For Pearse Stadium and Cusack Park, the wait is over.
It’s been 25 years since the Munster hurling championship last visited Ennis, and with Cusack Park having undergone a €2.3m facelift in the second half of 2015, the venue should prove more than capable of dealing with the 15,000-plus supporters expected through the turnstiles Sunday afternoon.
Further up the west coast, there’s history to be made. When Fergal Horgan rolls in the sliotar between Johnny Coen, David Burke and whoever Brian Cody throws in midfield for Kilkenny, he’ll get underway the first Leinster SHC fixture to be played on Galway soil.
It will also be the first provincial hurling game (outside of the now defunct Connacht championship) in the county since June of 1965 when Galway lost narrowly to Clare during a truly disastrous decade spent as the whipping boys of Munster.
Since its reopening in 2002 after a near €12m renovation, the Galway board had been crying out for the steady stream of hurling championship fixtures at Pearse Stadium which Special Congress guaranteed last September.
Indeed, Micheál Donoghue’s charges will play the same amount of championship games — six — at Salthill over the next three years as the county did from 2003-17. The last of those was 2011.
Now, they have two in a fortnight to look forward to. Persistence, from those holding the top county board positions, has paid off.
Having lay idle for over a decade, the redevelopment of Pearse Stadium was vehemently opposed by various residents groups in Salthill who had no desire to have a 34,000 capacity ground (this figure has since been reduced) on their doorstep.
Croke Park, for their part, were understandably keen on Galway City having a proper GAA venue and supported the redevelopment.
As with any stadium rebuild, there was talk of big games in high summer being awarded and while the Connacht championship catered for the footballers, the hurlers spent championship after championship on the road.
A crowd of 29,244 packed into the ground for a second round qualifier against Tipperary in July of 2003 (yours truly was a wee garsún who saw diddly-squat from a squeezed terrace) and between there and the 2011 visit of Clare, followers of the maroon and white had to make do with qualifier non-events against Antrim (2005 and ‘07), Westmeath (2006) and Laois (2008).
The province made the move into Leinster in 2009 and despite much canvassing, home advantage was never forthcoming. Nobody was prepared to travel west. Opposition couldn’t have been stauncher.
Tullamore, some 40 minutes on the motorway from Ballinasloe, became the county’s home away from home such was the number of Leinster outings to O’Connor Park.
As noted above, the Tribesmen enjoyed home advantage on one occasion between 2009 and 2017.
This compares rather poorly with most other Liam MacCarthy counties when you sift through the provincial championships and qualifiers from that period.
Cork played six games at home, five for Limerick and four for Kilkenny. Wexford’s penchant for the backdoor saw Wexford Park stage 14 championship fixtures from 2009-17, while Tipperary played one less in Semple Stadium.
It’s because of this, on top of what materialised at Croke Park last September, that the demand for stand tickets over the past fortnight, on the Galway side, at least, resembled the kind of rush you associate with knock-out games far later in the summer.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to have championship hurling back in Pearse Stadium,” Galway hurling board chairman Michael Larkin said this week, a sentiment echoed by county board chair Pat Kearney.
“I’m sure Kilkenny will travel in fine numbers and, of course, it’s also a chance for Galway supporters to get behind the team at home for the first time in Leinster,” Kearney remarked.
“The occasion lends a bit of extra pressure on the Galway players, but I’m sure they will be ready for it.”
Of their previous 19 championship collisions with Kilkenny, Galway have come out on top three times. There was the All-Ireland semi-final wins of 2001 and ‘05, and a first Leinster crown in 2012. The target for Micheál Donoghue’s troops on Sunday is to improve said record.
“Kilkenny are one of the form teams having won the league and will bring a strong work-ethic to Pearse Stadium,” the All-Ireland winning manager said this week.
“We are concentrating on our performance and taking one game at a time. It’s the first time Galway has ever hosted a Leinster championship match and we are anxious to do the occasion justice.”
And what an occasion it shall be.
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