nobody else could have got that particular XV to such a pitch of raw hunger to beat Limerick in the All-Ireland semi-final. At least some other managers, on the other hand, would have overseen a more cerebral approach than the way in which Kilkenny went about their business with 14 men in the second half of the final.
Belloc’s line about the need to “always keep a hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse” has much merit in it, yet it is a matter of record that the men in stripes appeared in two major finals last summer, lost both and failed to display a titter of wit or imagination in either, all while Tipperary were playing 3D chess.
Cody’s objective for 2020 should be to rewire his troops in the opposition half, or at any rate have DJ and Martin Comerford, his new selectors, do the rewiring for him. It’s time for Kilkenny to get back to thinking a good game again.
Of course not. Offaly’s 1981 heroes will remain the most recent first-time winners of the trophy indefinitely, perhaps forever. On the grounds of population Meath and Kildare ought to constitute fertile long-term ground.
One would like to imagine there’s an obscure young club official somewhere in each county with designs on higher office who’s drawn up a 20-year plan with the ultimate aim of All Ireland glory.
If there’s a non-recent winner likely to turn the clock back it’s surely Wexford.
Davy Fitz’s biggest accomplishment has been to insert them into the championship conversation again.
But this group’s window of opportunity will not last indefinitely. Two, at most three years and it’ll shut.
Don’t expect miracles, an item in which hurling does not specialise, and there’s every chance you’ll enjoy the coming decade.