Gutsy Kilkenny stalwarts refuse to accept more final pain

Cork can and justifiably will talk about the pain of losing a second successive All-Ireland final in a row but the hurt Kilkenny had prior to winning in 2020 extended to three.
Gutsy Kilkenny stalwarts refuse to accept more final pain

A dream of a final decided by the doggedness of Cats.

Cork can and justifiably will talk about the pain of losing a second successive All-Ireland final in a row but the hurt Kilkenny had prior to winning in 2020 extended to three. And so it was that the tenacity of their senior stars prevailed having trailed on five occasions in the second half.

In the 2020 final when she scored 1-6, Denise Gaule was the gem that sparkled on a surreal December evening in a vacant Croke Park. Here, she was more workmanlike than wonder, called into the middle of the field in the second half to stem the wave of attacks Cork had been generating there from the second quarter.

The results were mixed but just as she was called into action in the engine room, her services were required on frees having initially being relieved of duties following a first-half miss. But then her replacement Katie Nolan, having converted a couple of placed balls, sent one wide in the 48th minute and Gaule was restored only for her 57th-minute effort to hit the outside of the post.

Just as she had earned that free, Miriam Walsh drew another in the second minute of additional time and Gaule’s effort was straight and true. Cork scrambled to respond as they did successfully after substitute Sophie Dwyer’s freakish 58th-minute goal but no equaliser came, Ashling Thompson’s last-gasp shot drifted wide and so last year’s semi-final was avenged.

Of course, it was much more than that for Kilkenny. For the stalwarts, to lose a fourth final in seven years would have been unthinkable and so it proved with their gutsy conclusion. “We always want to keep Miriam close to the goal because she's a goal threat all the time, but we felt we had to bring her out,” recalled Kilkenny manager Brian Dowling. “I actually said, 'Look, she might win frees' and that's what she did.

“Miriam is in the form of her life this year. She's been unbelievable, she's been so consistent for us. Delighted for her. The likes of Miriam Walsh, Denise Gaule, Claire Whelan, Grace Walsh, they've lost three finals in a row and were probably questioning where they're going. But they don't ever step back.” 

For the management figures of Dowling and Tommy Shefflin, this was the sweetness in an otherwise bitter year when they lost their loved ones. Three weeks after Shefflin’s younger brother Paul died suddenly while out for a jog in March, Dowling was mourning the loss of his uncle Oliver in a house fire.

This triumph hardly masks such tragedy, but camogie had sustained them, distracted them, comforted them. Dowling didn’t speak extensively about his own experience before the final but had mentioned how the team had helped Shefflin. "Tommy could see that the girls really rallied around him. They were all at the funeral and were there when Tommy needed them. My own uncle died as well and the girls were very supportive."

If the team weren’t doing it for their management, the men on the sideline would have reminded them they should also be doing it for themselves. Their 2020 All-Ireland title didn’t carry an asterisk but that it didn’t carry a crowd either did subtract from what should have been an occasion.

The sight of the Cork jerseys that had brought about the end of their title defence 12 months ago clearly brought out the best in them as they raced into a six-point lead by the 15th minute. So much was going right for them, In the back-line, Michelle Teehan and Grace Walsh were foiling so much of the ball being delivered by Looney and Thompson. Up front, Miriam Walsh was converting from acute angles and in the 14th minute Gaule introduced herself to the game with the first of two points in quick succession.

But there was no panic on the Cork sideline, no deviation from the short pass game, just a couple of pitch incursions by Cork coach Davy Fitzgerald to implore Chloe Sigerson to stay closer to goal. Such was Looney and Thompson’s dominance in the middle of the field that something would have to give.

A full 23 minutes plus had passed when Cork eventually scored and it sliced the deficit in half, Fiona Keating leaving Claire Phelan and Teehan trailing in her wake with a solo run before finishing low passed Aoife Norris.

Michaela Kennelly responded immediately with a point at the other end but there was an irresistibility about Cork at that stage. Amy O’Connor, who was doing everything but score in open play, sent over two frees in the space of four minutes. Keating scooped a point to cut the gap to one and Mackey squared matters going into the interval.

Five times Cork went ahead in the second half but the margin never jumped beyond a couple of points. Scores from Katrina Mackey and Saoirse McCarthy were of towering quality but the persistence of Kilkenny meant they were always on edge and by the end perhaps Cork were taking too much out of the ball.

This concludes a one-season wonder for Fitzgerald, a voyage of discovery having stepped away from Wexford and being overlooked for the Galway position. Another year when he again provided silverware and was able to translate his philosophy to another code. Bringing him on board as he did was a shrewd move by Matthew Twomey, a humble, chairperson-like move knowing Fitzgerald would orchestrate the entire coaching programme.

Possession statistics would show they owned the ball. The likes of Libby Coppinger, McCarthy and Looney need not hang their heads. The three gave outstanding performances, Looney one for the ages and capped by a virtuoso effort in the 50th minute when she put Cork a point up, an advantage they found a tad too slippery to hold.

“We are getting sick of people telling us we are losing great All-Irelands because it means nothing to us,” bemoaned Twomey. “When you look at the players, I couldn’t be more proud of them. From day one when we got involved with them they have been absolutely incredible and I’m gutted for them. I’ll get over it and move on but I’m gutted for them. They deserve more.” 

Beaten by a point in 2017 and ‘18 as Cork were here, Kilkenny reckoned the same. They know it’s the cruellest of consolations but it takes time.

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